Hits of the Sixties!

m-11178-2Now that Sherman is marching through Georgia, albeit retroactively, I thought it time to discuss a little ditty that is guaranteed to make Confederate blood boil: Henry Clay Work’s Marching Thru’ Georgia. This song is still so inflammatory that the Band of the California Battalion, which played a concert last July at Fort Sumter, was asked specifically not to play it.

Many think Sherman’s forces sang the song during the march, but it was actually composed in 1865. It was Work’s greatest hit, selling more than 500,000 copies within twelve years of its publication Work himself was born in Middletown, Connecticut to a family with abolitionist leanings. It is claimed that the family home was a station on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping into Canada prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

A bust of Henry Clay Work
A bust of Henry Clay Work

Henry Clay Work was a self-taught musician who composed mentally, then rendered his songs into piano tunes. In 1861 he signed a contract with Root and Cady, a well-known Chicago publishing firm, to produce sheet music for popular and Civil War songs. His first published song was “We Are Coming, Sister Mary”, which eventually became a staple in Christy’s Minstrels shows. He wrote several other compositions that have since been used in everything from in Judy Garland’s film Meet Me in St; Louis, to early Temperance meetings.

220px-Marching_through_GeorgiaMarching Thru” Georgia remains his most famous composition. Some historians have attributed the song’s popularity to its morale-boosting effect as a celebration of the triumphant end of the war. As a testament to freedom and sacrifice, its inspirational lyrics also contain a comic undertone. It is a lively marching song written to commemorate an event, but has taken on a life of its own as a football fight song for Princeton University, a marching song for the Boer War, the theme of a variety of cartoons (Yankee Doodle Mouse and King-Size Canary), and even shows up in such movies as Gone With the Wind, Shane, and El Dorado. Translated into Japanese, it became Toyko Bushi (Pai, pai, no pai) and is featured in the soundtrack of the foreign film The Flower and the Angry Waves. Mostly however, it just upsets southerners.th

It began to upset General William T. Sherman as well. He once stated, “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.” In an attempt to present another side of Marching Thru’ Georgia, filmmaker Ken Burns used a much slower, dirge-like tempo.

The first stanza calls for the rallying of the troops with the bugle call. The second stanza contains the line “How the darkies shouted when they heard the joyful sound” and claims that even sweet potatoes popped out of the ground as the Union troops approached. The third stanza is a nostalgic account of the Union soldiers as they see their flag raised. In the fourth stanza, the comedic tone returns with reference to “saucy rebels” who did not think the Northern troops could reach the coast. The final stanza describes the 300-mile-long march to the sea, in which the Union army, in a 60-mile-wide column, “made a thoroughfare for freedom and her train.” Marching Thru’ Georgia became a staple at veterans’ rallies and GAR meetings for years after its publication. Its lyrics are as follows:

Ring the good ol’ bugle, boys, we’ll sing another song,

Sing it with the spirit that will start the world along,

Sing it as we used to sing it 50,000 strong

While we were marching through Georgia.


[Chorus]: Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee!

Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free!

So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea

While we were marching through Georgia!


How the darkies shouted when they heard the joyful sound!

How the turkeys gobbled which our commissary found!

How the sweet potatoes even started from the ground

While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]


Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears

When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years.

Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers

While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]


“Sherman’s dashing Yankee boys will never reach the coast!”

So the saucy rebels said, and ’twas a handsome boast,

Had they not forgot, alas, to reckon with the host

While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]


So we made a thoroughfare for freedom and her train,

Sixty miles in latitude, 300 to the main.

Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain

While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]


Further Listening:





3 Responses to Hits of the Sixties!

  1. To me, the significance of the song is twofold: its great popularity shows that many wartime Northern whites–whether or not they sympathized with African Americans–recognized that slavery had to go (hence making a “thoroughfare for freedom and her train”). Also, the stanza about loyal Union men speaks to the belief that many Southerners didn’t support the planter class in seceding and fighting the Union.

  2. Henry Clay Work also composed “Kingdom’s Coming,” a similarly catchy, delightful tune which became an anthem of freed blacks.

    What is interesting to me about “Marching Through Georgia” is how MUCH Sherman hated the song–so much so that he would not attend a veterans’ reunion without a stipulating in advance that bands would refrain from playing it. (The reason is likely the lyrics’ abolitionist sentiments. Sherman was hardly enlightened where African-Americans were concerned!) However, he couldn’t impose such restrictions on his own funeral, where the song was featured prominently (source: “Battle Hymns” by Christian McWhirter).

    My daughter and I give presentations on Civil War music and, although Georgians with Confederate roots, we enjoy performing this piece which never fails to infuse the audience with enthusiasm. Henry Clay Work had a gift for rousing melody!

    1. How interesting that Sherman’s funeral featured this song! Was he rolling in his coffin?? Actually, I am getting married next summer, and our “recessional” will be Marching Thru’ Georgia! Hope it wakes everyone up!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!