According to a tradition widely honored in New England, when the colonial militias moved down from Punkatasset Hill to confront the British troops at Concord’s North Bridge on April 19, 1775, they marched to a tune called “The White Cockade.” If indeed they did, it was a bold taunt of defiance. “The White Cockade” was a traditional Scottish tune that celebrated “Bonnie Prince Charlie” Stuart’s attempt to reclaim the throne of Britain. During the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the Bonnie Prince plucked a white rose and placed it on his bonnet as a symbol of rebellion. Long after, the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns recalled the scene with a line of lyrics he set to the tune in 1790: “He takes the field wi’ his White Cockade.”
“The White Cockade” was well-known in the colonies at the time of the Revolution, as a country dance tune and a fife and drum piece. But on that first day of American rebellion, on April 19th, was the tune played, and if so, at what point during the day, and where, and by whom?
Primary source materials (including witness depositions and writings both British military and colonial) are lacking in reference to music played at the Concord Fight. Neither Rev. Ripley’s 1827 “Fight at Concord” nor Lemuel Shattuck’s 1835 “History of Concord” mention “The White Cockade”. It is only found in Charles Handley’s 1 December 1835 deposition where he (being age 13 on April 19th and at the Widow Brown’s tavern a mile from North Bridge) states,
“They (Capt. Davis’s Acton company) marched quite fast to the music of a fife and drum. I remember the tune, but am not sure of its name… I think it was called The White Cockade”.
Handley whistled the notes which were verified by the listener to be the song in question. Hence, it appears that this recollection coupled with family tradition and some speculative folklore, led to the 1875 Centennial fame of “The White Cockade”.
Reference to the song appears in Frederick Hudson’s May 1875 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article “Concord Fight”; in the 1879 Drake’s History of Middlesex County article on Acton by Rev. Wood; in an 1893 “Boston Globe” remembrance story by Luke Smith who recalled his Acton father Solomon (a participant) noting “The White Cockade”; and by numerous 20th Century authors ( including Coburn, Murdock, Gross, Galvin, Fischer) all of whom use the previously listed sources. In his 1899 “Memorial to Luther Blanchard Fifer of the Acton Minute Men April 19, 1775”, Alfred S. Hudson wrote of “The White Cockade”being played on the Acton march to Concord, the movement to the Bridge, during the British Regulars’ retreat and at day’s end. However, no specific sources are mentioned but several qualifiers (doubtlessly, suppose, suggest, may have) appear.
“Memorial” is most colorful and descriptive in displaying the situations under which the Scottish tune was played and thus presents a memorable if possibly fictitious account. Hudson provides no sources but states that the Cockade was used as a “signature tune” of the Acton Minute Men as “they strode along” toward Concord and “advanced down the hill” against the Regulars on the Bridge.
The first question to arise is when exactly was “The White Cockade” played on 19 April? Handley’s deposition clearly indicates hearing it as Acton passes Brown’s tavern and seems to be the only eyewitness account addressing a specific song at a specific time. At the Bridge site, there are those who believe that due to fear and the solemnity of the moment, no music was struck while others feel that under the circumstance, a stirring, martial tune would have been performed to lift spirits and provide a disciplined appearance to the colonial column. If the latter was correct, perhaps “The White Cockade” (known by musicians, soldiers and populace alike to be a rebellious Jacobite song taunting to Crown troops) would have been appropriate.
A second question arising asks who (if anyone) played “Cockade” as the colonials advanced on the Bridge? Acton had a fifer Luther Blanchard and drummer Francis Barker (they most likely knew the song and played it on the march to Concord) counted among some 11 musicians possibly in the colonial ranks. Accounts differ as to which of them struck up music but most credit either Blanchard alone; Blanchard and Barker; two Acton fifers; or Blanchard and a Concord fifer John Buttrick, Jr.. But alas, no primary source substantiates an answer including British military eyewitness accounts.
Several interesting asides present themselves in this matter of “The White Cockade” on 19 April. One writer – Fairfax Downey – has the tune being played by the Lexington fifer as his company marches from its morning tragedy toward Concord and by both colonial and British Regular musicians when their columns met and march into Concord center about 7am. No sources are listed. In the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy, France, pipers led the joint French/Irish army against the English/Scottish force while playing “The White Cockade”. Months later the Jacobite rebellion’s end came at Culloden participated in by the 4th Regiment “The King’s Own” which on 19 April 1775 held the Concord Bridge, fired the historic volley, took the heaviest casualties (3 dead) and most likely heard “The White Cockade” (again) if it was played.
Still, wonder exists as to why this Scottish song would be a “signature tune of the Acton Minute Men”, a “familiar air to the dwellers of the vicinity” or a “favorite” of Captain Davis, particularly as there appears to be no local connections to the 1745 Jacobite uprising. It is true that the song was one of rebellion, popular with military and civilian musicians and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, was found in music books of the period and was a lively tune for marching. Yet with some 500 witnesses at the Bridge, why would not one deem it appropriate (especially among the King’s men) to comment on music or “The White Cockade”, unless its notes were not played?
As occurs all too often in addressing minor footnotes to major historical events, clarity and abundance of witness accounts are lacking and fact tends to be bolstered by tradition, myth, hearsay, supposition or embellishment. Such may be the case with “The White Cockade” at the Bridge Fight, a situation not unlike to that of whether or not “The World Turned Upside Down”was actually played at the Yorktown surrender.