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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War, Part 10 - Marching through Georgia

Sherman's siege on Atlanta and subsequent march to Savannah became fodder for songsmiths of the mid-1860s. Two songs remain in the repertoires of Civil War singers today and their roles in the events before, during, and after the War are covered in this article by folklorist Jean Wilcox Hibben.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform, "Marching through Georgia." To order the complete CD, see Songs of the War of the Rebellion.

When General William Tecumseh Sherman proposed a drastic plan to put an end to the war that was appearing to be endless, his actions made both the newspapers and the music publishers. Almost four years of music publishing had been fueled by the War, but many of the songs made popular in 1863 and 1864 were of a lighter, more cheerful nature. People were weary of war: battle talk, casualties, sickness . . . all of this entered the American homes by way of music, literature, and even art. Most battle songs were written before the War was half over; but later, people did not want to sing (celebrate) the killing. Even the Battle of Gettysburg was deprived of its own song (in contrast to songs of the early 1860s about Bull Run, Shiloh, Cairo, and the sea battle between the Cumberland and the Merrimac, among others). But the music about battles and accompanying events was reborn with the "March to the Sea."

On 14 November 1864, following the siege on Atlanta, "Uncle Billy" (as his men called him) led his troops out of the ravaged city and on towards the ocean. As he and the troops marched towards Savannah, they cut the telegraph lines in their wake (this would prevent any government interference in his plans). The destruction spanned a width of sixty miles and a length of three hundred; he was successful in his plot to wreak havoc on the South until it finally gave it up (Wright, pp. 271-272). Even Sherman admitted that the wreckage was extreme, resulting in an estimated $100 million worth of property lost (with about one-fifth of that being stolen by the Yankees). Railroad lines were destroyed, as were local industries, including those dealing with the primary product: cotton (Ash, pp. 55-56).

As we've already seen in past articles in this series, the events of the War were frequently immortalized in song, so it is no surprise that this particular battle would be similarly honored. Composer Henry Clay Work (half of the publishing company of Root and Cady) was an abolitionist from his youngest years, when his father had been imprisoned in Missouri for helping run-away slaves. His work career included working with machinery and doing some inventing, but his passion was the music (as we have already seen in earlier discussions). Sherman was one month shy of the end of the campaign when Work composed the song (in January 1865) that would immortalize the General. "Marching through Georgia" appeared so late in the War that the sales of the sheet music were not as great as they would have been under different circumstances. But the future of the song was recognized by fellow composer, George Frederick Root, who identified the artistry in the composition and praised the work of his "competitor" (Erbsen, pp. 50-51).

Interestingly enough, Work's composition was not the first song about the March. He had been trumped in that by an amateur writer, Lt. Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers of Iowa (Hill, p. 206). Byers was locked away in a prison camp in South Carolina when he learned of the forthcoming raids to take place, led by Sherman, in an effort to bring it all to an end. Legend states that a newspaper had been smuggled into the prison, concealed in a loaf of bread that was provided by a slave. Once reading about the plans of Sherman, Byers was compelled to pen his own lyrics, naming it "When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea," a prophetic title since it had yet to happen (Silber, p. 238). The prisoners sang the song within their confines (music: unknown), while the poem was smuggled out of the prison in the wooden leg of an exchanged inmate (Young). Byers did not hear his own composition, or learn of its popularity, until he was released. It had been put to music by Lt. Rockwell, also a former prisoner, and the hoards of marching soldiers had adopted it. Byers received, if anything, a minor pittance for his efforts (Silber, p. 238). But Sherman loved the song and is said to have named his campaign after it (Young)!

Sherman's attitude about the more popular piece by Henry Clay Work was much less enthusiastic. He disliked the tune and the words and complained bitterly when the song was played in his presence, finally refusing to attend any event where the piece was brought out, yet again. He didn't quite realize that edict: it was played at his funeral (Erbsen, p. 51).

Space prohibits me from writing about every verse in the piece by Work. Lyrics for both songs are readily available on the Internet and involve a simple search. Work's song consists of five verses, but seldom do all five appear in the written copies I have acquired. Interestingly enough, it is not the second verse, decidedly non-politically correct, that is omitted but, rather, the last one, two, or three verses (depending on the version). I will admit that the fifth verse is something of a tongue-twister, but to omit the fourth verse is sad since it mentions the Yankees response to the Rebels' jeers (Crawford, pp. 35-36).

That non-politically correct verse I mentioned makes light of the pilfering the Union troops did to survive, ravaging the homes and businesses of the Southern communities they marched through. It does use the often objectionable term "darkeys," but that was quite within the acceptable vocabulary of the time. And those good folks joined the throng as helpful agents when it came to navigating the unfamiliar territory (McNeil & McNeil, pp. 94-96). Nevertheless, the offensive verse is often omitted when the song is performed in the 21st Century.

Work's tune has been re-worked (no pun intended) over the years and has been used for many war- and non-war-related songs. The Grand Army of the Republic adopted the tune for a number of songs: "Hurrah for Milwaukee" (Old War Songs, p. 17), "While the Grand Army Assembles" (p. 19), "When Sherman's Bummers Marched through Georgia" (p.39), "Hurrah for the Army Bean" (p.43), and "To-Day's Haversack" (p. 45). And it moved west and was used for "All are Talking of Utah" (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 232), "When We Go Marching Home" (p. 294), and "Come, All Ye Toiling Millions" (p. 482). In fact, all over the country the tune was adapted to other sets of words, much as the phenomenon that occurred with the tune Julia Ward Howe used for "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (Erbsen, p. 20).

Sherman is given attribution for the phrase "War is Hell." His thirty-two day march, immortalized now in at least two songs that remain in America's repertoire, certainly brought hell to the communities he covered between Atlanta and the coast (Glazer, p. 30). It must have been a slap in the face to the Southerners when the Northern musicians and singers continued to keep this song on the tongues and in the bands for decades after it was written. It tells of the hope it gave the Yankee prisoners and those on the side of the Union military forces, but it also alludes to the destruction, terror, and personal devastation it brought to a part of the country that was then expected to embrace the Union. It is no surprise that ill feelings still exist today among those whose ancestors lived in the areas that were ravaged in these last months of the War. Yes, the War was finally over, and the North triumphed . . . but at what cost?


Ash, Stephen V. When the Yankees Came: Conflict & Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill, NC: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Crawford, Richard (Ed.). The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

Erbsen, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, Inc., 1999.

Glazer, Tom (Ed.). A Treasury of Civil War Songs: 25 Songs of the Union and the Confederacy. Milwaukee: Hal-Leonard Corp., 1996.

Hill, Lois (Ed.). Poems and Songs of the Civil War. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990.

Lingenfelter, Richard E., and Dwyer, Richard A. Songs of the American West. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1968.

McNeil, Keith, and McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.

Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs (presented to the Grand Army of the Republic, Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889). Selections from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence.

Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Wright, Mike. What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996.

Young, Keith. "Major Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers: Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry," 2001. Website of Fifth Iowa Infantry. Accessed 13 November 2011, from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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