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 onto this amusing and multitudinous paternity of American verse. Half the songs in the country have, in some journal or another, been attributed to persons who did not write them. This has been the fate, too, of "Sherman's March to the Sea."
Only the other day a leading eastern magazine made the positive statement that the author of this war song was L. Melott. Of course, I was a little bit astonished, for I had always supposed myself the writer of the verses referred to. Perhaps, too, I was a little pleased that somebody had thought them good enough to steal. Literary thieves are, as a rule, you know, quite particular.
Right at that moment I received an invitation from the committee of the Loyal Legion to occupy a few minutes of your time this evening. At first I did not know what to say, and then I thought of Melott, the "author" of my song. Instantly I declared, "I will tell my war comrades the story of this song - how and where it was written, and all about it."
It was not composed at any such banquet as this, let me tell as an introduction. There were no frock coats and gold badges there. I was going on an empty stomach in those days in Dixie - those miserable prison days.
Perhaps the authorship of a song does not interest very many. There are more important things in the world than that. And 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". I All these songs, 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, and so, as I have intimated, was "Sherman's March to the Sea". Will it seem immodest if I tell you how it happened - I, who know about it? I see one, two, or three faces here tonight who were there at the time, and, if corroboration were necessary, Judge Conrad or Captain Russell should be my witnesses. Pardon a little bit of personal history in connection with it all. I was a volunteer soldier in the Fifth Iowa Infantry. What Iowa man is not proud of the deeds of the Fifth Regiment, that body of men that marched out a thousand strong and left five hundred men dead or disabled on Southern battlefields? That was the kind of regiments this loyal State sent out to put down treason. It was treason then; they call it by softer names in these newer times.
Well, after many battles and bard marches, eighty of our command were overpowered and captured in the fearful charge at the "Tunnel", in the battle of Missionary Ridge. I happened to be one of the unlucky number.
As a comment on what took place in Southern prisons in those days, let me tell you that out of that eighty healthy young men only sixteen, ever came home alive. Of nine men of my own company only one, beside myself, lived to tell the tale, and he is long since dead. Dead, all dead! That is what it cost to be loyal in the war times.
We were marched down the railroad that night after the battle nearly half way to Atlanta, and soon were hurried into Libby Prison at Richmond. Then came seven months of horrors only to be succeeded by seven months of greater horrors still. We were carted about everywhere, and anywhere that might seem farther away from our friends, the advancing armies of the north. We went to Macon, to Savannah, to Charleston, to be placed under the fire from our own gun boats - nothing seemed too cruel; nothing seemed too malicious in the eyes of our captors. Then we were hurried to a spot near Columbia, the heart of South Carolina,
All the time we were dimly hearing how Sherman's army had fought its hundred days between Chattanooga and Atlanta, We knew he had cut loose from his base of supplies, and with sixty thousand veterans was heading for a new base on the Atlantic ocean.
Something in the air was telling us of important events. The Rebels - we called them Rebels then - were exceedingly glum.
In all the long, long weeks when we lay there at Columbia pining and starving and dying from a treatment that savages would have been ashamed of, we were hoodwinked and misled as to what Sherman's army wag really doing. We were rarely allowed a newspaper. The Rebels were even deluding them-selves, and feigned to believe that the great army of the west was walking into a death trap from which no man would ever escape. After a few weeks they moved us from their pen in the woods into the town of Columbia itself. We were placed in the yard of the asylum with a high brick wall around us, and with armed guards on top of the wall. There are those here tonight who can recall the horrors of that winter. They will recall them to their graves.
I have said news getting was difficult. It was more; it was dangerous. A few of us who lived together in a little wedge tent - determined to know the facts. There was a loyal negro (they were all loyal for that matter), who was allowed to bring us loaves of bread, if we happened to have the money to pay for them. Few of us ever did have it. Into one of these loaves our negro friend often placed the morning newspaper - rolled up into a lump not bigger than a pigeon's egg. So we got the news.
