A New War Song

This bouncy tune gleefully recounts the misfortunes of British Commodore Sir Peter Parker and his failed attempt on June 28, 1776, to capture Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The fort protected Charleston Harbor and had earlier been the refuge of hundreds of slaves who ran from their colonial to their British masters at the invitation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. At the outset of the revolution it was manned by inexperienced colonial infantrymen untrained in the use of gunnery. After an arduous Atlantic crossing on HMS Bristol, Sir Peter led a flotilla of nine warships into the harbor to shell the fort from the sea while his co-commander, Sir Henry Clinton, attempted an amphibious attack on the fort from nearby Long Island. But nothing went as planned.

For his part, Clinton had no easy time wading the deeper-than-expected inlet between the islands, and those who made it across were met with point-blank fire from Colonel William Moultrie’s Rebels. Suffering heavy casualties, they retreated without risking a second effort. Meanwhile, lacking detailed knowledge of the waterway, Sir Peter’s fleet was badly mauled by the American guns, causing three ships to run aground. One, the Acteon, eventually had to be abandoned and torched. The others, Experiment and Bristol, withstood heavy cannonading from Moultrie’s thirty-one guns. When at last they withdrew, over two hundred British seamen and soldiers had been killed or wounded and Sir Peter himself had suffered wounds to the knee and posterior. Indeed, a splinter had torn his trousers almost completely away.

This indignity was naturally the source of great amusement to colonists, who quickly conflated the loss of one’s pants with the humiliation of Her Majesty’s finest troops by an unschooled band of revolutionaries. A cliché had sprung to life. Cleverly, the anonymous author avoided the scatological impulse of a number of fellow songwriters and instead cast the song as Parker’s imaginary defense to Parliament, thereby ridiculing the stiff propriety and presumed superiority of the British nation. That “cowardly dogs stood so stiff” was an ill omen for the Empire; that veteran commanders failed so absurdly became a rallying cry for the colonies.

A career soldier, Parker did not slink into oblivion after his discomfiture. Joining Clinton and Howe in New York, he helped capture Long Island and later assisted in the taking of Newport, Rhode Island. His service there and in Jamaica, where he remained for the rest of the war, earned him a baronetcy, an admiralty, and finally the rank of Commander-in-Chief in 1893. He is remembered in England as the early patron of Lord Nelson, but in America his legend is more fundamentally assured. Occurring only six days before the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted, the Sullivan’s Island fiasco fixed the score in the early innings at Yankee Doodles 1, Redcoats 0.

A New War Song by Sir Peter Parker

My lords with your leave
An account I will give
That deserves to be written in meter:
How the rebels and I
Have been pretty nigh
Faith, almost too nigh for Sir Peter.
Ri tu den dio, ri tu den di ay
Faith, almost too nigh for Sir Peter!

With much labor and toil
Up to Sullivan’s Isle,
I came firm as Falstaff or Pistol,
But the Yankees, dod rat’em
I could not get at ’em,
So terribly mauled my poor Bristol.
Ri tu den dio, etc.

Devil take ’em, their shot
Came so swift and so hot
And the cowardly dogs stood so stiff, Sir!
That I put ship about
And was glad to get out
Or they would not have left me a skiff, Sir!
Ri tu den dio, etc.

Now Clinton by land
Did quietly stand
While my guns made a terrible rumpus,
But my pride took a fall when a well-aimed ball
Propelled me along on my bumpus!
Ri tu den dio, etc.

Now bold as a Turk I sailed for New York,
Where with Clinton and Howe you may find me.
I’ve the wind in my tail
And I’m hoisting my sail
To leave Sullivan’s Island behind me.
Ri tu den dio, etc.

But my Lords do not fear,
For before the next year,
(Altho’ a small Island could fret us)
The continent whole
We shall take, by my soul–
If the cowardly Yankees will let us.