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, September 09, 2012

“The march they chose was…”

My postings on the story about Gen. George Washington’s “huzzah” remark at Yorktown stopped at identifying Dr. Thomas H. McCalla as the source, partially identified in Alexander Garden’s Anecdotes of the American Revolution.

I didn‘t explore the question of how reliable that story itself was, particularly to the level of the words it credited to the commander-in-chief. That prompted a thoughtful message from martial-music expert Susan Cifaldi, which with permission I’m running as a “guest blogger” column.


The problem I have with Alexander Garden’s Anecdotes of the American Revolution (1822 and 1828) is embodied in the title; what he presents are simply anecdotes, which had a large oral circulation but are supported by vague second- and third-hand documentation. While this may confirm the peripheral circumstances, it leaves us frustrated for actual proof.

Perhaps Dr. M’Calla did recall hearing the Commander-in-Chief say some ponderous, lofty, and encouraging things while “addressing himself to the division of the army to which he was attached.” But in addition to the lack of written notation of such a lengthy statement, there is the physical factor of the problems associated with recall 40+ years after the fact. Who among us can recall 46 words of of anything that happened 40+ years ago, verbatim or otherwise?

“Huzzah” isn’t the only legend accepted as fact simply because the historical buck stops with Alexander Garden. Take the tune “World turned up side down,” commonly but erroneously assumed to have been played at Yorktown (Anecdotes, 1828, p. 17).

Quoting such luminaries as John Laurens, Garden tells the story how, during negotiations of the surrender terms, Laurens apparently insisted that “The [British] Troops shall march out with colours cased, and drums beating a British or a German march.” A “harsh article,” according to a British representative, who felt the surrendering troops should have been accorded the honors of war and thus march out with drums beating an American or French march. However, Laurens would not consider argument, “This remains an article, or I cease to be a Commissioner.”
The result was conformed to this just retribution. The British army marched out with colours cased, and drums beating a British or a German march. The march they chose was—“The world turned up side down.”
The late Arthur Schrader did a much better job than I could in explaining why there is nothing but Alexander Garden to support this theory at this stage in the game.

I like my copy of Garden, which I paid quite a bit for some years ago so I could have both the 1822 and 1828 issues in their original marbled boards, but I think we have to use it as we would a coffee-table book or maybe a 19th-century version of the Reader’s Digest.

Indeed, even when we’ve got a source on the scene, we must consider how reliable that source might be, and how reliably his or her testimony has been transmitted to us.

Thanks, Sue!

(The image above, courtesy of the Library of Congress, is sheet music for a piece
genuinely associated with Yorktown. It’s a piano composition created to commemorate the siege a century later.)

5 comments:

Susan said...

oh, thank YOU! There is another tune that is is indeed associated with the surrender, having been rather gleefully reported and re-reported in colonial papers up and down the coast. . that would be, of course, Yankee Doodle.

Bill Harshaw said...

Maybe so. But I believe I can remember the exact words spoken to me some 50 years (almost) ago, specifically on Nov. 22,1963 about 1 pm EST as I was on the steps of the Uof Rochester library.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there is the phenomenon of "flashbulb memory."

Charles Bahne said...

"Yankee Doodle" is of course reported in connection with the beginning of the war -- specifically, the story that Lord Percy's men played it while they were lined up on Tremont Street on the morning of April 19, 1775, awaiting the order to depart for the countryside, as reinforcements for the units that had already gone to Lexington and Concord. (Although the way things are going, maybe we'll see that legend dispelled by a future post on this blog.)

On another note, this is an excellent post; my thanks go to both J.L. and Sue. Any reader who hasn't done so already should be sure to click on the link marked "there is nothing but Alexander Garden...."

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, I discussed Earl Percy’s marching music back in this post. (Five years ago? Yikes.)