J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mayday at Valley Forge, 1778

When the U.S. of A. became independent, its citizens recognized that they needed new national holidays, not simply those derived from British culture (and especially not those celebrating the king or other aspects of that culture they were fighting against).

Here’s a description of one such attempt, from the Continental Army encampment at Valley Forge in 1778. In late April, the men had received word of the country’s formal alliance with France, which augured more success in the war. In addition, Gen. Washington’s soldiers seem to have achieved a higher level of military discipline and cohesion over the preceding winter. And the winter was over. So they had lots to celebrate.

This description of the day comes from the Military Journal of George Ewing (1754-1824). I think the young officer’s closely written text achieves a sort of poetry:

1st Last Evening May poles
were Erected in everry Regt in
the Camp and at the Revelie
I was awoke by three cheers
in honor of King Tamany

The day was spent in mirth
and Jollity the soldiers parading
marching with fife & Drum
and Huzzaing as they passd the
poles their hats adornd with
white blossoms

The following was the procession
of the 3d J[ersey] Regt on the aforesaid day

first one serjeant drest in an
Indian habit representing
King Tamany

Second Thirteen Sergeants
drest in white each with a bow
in his left hand and thirteen
arrows in his right

Thirdly thirteen Drums & fifes

Fourthly the privates in
thirteen Plattons thirteen
men each—

The Non Commissiond
Officcers and Soldiers being
drawn up in the afforsaid
manner on the Regimental
Parade gave 3 Cheers at their
own Pole and then Marchd
of to Head Quarters to do Honor
to his Excellency but just
as they were descending the
hill to the house an Aid
met them and informd
them that the Genl was
Indisposd and desird them
to retire which they did
with the greatest decency
and regularity—

they then returnd and
marchd from right to
left of Lord Stirlings Division
Huzzaing at every Pole

they pasd and then retird
to their Regimental parade
taking a drink of whiskey
which a Generous contribution
of their officers had procurd
for them they dismisd
and each man retird to
his own hut without any
accident hapning throughout
the whole day the whole
being carried on with the
greatest regularity—

in the evening the Officers
of the aforesaid Regt assembld
and had a song and dance
in honour of King Tamany
about 12 O Clock we dismissd and
retird to rest.
We just don’t celebrate like this anymore. The number thirteen symbolized the states, of course. Tammany was a Native chief, thus a symbol of the New World instead of the Old. Whiskey was whiskey.

William Alexander, Lord Stirling, was an American general who claimed a Scottish earldom. The House of Lords disagreed, that that didn’t stop Americans from addressing him with the aristocratic title. The same army was also pleased to welcome a Prussian-born baron of some dubious claims, Gen. Frederick William von Steuben, and the very legitimate Marquis de Lafayette. Republican sentiment melted in the presence of actual European aristocrats.

Maypoles seem to have been unpopular in eighteenth-century America, or at least I couldn’t find mentions of them a couple of years ago. I suspect they became tainted by their association with the Stuart kings after the Restoration. So there’s another irony in seeing them sprout again in the new republic. Then again, when you’re celebrating on the first of May, how else are you going to do it?


Robert S. Paul said...

Today, the President re-affirmed that today is Loyalty Day. Fascist doublespeak aside, I find it funny that a nation founded by those who refused to be "loyal" now has a day to remember they're supposed to be loyal (to another George, I might add).

J. L. Bell said...

According to Wikipedia, the 1st of May is both Loyalty Day and Law Day in the U.S. of A.

Because, of course, we can't just celebrate spring or fertility or people who do hard work on May Day.