Today in History

Today in History: April 19

Lexington and Concord

Minute Man statue
The Minute Man, Concord, Massachusetts, copyright 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On April 19, 1775, British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. On the night of April 18, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, commanded by King George III to suppress the rebellious Americans, had ordered 700 British soldiers, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Marine Major John Pitcairn, to seize the colonists' military stores in Concord, some 20 miles west of Boston.

A system of signals and word-of-mouth communication set up by the colonists was effective in forewarning American volunteer militia men of the approach of the British troops. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride" tells how a lantern was displayed in the steeple of Christ Church on the night of April 18, 1775, as a signal to Paul Revere and others.

Christ Church
Christ Church, Boston, Massachusetts, copyright circa 1909.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex, village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.

At Lexington Green, the British were met by approximately seventy American Minute Men led by John Parker. At the North Bridge in Concord, the British were confronted again, this time by 300 to 400 armed colonists, and were forced to march back to Boston with the Americans firing on them all the way. By the end of the day, the colonists were singing "Yankee Doodle" and the American Revolution had begun. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 includes a timeline of the events that followed.

Old Bridge, Concord
The Old Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts, copyright 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled
Here once the embattled farmers stood
and fired the shot heard round the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn"

Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.

The exact origin of the word "Yankee" is obscure, but by the 1770s it referred to the English colonists, particularly New Englanders. A "doodle" was a silly person or country bumpkin.

"Yankee Doodle" was a well-known song in the New England colonies before the battles of Lexington and Concord, but only after the skirmishes there was it appropriated by the American militia. Tradition holds that the colonials began to sing the tune as they forced the British back to Boston on April 19, 1775. Troops under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Percy played "Yankee Doodle" as they marched from Boston to reinforce British soldiers already fighting the Americans at Lexington and Concord. Whether sung or played on that occasion, the tune’s martial air was intended to deride the colonials.

There are numerous conflicting accounts of the origin of "Yankee Doodle." Some credit its melody to an English air; others to Irish, Dutch, Hessian, Hungarian, and Pyrenean tunes; or to a New England jig. Its first American verses are attributed to British military surgeon Dr. Richard Schackburg. Tradition holds that Schackburg penned his lyrics in 1755 while attending a wounded prisoner of the French and Indian War at the home of the Van Rensselaer family.

Van Renssellaer House
Old Van Rensselaer House, Where Yankee Doodle Was Written,
Albany, New York, copyright 1907.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

"Yankee Doodle's" catchy tune has been adapted and expanded numerous times. It is documented that the Americans sang the following verse at Bunker Hill:

Father and I went down to camp,
along with Captain Gooding,
And there we see the men and boys
as thick as hasty pudding.

During the time that George Washington received his commission and took command of the nascent Continental Army on Cambridge Common, additional verses evolved and were incorporated.

And there was Captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him,
They say he's grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without ’em.

By 1777, "Yankee Doodle" had become an unofficial American anthem. Following General John Burgoyne's surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote of the Yankees.

Gates Accepts Burgoyne's Surrender
Burgoyne's Surrender at Saratoga [detail],
photomechanical print, copyright 1911.
George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

"Yankee Doodle" is also said to have been played at Yorktown, along with "The World Turned Upside Down," when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at the end of the war.

After the Revolutionary War, "Yankee Doodle" surfaced in stage plays, classical music, and opera.  The writer, producer, and composer George M. Cohan adapted "Yankee Doodle" for his Broadway play Little Johnny Jones, the story of an American jockey who goes to England to win a derby. A portion of Cohan's 1904 play was incorporated into the biographical 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy staring James Cagney as Cohan, and again into the 1955 movie The Seven Little Foys starring Bob Hope and Cagney. [Eddie Foy (1854-1928) was a vaudevillian who performed with his seven children.]

"Yankee Doodle," Joe Bedrosian, performer,
Fresno, California, April 24, 1939.
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

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