Songwriter Henry Clay Work (1832-1884) was a Connecticut native and staunch supporter of the Union cause. Work was born into an abolitionist family whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and who assisted many fugitive slaves escape to Canada.
A self taught musician, Clay began his songwriting career in the 1850s while working as a printer. Clay wrote several patriotic songs during the Civil War, but by far his most famous–and financially successful– song was “Marching Through Georgia”, written in 1865 and inspired by General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea. It sold over a million copies, which in those days before recorded music, was a million copies of sheet music.
While the song was immensely popular in the north, and was a particular favorite of Union Army veterans, Sherman himself reportedly did not like the song. This was probably due to it being played whenever he made public appearances, and he got tired of hearing it. Sherman may have seen it also as a bit more antagonistic towards the defeated south than he wanted in the postwar world.
This song should not be confused with the poem “Sherman’s March to the Sea”, written by Union officer S.M.H Byers, which was also set to music. “Marching Though Georgia” is still performed today, particularly at Civil War events and reenactments. The 1st Brigade Band, a Wisconsin based group of music historians who perform Civil War music on actual 19th century instruments, considers it their signature piece.
This YouTube video has an instrumental version of the song, and a version with Tennessee Ernie Ford performing the vocals.