- Historic Sites
A PORTFOLIO OF AMERICAN FIGHTING MEN
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
T he American provincials looked ridiculous. They had no military bearing. Their formations were ragged, and they argued with their officers. Sometimes they were so clumsy they made the regulars of the British army highly nervous—and with good cause. Like the time in 1758 when some of the Massachusetts men with General James Abercromby’s army in the campaign against Fort Ticonderoga were given permission to clear the charges from their muzzle-loading muskets by firing them off. “l’hère was a fine fiering of them for a spael,” reported Amos Richardson of Woburn, “and some of ouer men Did Shut one of the Reglers Throu the Head which killed hem Daed.” It is no wonder the British sometimes felt it was safer to face the French than accept the aid of their American friends. Well before this, about 1755, if tradition is to be believed, Dr. Richard Shuckburgh had expressed the redcoats’ derision of American soldiers by writing “Yankee Doodle” and setting it to an old British tune.When Lord Percy marched out of Boston to rescue the British force that had struck a hornet’s nest at Concord on April 19, 1775, his musicians played the song in derision, but they fell silent on their nightmare retreat. And the tune took on entirely new meanings when victorious Americans played it as they marched into Boston, and later as one British army surrendered at Saratoga and another at Yorktown. The country bumpkins had triumphed over the best of the professionals, and they had accompanied victory with a self-deriding song.
In a real sense “Yankee Doodle” set a style for the way America’s nonprofessional warriors have regarded themselves ever since. Far from resenting the jibes at their amateur status, they have gloried in them. Unlike most other world powers, the United States has never had an elite military caste. In times of emergency all ablebodied males have been expected to serve their country. For that reason the outlook of the average fighting man has remained essentially that of a civilian, and he has been quick to note the anomalies of his position and the idiosyncrasies of his fellows.
Perhaps it is this attitude that has produced an American military humor that is in many ways unique. When the soldier is Everyman, the humorist’s laugh is really on himself and is seldom very bitter. Our jibes began early, as in R. H. Hobson’s 1829 cartoon The Nation’s Bulwark—A Well Disciplined Militia , which depicts a motley and slightly inebriated rank of heroes. Americans have welcomed the gentle thumb pricks of Winslow Homer and identified wholeheartedly with Edward Streeter’s “Bill” in World War I and with George Baker’s “Sad Sack” and Bill Mauldin’s “Willie” and “Joe” in World War II.
The men cited above were dealing with the present, while the artist represented on these pages is looking at the past. The essence of caricature is exaggeration, and here it is in full fettle: the high stiff collar that keeps a soldier from turning his head, the impressive cap falling over the eye, the determined— if baffled —expression, and the somewhat less than heroic physique. Dealing in this humorous way with history requires not only a thorough knowledge of dress and weapons, but a happily jaundiced eye as well. Fortunately, the artist Peter Copeland has them both. One of the nation’s leading students of costume, both military and civilian, he has served in the merchant marine during World War n and the Korean conflict, and in the Army in 1955–57. He has also done a stint as a combat artist in Vietnam. But he has remained a civilian iconoclast, and he joins a long line of self-deprecating citizen-warriors stemming from the patriots who first heard in the comic notes of “Yankee Doodle” a viable statement about American military life.