Poetry: Sherman’s March to the Sea

“Sherman’s March to the Sea” is a poem written in 1864 by Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers III, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. Byers wrote it while a prisoner in Colombia, S.C. The poem was set to music by a member of the prison glee club, Lieutenant John Rockwell. Here is the story of the the poem in S.H.M. Byers’ own words which he read before the Iowa Loyal Legion:

A Historic War Song

“It is curious to reflect how many of our popular songs and poems have, at some time or other, been claimed by persons not their authors. Careless journalism— the desire to print anything that may excite talk— helps on to this amusing and multitudinous paternity of American verse. Half the songs in the United States have, in one or another newspaper, been attributed to persons who did not write them. One of them is ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea.’Only the other day a leading eastern magazine stated that it was written by one ‘L. Melott.’I was a little bit astonished, for I had always thought myself the author; perhaps too, I was a little pleased that someone had thought it good enough to steal (literary thieves are, as a rule, quite particular).

At that moment I received an invitation to talk to you, and at first I did not know what to talk about, but as I thought of  ‘Melott,’the ‘author’ of my song, it occurred to me to tell you the story of my song; how and where is was written, and all about it. It was not composed at any such banquet as this, let me say as an introduction. There were no good coats or gold badges here. I was going on an empty stomach in those days— miserable prison days in Columbia, South Carolina.

S.H.M. Byers 1838-1933

S.H.M. Byers 1838-1933

True, there are more important things in the world than the authorship of a song; yet who has not dwelt with some pleasure, even a melancholy pleasure at times, on the story of ‘Home Sweet Home,”The Watch on the Rhine,’the ‘Marseillaise,’or the ‘Star Spangled Banner ‘? All like scores of others that have stirred our hearts to a new joy, or exalted us to higher patriotism, have a story of their own. The ‘Star Spangled Banner ‘was written by a prisoner of war— so was ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea.’Some are here to-night who could corroborate my story if it were necessary. In the battle of Missionary Ridge eighty of the 5th Iowa were captured; myself among them. Seven months in Libby Prison were followed by seven others— Macon, Savannah, Charleston— finally Columbia. All the time we were dimly hearing how Sherman had fought a hundred days between Chattanooga and Atlanta; how he had cut loose from his base of supplies, and with sixty thousand men was heading for the Atlantic. Getting news was difficult— more, it was dangerous. One night, while keeping warm by pacing up and down the prison and cogitating on the wonderful success of Sherman’s campaign, I wondered what they would call it. It was not a battle only, I reflected, but a march as well— and a march to the sea. Instantly the thought struck me of a song. With these words for a title, walking about in the darkness, I composed a little. When daylight came I crept into the little tent, covered myself up in the straw, and finished the song. I read it first to Major Marshall, of my regiment, and he asked to show it to a friend, Lieutenant Rockwell, member of the prison glee club, which was led by Major Isett. (There were good voices in that club, I tell you! The ‘swells ‘of Columbia used to come, and climb upon the prison platform ‘to hear the Yankees sing.’) One afternoon, my song was announced. Lieutenant Rockwell, without my knowledge, had written music for my verses. Everybody listened, everybody cheered— and then the embarrassed author, standing in his rags under, a little persimmon tree, was seized and dragged to the front— he had become a hero in an hour! It doesn’t take much to make heroes among prisoners perhaps— but from that hour every prisoner was my friend. The song was sung daily. Who will say it did not cheer us? It had given a name to a great campaign, Lieutenant Tower (a prisoner who had a wooden leg— and that leg hollow) was sent through the lines North. In that leg he carried my song to Sherman’s army and in a week it was as popular there as among the prisoners. It was sung, first to this music and then to that; and none was very good. On February 17, 1865, I escaped— and when I reached the North I found all the soldiers singing my song, and Henry C. Work’s ‘Marching Through Georgia.’A music journal said that nearly a million copies of my song had been sold by 1866. It has been selling ever since, to some extent.

I gave the song to H. M. Higgins of Chicago, for publication, ‘If it turns out well you will hear from me,’he said. I had not much money in those days, and I went home wandering what I should do with all my expected wealth when I should hear from him! I heard at last and he sent me just five dollars! His excuse was that all the other publishers had stolen the song, and set it to all sorts of music, and that he had made no money from it. I think he may have told the truth— for thirteen different publishers printed it in one or another form.  None of the various settings seemed popular; the words go as well to the air of ‘The Red, White and Blue,’as to anything else.

The song appeared in many books of the war, and in most newspapers. Rossiter Johnson included it in his collection of ‘Single Famous Poems,’and General Sherman put it in his ‘Memoirs.’When he captured Columbia he found me, an escaped prisoner, secreted in a negro’s hut. That night I witnessed the burning of Columbia. In his ‘Memoirs’ the General tells how a prison comrade of mine gave him a copy of the song as he rode into Columbia. He liked the verses, sent for me, and gave me a provisional position on his staff. In a few days he sent me to Washington, recommended my appointment to the regular army, and later he urged my appointment to the Consular Service. You know the rest. If I have pride in the past success of the song, it is not for the song itself so much as for the fact that it was my fortune to give a name to the most picturesque campaign of the great war.” S. H. M. Byers.

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