Whenever the name of a state appears in the title of a well-know song, it usually celebrates the state. It usually lends civic pride to its citizens. Usually.
Georgia citizens do not like “Marching through Georgia.” It celebrates the success of an invading enemy. It celebrates Sherman’s march to the sea, one of the most destructive and terrorizing events in the state’s history.
But nearly 150 years later, it’s still internationally popular.
Sherman’s march to the sea
Having captured Atlanta, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman planned a march to Savannah to destroy the Confederacy’s will to resist. After receiving approval from his commanding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, he left Atlanta on November 15, 1864
The vastly outnumbered Confederate army unsuccessfully tried numerous strategies to halt Sherman’s progress. The obvious first step, cutting off supply lines, didn’t work simply because Sherman didn’t have any.
His army would live off the land and seize material from local people.
Sherman’s troops systematically destroyed anything of economic value to the South: plantations, manufacturing facilities, and railroads. By the time they reached Savannah, they had left a path of unparalleled destruction.
Confederate Gen. William J. Hardee had fortified Savannah but Union troops began to lay siege. Sherman demanded that Hardee surrender the city or face artillery bombardment. Hardee refused to surrender, but managed to get his troops out of town. The mayor of Savannah formally surrendered to Sherman on December 22.
Henry Clay Work’s last Civil War hit
Henry Clay Work was one of the most successful writers of patriotic songs during the Civil War. He frequently composed songs in response to news reports. Word that Sherman had begun his march reached Work on November 16.
He immediately began to compose words and music to a commemorative march and completed it by December 10. His publisher, Root & Cady, had it ready for sale on January 9, 1865. The war ended soon afterward. The need to publish war-related songs ended with it.
While publishers continued to issue new war songs in the months before Appomattox, “Marching through Georgia” turned out to be the war’s last hit song.
The words, written from the viewpoint of a white Union soldier, told listeners the significance of the Union victory.
Instead of stressing the destruction of so much property in Georgia, it portrayed Sherman’s troops as liberators of slaves and Southern Union sympathizers. It emphasizes the war as an exercise in emancipation. It portrays Georgia becoming “a thoroughfare for freedom.”
The text, five verses and a chorus, mingles patriotic fervor with humor. Turkeys gobbled in tribute and sweet potatoes jumped out of the ground for joy when Sherman’s army passed by!
Work probably thought “Marching through Georgia” was just another commemoration of an important general who was in the news. Instead, it became a glorious remembrance of the Union’s triumph and the end of the war.
Instead, as his colleague George F. Root described it in his autobiography (1891),
“Marching through Georgia” is more played and sung at the present time than any other song of the war. This is not only because if its intrinsic merit in its words and music but because it is retrospective. Other war songs, “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” for example, were for exciting the patriotic feeling on going into the war or battle; “Marching through Georgia” is a glorious remembrance on coming triumphantly out, and so has been more appropriate to soldiers and other gatherings since.
Public interest in most Civil War songs began to wane, but “Marching through Georgia” sold more than half a million copies within twelve years of its publication.
Here is a performance four of the verses recorded, I think, in 1904 by Frank Stanley, with Byron Harlan joining on the chorus.
Subsequent history of “Marching through Georgia”
Work had a hard life after the war, both financially and emotionally. At age 50, he moved to the small town of Bath, New York. He wrote in a letter,
“It is really surprising that I have excited so much curiosity and interest here, not only among romantic young women but among all classes.
My connection with “Marching through Georgia” seems to be the cause . . . at the annual camp fire of the Grand Army of the Republic, to please soldiers and citizens, I sang the song in the opera house before an audience of several hundred—something I never did before in my life.
Since then I have been compelled to repeat it at every gathering I have attended.”
It was impossible to hold a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic “Marching through Georgia.” Bands played it. Veterans sang it. Over and over.
Sherman reviewed the Grand Army of the Republic in 1890 in Boston. A parade that lasted seven hours included 250 bands and 100 fife and drum corps.
Every one of them played “Marching through Georgia” as they passed the reviewing stand. By the end of the parade he was so sick of hearing it that he announced his refusal to attend future encampments unless all the bands agreed not to play the piece in his presence. On another occasion he said, “If I had thought when I made that march that it would have inspired anyone to compose the piece, I would have marched around the state.”
Nonetheless, it continued to play an important role in American popular culture long after the last Civil War soldier died.
- Charles Ives used “Marching through Georgia” among the popular tunes use in the “St. Gaudens in Boston Common” movement of Three Places in New England.
- Movies, notably Gone with the Wind have used it.
- It appears in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, both as written and as a slow lament to express the Southern viewpoint.
- With different words, Princeton University it became a fight song at football games.
It also became an international success
- When Japan attacked the Russian naval base Port Arthur in 1904, their victorious army marched in to “Marching through Georgia.”
- British soldiers sang it as they marched in India. It appeared in their Soldier’s Song Book during World War II.
If you know of other important uses of “Marching through Georgia in popular culture, please share in the comment section.
America’s Civil War: Sherman’s March to the Sea / Kennedy Hickman (About.com)
“Marching through Georgia” / Edwin Tribble, in Music in Georgia, edited by Frank W. Hoogerwerf. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984, pp. 263-69.
Marching through Georgia / Vanessa P. Tome (Georgia Encyclopedia)
Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War / Christian McWhirter. University of North Carolina Press, 2012 (Kindle edition)
Photo and audio credits:
Sherman’s army at work. Artist and source unknown
Marching through Georgia cover and recording. Library of Congress sheet music collection.
Marching through Georgia postcard. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.