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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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Repartee Stuck by His Lordship?

Hugh Earl Percy. Digital ID: 465991. New York Public LibraryOn 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.

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 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.

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.


mta said...

Hey, JB --

Horace Walpole, writing about Percy on Battle Road a month later, also smartly quoted the ballad: "The child that is unborn shall rue / The hunting of that day!" -- but this appears to be coincidence, not corroboration.

-- mta

J. L. Bell said...

In between his 1775 and 1788 versions of the story, Gordon went to Britain for an extended time. So if the witticism was circulating in London, he might have heard it there.

On the other hand, the London sojourn might have given Gordon better information than before. If "stuck by" means what I think it means, then Percy was thinking about the "Chevy Chase" allusion all day. Gordon couldn't have known that from outside Boston in late 1775. But he could have learned it from Percy or a mutual acquaintance in the years that followed.

To add to the confusion, it's not clear what of Gordon's history actually came from Gordon. I might talk about that later this week.

J. L. Bell said...

I just looked up the Rev. William Gordon's very first telling of this story, in a long letter published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 7 June 1775.

At that point he wrote simply: "The Brigade under Lord Percy marched out, playing, by way of contempt, Yankee Doodle; they were afterwards told, they had been made to dance to it."

So this story started to grow even between June and the end of the year.