On the morning of 19 April 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage ordered one of his colonels, Earl Percy, to lead a column of troops down Boston Neck with the mission of reinforcing the soldiers who had crossed the Charles River and marched for Concord the night before.
In 1788 the Rev. William Gordon published a four-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America in London. It contained this anecdote about Percy’s column marching through Roxbury that morning:
The brigade marched out, playing, by way of contempt, Yankee Doodle, a song composed in derision of the New Englanders, scornfully called Yankees.The song “Chevy Chase”, in print for over a century and a half by then, told of the death of an earlier Earl Percy. What a clever wit that boy must have had! And surely Gordon is a reliable source since he was actually in Roxbury in 1775 as one of the town’s ministers.
A smart boy observing it as the troops passed through Roxbury, made himself extremely merry with the circumstance, jumping and laughing, so as to attract the notice of his lordship, who, it is said, asked him at what he was laughing so heartily; and was answered, “To think how you will dance by and by to Chevy Chase.” It is added, that the repartee stuck by his lordship the whole day.
The only problem is that Gordon had published a long account of the march to Concord in three American almanacs published late in 1775. In that version, close to the original event, Gordon hadn’t identified the army’s music, and had said the Roxbury boy simply told the troops that they would dance to that tune by nightfall. “Yankee Doodle,” “Chevy Chase,” Earl Percy himself—all those details seem to have appeared later. So this anecdote turns out to be one of the most suspicious types of stories: one that grows significantly better in the telling.