In late summer 1781 General Cornwallis established a base for the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, after marching north through the Carolinas with some victories and some defeats against American opposition. He was unaware of the trap being set by the confluence of the French ships and the American and French land forces that gathered around his position, outnumbering him by nearly three to one. After a siege of several weeks, he asked for a truce to settle terms for a surrender. On October 19 the formal ceremonies were held.
The war did not end with Cornwallis’s surrender. The British still held Savannah, Charleston, Halifax, and New York, and far outnumbered the American army. Peace negotiations began in 1781 but skirmishes continued. This text appears to have been written after the surrender but before the cessation of hostilities. The Definitive Peace Treaty was signed September 3, 1783, and the last British troops left New York in late November.
The final verse of “Lord Cornwallis’s Surrender” in ballad meter is a tribute to General Nathanael Greene who was not at Yorktown but who was with the southern American army in North Carolina, most recently the hero in a valiant action at Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781. This text appeared in two songsters between 1811 and 1817 (R. Keller).
The author of “The Sailor Boy,” Susannah Haswell Rowson (1762-1824), was born in England but spent her childhood in Massachusetts. The family returned to England in 1778. Already active as a writer, Susannah married William Rowson in 1786 and soon published her first novel. When her husband’s business failed they went into the theater, first performing in Scotland, then coming to America with Thomas Wignell in 1793. William served as prompter and Susannah played in Philadelphia and Baltimore from 1794 to 1796. The Rowsons went to the new Boston Theatre in 1796 but Susannah soon retired from the stage and opened a school for girls that she operated for twenty-five years (Pollock 55-60).
She wrote several patriotic songs that were set by leading composers of Philadelphia (see Truxton’s Victory and America, Commerce, and Freedom). This sentimental love song was set to music by Benjamin Carr (1768-1831) and first published in 1798 as “The Little Sailor Boy . . . Sung at the Theatres & Other Public Places in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, &c.” Bland & Weller published an edition in London around 1800. A Boston edition ca. 1802 suggests that the melody was also written by “a Lady” but Carr had deposited the piece for copyright protection in 1798 “as author and propr[ietor]” (Sonneck, Bibliography 233-34). The extremely popular song was printed in several sheet music editions and the text was printed in the Middlebury (VT) Mercury on April 14, 1802, and included in Rowson’s own collection of poems (1804) as well as appearing in ninety songsters between 1798 and 1820 (R. Keller; Wolfe, Secular Music #1612). It persisted to 1846 when it appeared in the New England Pocket Songster (Roud).
This Coverly version omits Rowson’s third verse prayer, as does the other Coverly version:
May no rude foe his course impede, conduct him safely o’er the wave,
O may he never be compell’d to yield to pow’r, or mix with slaves.
May smiling peace his steps attend, each rising hour be crown’d with joy,
As blest as that, when I again shall meet my much lov’d Sailor Boy.