“Bonaparte’s Retreat” is a classic old-time quasi-programmatic American fiddle piece that is generally played in a slow march tempo at the beginning and becomes increasingly more quick by the end of the tune, meant to denote a retreating army. Versions very widely from region to region, some binary and some with multiple parts. One folklore anecdote regarding this melody has it that the original “Bonaparte’s Retreat” was improvised on the bagpipe by a member of a Scots regiment that fought at Waterloo, in remembrance of the occasion.
The American collector Ira Ford (1940) (who seemed to manufacture his notions of tune origins from fancy and supposition, or else elaborately embellished snatches of tune-lore) declared the melody to be an “old American traditional novelty, which had its origin after the Napoleonic Wars.”
He notes that some fiddlers (whom he presumably witnessed) produced effects in performance by drumming the strings with the back of the bow and “other manipulations simulating musket fire and the general din of combat. Pizzicato represents the boom of the cannon, while the movement beginning with Allegro is played with a continuous bow, to imitate bagpipes or fife.”
Arkansas fiddler Absie Morrison (1876-1964) maintained the melody had French and bagpipe connotations. “Now that’s bagpipe music on the fiddle…That was when (Bonaparte) had to give back, had to give up the battle…This in what’s called minor key, now…It’s French music.”
In fact, the tune has Irish origins, though Burman-Hall could only find printed variants in sources from that island from 1872 onward. “It has been collected in a variety of functions, including an Irish lullaby and a ‘Frog Dance’ from the Isle of Man” (Linda Burman-Hall. “Southern American Folk Fiddle Styles,” Ethnomusicology, vol. 19, #1, Jan. 1975).
Samuel Bayard (1944) concurs with assigning Irish origins for “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and notes that it is an ancient Irish march tune with quite a varied traditional history. The ‘ancient march’ is called “Eagle’s Whistle (1) (The)” or “Eagle’s Tune (The),” which P.W. Joyce (1909) said was formerly the marching tune of the once powerful O’Donovan family.
Bayard’s primary scope of collecting was in western Pennsylvania in the mid-20th century, where he found the tune still current in fiddle repertoire, though he remarked on its popularity in various parts of the South. His Pennsylvania version has a somewhat simpler melodic outline than most of the other recorded American sets, and, although he notes that these sets vary considerably–even in the number of parts which a version may contain–he finds they are clearly cognate, and all show resemblance’s and common traits indicating derivation from the “The Eagle’s Whistle.”
According to Blue Ridge Mountain local history the tune was known in the Civil War era. Geoffrey Cantrell, writing in the Asheville Citizen-Times of Feb., 23, 2000 relates the story of the execution of three men by the Confederate Home Guard on April 10th, 1865, the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Courthouse. That news would not have been known to them, given the difficulty with communications at that time.
It is documented that Henry Grooms, his brother George and his brother-in-law Mitchell Caldwell, all of north Haywood County, North Carolina, were taken prisoner by the Guard under the command of one Captain Albert Teague-no one knows why, but the area had been ravaged by scalawags and bushwackers, and the populace had suffered numerous raids of family farms by Union troops hunting provisions.
One theory is that the men were accused of being Confederate deserters who, perhaps knowing the war was nearly over, had aided the Union cause in some way. There was much back-and-forth guerilla warfare, however, and the village of Waynesville had been burned two months earlier (by Unionists), and the citizenry was beleaguered and anxious. Caldwell and the Grooms brothers were captured in the Big Creek section of Haywood County, close to the Tennessee border.
Cantrell writes: “The group traveled toward Cataloochee Valley and Henry Grooms, clutching his fiddle and bow, was asked by his captors to play a tune. Realizing he was performing for his own firing squad Grooms struck up Bonaparte’s Retreat,” his favorite tune. When he finished the three men were lined up against an oak tree and shot, the bodies left where they fell. Henry’s wife gathered the bodies and buried them in a single grave in the family plot at Sutton Cemetery No. 1 in the Mount Sterling community, the plain headstone reading only “Murdered.” The original source for the story is George A. Miller, in his book Cemeteries and Family Graveyards in Haywood County, N.C.
Ed Haley (1883-1951) of Ashland, eastern Ky., played the tune so skillfully that “one old-timer, after hearing Haley play (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”) declared that ‘if two armies could come together and hear him play that tune, they’d kill themselves in piles” (Wolfe, 1982).