White Cockade: A Jacobite Air at the North Bridge?

D. Michael Ryan, Historian
The Lincoln Minute Men

     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 the attempt by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to reclaim the throne of Britain for the House of Stuart.   During the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the Bonnie Prince plucked a white rose and placed it on his bonnet as a symbol of rebellion.    Long afterward, 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 American 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) lack any mention of 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 deposition of  December 1, 1835.  (Handley was 73 years old when he gave his deposition; on April 19, 1775, he was 13 and was at the Widow Brown’s tavern a mile from North Bridge.)  In his deposition, Handley recalled, “They [Capt. Isaac 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 then whistled the notes, which were verified by the listener to be the tune 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 tune 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 father Solomon (a participant from Acton) mentioning “The White Cockade”; and by numerous 20th Century authors, including Coburn, Murdock, Gross, Galvin, and Fischer, all of whom use the earlier sources.

     Perhaps the most colorful and descriptive (if possibly fictitious) account of the situations in which the Scottish tune was played is Alfred S. Hudson's 1899 “Memorial to Luther Blanchard, Fifer of the Acton Minute Men April 19, 1775.”   Hudson states that “The White Cockade” was used as a “signature tune” of the Acton Minute Men as “they strode along” toward Concord, “advanced down the hill” against the Regulars on the Bridge, and at day’s end.  However, Hudson cites no specific sources, and he adds many qualifiers (doubtlessly, suppose, suggest, may have) to his account.

     The first question to arise is when exactly was “The White Cockade” played on April 19th?  Charles Handley’s deposition clearly states that he heard it as the Acton Company passed Widow Brown’s tavern, and this seems to be the only eyewitness account of a specific tune being played at a specific time.   There are some historians who believe that due to fear and the solemnity of the moment, no music was struck at the Bridge, 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 is 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 arises about who (if anyone) played “White Cockade” as the colonials advanced on the Bridge?  Acton had a fifer, Luther Blanchard, and drummer, Francis Barker,  and we have Handley's statement that they played the tune on their march to Concord.  There were perhaps 11 musicians in all in the colonial ranks at the Bridge, from various militia companies.  Later versions of the story 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 (including British military eyewitness accounts) substantiates an answer.

     Several interesting asides present themselves in this matter of  “The White Cockade” on April 19th.  One historian, Fairfax Davis Downey, has the tune being played by the Lexington fifer as his company marched from its morning tragedy toward Concord, and by both colonial and British Regular musicians when their columns met and marched into Concord center at about 7 am.  But Downey lists no sources.  In the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy in France, bagpipers 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 the battle of Culloden in Scotland, 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 (three dead), and would have heard “The White Cockade” (again) if it was played.

     Still, we have to wonder why this Scottish tune would have been a “signature tune” of the Acton Minute Men, a “familiar air to the dwellers of the vicinity,” or a “favorite” of Captain Isaac Davis, particularly as there appears to be no local connection to the 1745 Jacobite uprising.  It is true that the tune was one of rebellion, it was popular with military and civilian musicians and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, it was found in music books of the period, and it was a lively tune for marching. Yet with some 500 witnesses at the North Bridge, why would not one deem it appropriate at the time (especially among the King’s men) to comment about “The White Cockade,” unless its notes simply 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 that of whether or not “The World Turned Upside Down” was actually played by British fifes and drums at the Yorktown surrender.

     At least Charles Handley’s deposition supports “White Cockade” being played by the Acton men on their way to Concord, even if its strands may never be substantiated at the Bridge.  It is doubtful, however, that such lack of evidence will deter the traditional playing of “The White Cockade” during ceremonies, reenactments, or Patriots’ Day parades in Concord and at North Bridge.  So it is with history and the story of a Scottish air of rebellion.

D. Michael Ryan is company historian with the Lincoln Minute Men, an 18th Century volunteer history interpreter with the National Park Service, and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.