Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Battle of the Kegs

The Battle of the Kegs, a song by Francis Hopkinson (1731-1791), is a song I found in the book The Yankee Doodler (Music, Theater and Fun in the American Revolution), by Sylvia G.L. Dannett. Francis Hopkinson was a native Philadelphian, first student to enroll in the Philadelphia Academy and first to receive a diploma from the College of Philadelphia. He was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a writer, political satirist, artist, musician, and lawyer. He was elected a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, became a judge of admiralty from 1779 to 1789, and a judge of the United States Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. But back to the song and the Battle of the Kegs:

David Bushnell (1742?-1824), inventor of the American torpedo and other submarine machinery, built the Turtle, a one-man submersible ship, which made the first recorded, but unsuccessful, submarine attack on a British man-of-war in New York harbor. He devised some of the first floating mines to annoy the British fleet anchored off shore on the Delaware River, above Philadelphia. He had a fleet of kegs filled with gunpowder, designed to explode when they bumped into the enemy vessels.In late autumn of 1777, they were launched, but failed to blow up the ships. However, as some of the kegs exploded near the fleet, the British in panic began firing a continuous discharge of small arms and cannon, aiming wildly at everything in the river for several hours. Some who claimed they'd seen bayonets sticking out of the bung-holes of the kegs, said they were, like the Trojan horse, filled with armed rebels prepared to leap out in the dead of night and lay siege to the city. Others said they were machines constructed by magic that would climb the wharves and roll through the city, flaming with infernal fire. It was said that afterwards, Lord Howe dispatched a packet to London with an account of his great victory over the kegs.

Hopkinson wrote a mock heroic prose epic to preface his verses for the New Jersey Gazette of January 27 1778. The words were to be sung to the popular tune "Maggie Lawder".

Gallants attend, and hear a friend, Trill forth harmonious ditty,
Strange things I'll tell, which late befell In Philadelphia city.

"Twas early day, as poets say, Just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood, on a log of wood, And saw a thing surprising.

As in amaze he stood to gaze, The truth can't be denied, sir,
He spied a score of kegs or more, Come floating down the tide, sir.

A sailor, too, in jerkin blue, This strange appearance viewing,
First damn'd his eyes, in great surprise, Then said, "Some mischief's brewing."

From morn till night, these men of might Display'd amazing courage;
And when the sun was fairly down, Retir'd to sup their porridge.

An hundred men, with each a pen, Or more, upon my word, sir,
It is most true would be too few, Their valor to record, sir.

Such feats did they perform that day, Against those wicked kegs, sir,
That years to come, if they get home, They'll make their boasts and brags, sir.