Yorktown: “The World Turned Upside Down”? (Hamilton 38)

Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Fleming’s Beat the Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, and dozens of other scholarly works state that at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, when the British marched out to surrender to the Americans and French, they played “The World Turned Upside Down.” In Hamilton: The RevolutionLin-Manuel Miranda commented :

Per Chernow, this was the name of the tune the British sang as they retreated. I sought out the actual song and it’s … well, it’s a drinking song. It’s sprightly and lively and fun to sing with a pint in your hand, but didn’t serve me musically. So I wrote my own melody for it. But God, what a great sentiment for the end of the war and the birth of this moment. (Hamilton: The Revolution, p. 122 n. 8)

The lyrics of a 1646 poem called “The World Turned Upside Down,” which laments the quashing of Christmas cheer by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, are here. First stanza:

Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
Holy-dayes are despis’d, new fashions are devis’d.
Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
An instrumental version of the popular melody to which that poem was sung is here, as a MIDI file (with a different set of lyrics).

Now: I’m both a historian and a lover of art. In Hamilton: An American Musical, Miranda’s “The World Turned Upside Down” works brilliantly as the conclusion to the Revolutionary War sequence. Art-Lover Dianne doesn’t care whether a tune by that name was actually played at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

But Historian Dianne yearns to know!

Primary sources on music played at Yorktown

As you’ll have noticed by now, I’m obsessed with primary sources. I’ve read every eyewitness source I could find on Yorktown (list at the end of last week’s post). Short version: I’ve seen no reference in any of them to the British playing “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Long version: here are the sources that mention fifes, drums, marches, and/or music.

Third of the Articles of Capitulation:

The garrison of York will march out to a place to be appointed in front of the posts, at two o’clock precisely, with shouldered arms, colours cased, and drums beating a British or German march. … (More here)

Lt.-Col. Saint George Tucker (American), from his journal for October 19, 1781:

Our Army was drawn up in a Line on each side of the road … the Americans on the right, the French on the left. Thro’ these Lines the whole British Army march’d their Drums in Front beating a slow March. Their Colours furl’d and Cased. I am told they were restricted by the capitulation from beating a French or American march. (More here)

Johann Doelha (German in service of the British), from his journal:

In the afternoon of the 19th of October, between 3 and 4 o’clock all the troops marched out of the lines and camp with bag and baggage, muskets and side arms, with standards cased, but with drums and fifes playing.

We marched out Williams Street, or down the road which leads to Williamsburg, in column with shouldered muskets, through the whole enemy army, with our drummers beating a march. [The editor, Tilden, says in footnote 52: “A lively, old English air: ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’]

On the right flank, every regiment of the French paraded white silk colors adorned with 3 silver lilies; beyond the colors stood drummers and fifers and in front of the colors the Haubisten [band] which made splendid music. … [The Americans] stood in 3 ranks, first the regular troops which also had Haubisten and musicians making beautiful music and appeared tolerable enough. (“The Doehla Journal,” translated by Robert J. Tilden, William and Mary Quarterly 2nd series, 22:3 [July 1942], p. 257-8)

Col. Stephan Popp (German in British service), from his journal:

At 3-4 p.m. all of Lord Cornwallis’ troops, with all our personal effects and our side arms, colors covered, marched out of our lines on the Williamsburg road, between the Regiments of the enemy, which were all drawn up, with colors flying and bands playing, – our drums beating … (Popp’s Journal, 1777-1783)

Lt. Ebenezer Denny (American), from his journal:

The British army parade and march out with their colors furled; drums beat as if they did not care how. Grounded their arms and returned to town. (More here)

Sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin (American), narrative published in 1830:

We waited two or three hours before the British made their appearance. They were not always so dilatory, but they were compelled at last, by necessity, to appear, all armed, with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and faces lengthening. They were led by General [Charles] O’Hara, with the American General Lincoln on his right, the Americans and French beating a march as they passed out between them. (More here)

Sara Osborn, wife of an American soldier, memories recorded in 1837:

[T]he British officers rode right on before the army, who marched out beating and playing a melancholy tune, their drums covered with black handkerchiefs and their fifes with black ribbands tied around them, into an old field and there grounded their arms. (More here)

So: according to the eyewitnesses, the British played fifes and drums. Nobody sang. The eyewitness accounts mention no specific tunes. Nor do any contemporary newspaper accounts about Yorktown state what music was played (according to Schrader p. 184: more on him below).

William Jackson on “The World Turned Upside Down”

The earliest published source to mention “The World Turned Upside Down” being played by the British at Yorktown dates to 1828. In Alexander Garden’s Anecdotes of the American Revolution, Second Series, pp. 12-19 are entitled “Embassy of Lieut. Col. Laurens to France, in 1781.” Garden introduces the section thus:

I do not think that I can follow up the interesting document immediately preceding [regarding the Mecklenburg Resolves], in a more appropriate manner, or afford a higher treat to my readers, than by giving a particular account of the spirited conduct of Lieut. Colonel Laurens, when set by Congress as a Special Minister to France, in the year 1781. Of its authenticity there can be no doubt. It was received by me in 1822, from my friend Major Wm. Jackson, of Philadelphia, who had been appointed at the request of the Lieutenant Colonel, Secretary of the Mission. It is due to Maj. Jackson, to give the statement in his own interesting and appropriate language. (More here)

What do we know about Major William Jackson (1759-1828)? He grew up in South Carolina. In early 1781, he was named secretary to John Laurens, whose mission was to persuade King Louis XVI to send yet more money and more soldiers in support of the American cause. Garden’s Anecdotes includes Jackson’s vivid account of Laurens’s interactions with Louis XVI, his ministers, and Benjamin Franklin.

