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Hamilton Turns the World Upside Down

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The following is a guest post from Music Archivist Janet McKinney.

Last week, October 19th marked the anniversary of the surrender by General Cornwallis to George Washington in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The siege lasted from September 28th until the peace negotiations were signed on October 19th. Although the battle did not mark the end of the war, it has been considered an important turning point, one that would soon lead to American victory and independence.

The Battle of Yorktown is now forever immortalized in the new Broadway musical, Hamilton, which tells the story of one founding father who has not necessarily received as much attention as the others have in the past. Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Bring It On) wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show – he even stars as Alexander Hamilton and brings history to life and immediacy using the contemporary music of hip-hop and rap. Near the end of the first act, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” quickly recaps the historic battle, with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette playing key roles. Hamilton narrates the closing action:

"Washington before Yorktown" by Rembrandt Peale (Alexander Hamilton is the rider on the right). Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
“Washington before Yorktown” by Rembrandt Peale (Alexander Hamilton is the rider on the right). Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


“We negotiate the terms of surrender.

I see George Washington smile.

We escort their men out of Yorktown.

They stagger home single file.

Tens of thousands of people flood the streets.

There are screams and church bells ringing.

And as our fallen foes retreat,

I hear the drinking song they’re singing…

The world turned upside down.”



Legend has it that the British played “The World Turned Upside Down” while the surrendering soldiers marched to lay down their arms. Never having heard of this song before—and working at a music library—I was naturally inclined to look into the song’s musical history. As it turns out, I am not the only one. Before the digital age, reference librarians in the Music Division built and relied upon a “subject file” – a collection of topics that made repeated appearances in reference requests. One such file exists for “The World Turned Upside Down,” with the earliest reference correspondence in the file dating back to 1948. Subsequent inquiries and correspondence where new research could be added to the file appear from every decade through the early 1990s. A standard “memorandum” was even written to dispense whenever an inquiry on the subject came in.

This legend, which was perpetuated by scholars through the 19th century, has since been proven to be as dubious as the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree. The first appearance of this story was over 30 years after the war in Alexander Garden’s Anecdotes of the American Revolution 2nd series (Charleston, 1828), p. 18. “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 Upside Down.’” The anecdote was told second hand by a Major William Jackson of Philadelphia, who claimed to have received the information from Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens (another historical figure who is portrayed in the musical).

There are several problems with the anecdote. At this time, musicians played in the regiment in which they enlisted and did not play in a large massed band. There was also a considerable distance to cover and thousands of soldiers who were marching. The trek probably took several hours, so there were most likely many different marches played that day by many different regiments. Additionally, there was no widely known tune at that time recognizably called “The World Turned Upside Down,” only some parody versions of other well-known British songs. Besides, Article III of the “Articles of Capitulation” signed at Yorktown clearly states that “The garrison…will march out…with shouldered arms, colours cased, and drums beating a British or German march” (emphasis added), implicitly denying the use of the melodic fife. Ebenezer Denny, an American soldier who witnessed the event, noted in his journal the low British morale, as their “drums beat as if they did not care how.” Regardless, the presentation at Yorktown was certainly an instrumental one; none of the surrendering soldiers would be singing—which should further prove that no American would have recognized a parody song when there were no words to be heard.

"The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 1781." Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
“The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 178.” Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

There are many more facts, arguments, and speculations that have been researched and written about and therefore do not need to be addressed here (see suggested reading below). Of course, I am not writing this blog post to accuse Mr. Miranda of falsely leading the public to believe previously debunked stories. On the contrary, at least a portion of my own personal enjoyment of Hamilton has been the inspiration to learn more about revolutionary era history and look into the events for myself. Indeed, the legend of “The World Turned Upside Down” and its symbolism in the surrender at Yorktown perfectly underlies one of the recurring themes in the show; the world will never be the same. And that just makes for some excellent theater.

To learn more about Revolutionary Era primary resources preserved at the Library of Congress, please see the Manuscript Division’s online presentations for the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as Alexander Hamilton—all key players in Miranda’s Broadway musical.

Since research has been inconclusive about exactly what was played during the surrender at Yorktown, I leave you with the march written by John Philip Sousa to celebrate the battle’s centennial in 1881. The manuscript lives here in the John Philip Sousa Collection, and a recording can be heard on the Library of Congress jukebox.



Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Schrader, Arthur F. “The World Turned Upside Down: A Yorktown March, or, Music to Surrender By,” American Music 20, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 180-215.

Winstock, Lewis S. Songs & Music of the Redcoats; A History of the War Music of the British Army 1642-1902. [Harrisburg, Pa.]: Stackpole Books, 1970.

Comments (5)

  1. Nicely done! Would it have made for good theater to leave it out? No. Your average musical isn’t a documentary, nor should it be. It sounds like a good show with an engaging ending! Thanks for an interesting and informative post.

  2. There’s a typo in the caption for the print depicting the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown “A.D.178” (the one is missing).

    I wish this post had come out sooner as UC Merced’s Center for the Humanities had a two year theme of the “World Turned Upside Down” that ended in Spring 2015.

  3. hi boo

  4. I am reading Chernow’s Hamilton biography (inspired by the musical, just like you) and he too has the British retreating while playing or singing “The World Turned Upside Down.” This has led me on a day-long consultation session of the google oracle to seek out the lyrics and especially the melody of that song. In some instances it is said to be the Yankee Doodle melody. I even found a youtube video of a full cosplay reenactment (with horses and everything!) in which the pipes play a version of “Yankee Doodle* begins at about 2:50 In this one the American general (Washington?) tells the British soldiers to “Play the Yankee Doodle”! anyway–Chernow comments it was significant that the Brits played “The World Turned Upside Down” since it was conventional for the defeated army to play a tune that celebrated the the victors. Yankee Doodle–you sound like a historian so you probably know this–words and music are old old old and have gone through myriad evolutions so who knows who it belongs to? Obviously the Americans have appropriated it, but who did it belong to in 1781? Fun trying to get a handle on this!

    • Hi, Anne – thank you for this fun question! I recommend directing your reference question to our music librarians via our Ask a Librarian email service:

      Our librarians are ready and eager to research your question for you. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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