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, September 04, 2012

Did Washington Say, “Let history huzzah for you”?

In response to a recent Boston 1775 posting about a quotation unduly attributed to Gen. George Washington, author Robert A. Selig asked about another anecdote. Several recent books say that the general told American forces at Yorktown not to cheer the British surrender: “Let history huzzah for you.” But how far back do those words go?

It looks like that quotation is a simplified version of a statement repeated in the nineteenth century. In 1895, Elizabeth Bryant Johnston’s George Washington Day by Day rendered the remark as:
“My brave fellows, let no sensation of satisfaction for the triumphs you have gained induce you to insult your fallen enemy. Let no shouting, no clamorous huzzahing, increase their mortification. Posterity will huzzah for us.
This was described as from “Washington’s address to his troops at the surrender of Yorktown,” which sounds like a formal announcement but doesn’t exist.

Other versions of the same quotation appear in Benson J. Lossing’s 1848 books Seventeen Seventy-Six and The Lives of the Presidents. A footnote in the first says:
It is related that when the British soldiers were about to march out and lay down their arms, Washington said to the American army, “My boys, let there be no insults over a conquered foe! When they lay down their arms don’t huzza: posterity will huzza for you!”
And in the second:
It is related that when the British soldiers were about to march out and lay down their arms at Yorktown, Washington said to the Americans, “My boys, let there be no exaltation over a conquered foe! When they lay down their arms, don’t huzza: posterity will huzza for you!”
The difference between “exaltation” and “insults” shows that Lossing wasn’t working from a written text. And his “It is related” opening shows he knew of no way of tying that anecdote back to the event—but Lossing didn’t let lack of documentation stand in the way of repeating a good story.

TOMORROW: Back another ten years.

7 comments:

Joanq said...

Another alleged incident where Washington allowed his vanquished foes to "save face" was at Yorktown. when Cornwallis asked that his drummers and musicians be allowed to play them out from their fortifications Washington reluctantly agreed. Supposedly they played a tune called The World Turned Upside Down but at a much more melancholy pace than usual.

Unknown said...

I read the Aug 16 post chasing down the origin of the purported G. Washington quote -- good sleuthing!

Charles Bahne said...

A musician friend who's active in a fife and drum company once told me that the "World Turned Upside Down" story is another misquote. He said that a contemporary report of the incident said that Cornwallis's musicians played "as if the world turned upside down," meaning at a melancholy pace, and with sad expressions on their faces. Somehow, in later tellings of the incident, my friend said, the "as if" was omitted and later writers assumed that "The World Turned Upside Down" was a reference to the tune's title.

There is at least one tune of that title in the modern repertoire of traditional English music, often played by fife and drum re-enactors and by other folk musicians. Many musicians, when they play it, say that it was the tune played at Cornwallis's surrender.

Not being a historian of music myself, I can't vouch for the story either way.

Anonymous said...

Revolutionary War veteran Lemuel Cook gives this account of the surrender at Yorktown. It is in "The Last Men of the Revolution" (my reprint is available on Kindle): "We were on a kind of side hill. We had plaguey little to eat and nothing to drink under heaven. We hove up some brush to keep the flies off. Washington ordered that there should be no laughing at the British; said it was bad enough to surrender without being insulted. The army came out with guns clubbed on their backs. They were paraded on a great smooth lot, and there they stacked their arms." -- Joe Bauman

Martin R. Ganzglass said...

Another alleged incident involving eye witness accounts was when General Washington observed the fall of Fort Washington from the west bank of the Hudson near Fort Lee. Both David McCullough (1776) and David Hackett-Fischer report Washington, after observing the surrender of about 2,800 American troops, wept"with the tenderness of a child." McCullough doubts whether Washington wept "given his well documented imperturbability." Hackett-Fischer drops a very interesting foot note as follows: "Washington Irving was told of this event by men who were with Washington as he watched the fall of the fort from the Jersey Palisades;'it is said so completely to have overcome him, that he wept, with the tenderness of a child.'" The citation is to the 1855-1859 edition of Irving's five volume biography of George Washington. And then comes this comment- "this passage was removed from later editions and is not mentioned by most of Washington's biographers." It may be true and Irving in fact interviewed those who were there with Washington. Whether or not their memories were correct is another matter. But, if it is true, the deletion is an effort to shape Washington's image more in keeping with the "imperturbable" General, first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.Marty Ganzglass

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for another interesting example of the changing presentation of Washington. I must first say that editors didn't catch all the appearances of the phrase in Irving's biography; I found a couple of editions from the late 1800s that include it, and such biographers as Ron Chernow include the quotation as well.

Irving was a Romantic, and much more interested in depicting emotions than eighteenth-century Classicists had been interested in preserving them. Sometimes his recreations of events seem dubious.

On the other hand, the disappearance or deemphasis of that point might well reflect changing ideals of masculinity as the nineteenth century went on, back to a real man not letting his emotions overcome him.

There's a similar shift in discussions of the physicality of Gen. Washington: stories of him hefting big rocks, as discussed last month, for example. And then there's a long argument over whether Washington ever swore, which seems to have more to do with manly ideals of the time than evaluating evidence.

Wohnungsräumung said...

Thank you for your wonderful topics :)