John Laurens returned to the United States in mid-1781, in time to join the Continental Army at the Siege of Yorktown. There he negotiated the Articles of Capitulation on behalf of the Americans. In the manuscript printed in the Anecdotes, Jackson recounts the dialogue between Laurens and Ross regarding the “harsh article” by which the British were denied the honors of war (quoted in my 36th Hamilton post). Then Jackson concludes his section on Yorktown:

The result [of the negotiations]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.” (More here)

After returning from the embassy to France, Jackson served as assistant secretary of War (1782-1783), and in 1787 as secretary to the Constitutional Convention. (He was nominated for the post by Alexander Hamilton!) From 1789 to 1790, he was one of George Washington’s secretaries.

In short: Jackson was a prominent figure, and he was still alive in 1828, when the Anecdotes appeared. He was not a cipher to whom Garden would have attributed a fake manuscript chock full of interesting stories.

Problems with Jackson’s account

But … there are reasons to look askance at Jackson’s account. The most notable is that Jackson was not at Yorktown. He didn’t return to America until February 1782, four months after the surrender. He may well have had a catch-up session with Laurens soon after that: they were friends and fellow South Carolinians. Laurens wasn’t killed in a skirmish until August 1782. So yes, Jackson might have gotten his details about Yorktown from an eyewitness. But he doesn’t say he’s recording a second-hand story, which in my mind counts against him. It’s possible he’s giving an accurate account, but not at all certain.

Aside from the fact that Jackson wasn’t an eyewitness at Yorktown, there’s another problem. Jackson’s account wasn’t published until 47 years after Yorktown, and Jackson was apparently not the most meticulous of notekeepers. In 1787 he lobbied to be appointed secretary of the Constitutional Convention. When John Quincy Adams was collecting information on the Convention years later, he huffed that Jackson’s notes were “no better than the daily minutes from which the regular Journal ought to have been but never was made out” (quoted in Schrader, p. 186).

So: Jackson is the only source for this story; he was not an eyewitness at Yorktown; he didn’t report the story until some 40 years after the event; and his note-keeping abilities weren’t great.

No one really knows …

Arthur Schrader, who spent decades researching 18th-century American music, points out several other problems with Jackson’s statement that “The march they chose was ‘The world turned up side down’.”

  1. Eighteenth-century military marches were short. It must have taken several hours for thousands of British soldiers to march out of Yorktown and surrender their arms. It’s unlikely that only one tune was played during all that time.
  2. Music for rank-and-file soldiers was provided by a fife and drum for each company within a regiment. It’s unlikely that all of those fifers and drummers were playing a single song.
  3. “The World Turned Upside Down” was not a recognized song in the late 18th century. In popular music, it was typical for many different texts to be set to a single familiar piece of music. For example: the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” (a.k.a. “The Star-Spangled Banner”) was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 to be sung to a tune that was widely familiar under the name “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Only if a new text became extraordinarily popular did it bump the old lyrics, as the “Star-Spangled Banner” bumped “To Anacreon”. Schrader argues that there is no evidence for such an association of text with tune for the 1646 poem “The World Turned Upside Down.”

So far as we know, no eighteenth-century Briton talked or wrote about a “World Turned Upside Down” tune; no one printed it into a book, magazine, or sheet music; no Briton copied it into a manuscript or named it as the tune for a topical text; and no one pirated it. Therefore, even if there was a “World Turned Upside Down” tune in eighteenth-century Britain, it was not well enough known to be “recognized” at Yorktown … (Schrader p. 195)

4. For the British to play “The World Turned Upside Down” would have required, notes Schrader, “a self-deprecating humor the British did not otherwise display at Yorktown” (p. 193). True: in none of the eyewitness accounts do the British seem to be regarding their defeat with irony or amusement.

I’m inclined to agree with Schrader that the story of “The World Turned Upside Down” being played at Yorktown is apocryphal, and that its widespread acceptance is due to the story being “too good to reject and too trivial to bother checking out” (Schrader p. 184).


  • Schrader, Arthur. ” ‘The World Turned Upside Down’: A Yorktown March, or Music to Surrender By.” American Music, 16:2 (1998), 180-216. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052564 doi:1
  • On Major William Jackson, see Harry M. Ward. “Jackson, William,” in American National Biography Online (Access Date: Fri Sep 30 2016), and Charles W. Littell, “Major William Jackson, Secretary of the Federal Convention,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 2 (1878): 353-69. The earliest excerpt from Jackson’s narrative that I’ve yet seen is in the American Review, vol. I (1827), pp. 424-6. It includes only the description of the mission to France, and is attributed to “the respectable secretary of the mission, yet alive, in Philadelphia.”
  • Background: Joseph L. Trudeau,  “Music In The Continental Army” (Masters thesis 2014).
  • In a post from 2015, “Hamilton Turns the World Upside Down,” Janet McKinney (a music archivist at the Library of Congress) notes that the Library of Congress has a file on “The World Turned Upside Down” that has been built up by librarians over the course of fifty years. The earliest reference any of them has found to “The World Turned Upside Down” being played at Yorktown is Garden’s 1828 Anecdotes.


  • Hamilton consulted William Jackson after Hamilton was accused of speculating with Treasury funds: this eventually resulted in the Reynolds Pamphlet. Here and here, and more to come when I get that far.
  • I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the thirty-eighth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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