"They would hang me in a minute", said the old colored man, "were they to find this out" - and I think he was correct.
These newspapers denied everything - but between the lines we could discern the truth. We found out that the great commander had gone clear through Rebeldom, and had taken Savannah. That was the blow that broke the Rebellion's back sure enough.
We were often bootless and sockless, and blanketless, we prisoners in Columbia. We looked little like the Federal officers we were. We were eight hundred then, and we suffered from hunger, and from cold. I had almost no garments at all. 1 found I could sleep best during the day when the sun shone, as it occasionally did, and then the only way to keep warm at night was to walk about the prison pen.
One night while pacing up and down, 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 of the plan, and when daylight came and my comrades had left the little tent, I crept in, covered myself tip in the straw and finished the song. I read it first to Major Marshall of my regiment, and he asked to show it to another friend. This friend proved to be a Lieutenant Rockwell, member of the prison glee club which was led by Major Isett. There were good voices in that club, I want to tell you! All swelldom of Columbia, men and women, used to come and climb upon the guard's platform "to hear the yankees sing". The club sang upon the steps of an old frame building inside the prison yard, and we prisoners in our rags stood in front by hundreds, an appreciative audience. No objections were made to any kind of songs, however loyal, if only the club interspersed them with the "Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Dixie".
One afternoon a new song (about Sherman) was announced from the platform.
Lieutenant Rockwell, without my knowledge, had written music for my verses. Everybody listened, everybody cheered! It was repeated, and repeated, and they cheered again, and again. I hear that cheering still, and 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 in Columbia 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. Prisoners who could write well made money by copying it handsomely for others.
Shortly, Lieutenant Tower, a prisoner with a wooden leg - and that 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 it had been in the prison pen. It was sung everywhere; first to this music, and then to that; and none of the music was very good.
I had tried escaping from my bondage several times, only to be recaptured and brought back. Once, when out for several days, I donned a Rebel uniform and entered the Rebel army, being present with it at the terrible battle of Atlanta; and I was near to the spot where General McPherson was killed. In the midst of the fight I was discovered and very nearly paid the penalty of my daring with my life. Only an accident saved me from being shot or hung. What that accident was, was described in detail some years since in the Atlantic Monthly. On the 17th of February, 1865, I tried it again and got away. When I came North I found all the soldiers singing "Sherman's March to the Sea", and with it Mr. Work's "Marching Through Georgia".
A music journal said that nearly a million copies of my song had been sold by 1866. It has to an extent been selling ever since.
I gave the song for publication to R. M. Higgins, of Chicago.
"If it turns out well", he said, "you will hear from me". I had not much money in those days, and with the plaudits of the song ringing in my ears, I went home wondering what I should do with all my expected wealth when I should hear from Mr. Higgins. I heard at last - and he sent me just five dollars!
His plea was that all the other publishers had stolen the song and set it to all sorts of music, and that be had made no money from it. I think he may have told the truth. Thirteen different music publishers printed the song in some shape or another. 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 public journals. Rossiter Johnson included it in his collection of "Single Famous Poems", and General Sherman put it in his "Memoirs".
It is a popular delusion that the march to the sea commenced only with the fall of Atlanta. In all his battles of the hundred days - Ringgold, Resaca, Kenesaw, Atlanta, and the rest - Sherman ever had his eye on the Georgia coast. The General told me that himself in after days, and declared that my geography of the march was right. The march to the sea commenced at the battle of Chattanooga.
When the great General took 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 at the head of his victorious army. He liked the verses, sent for me, and gave me a provisional position on his staff. In a few days he sent me with important secret dispatches to President Lincoln at Washington, and put among the papers a recommendation that I be appointed to the Regular Army. Ill health, in consequence of my suffering in prison, prevented my acceptance; but later, showing his gratitude, - a quality that belonged to his nature, - 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.
SHERMAN'S MARCH TO THE SEA.
Our camp fires shone bright on the mountains
That frowned on the river below,
While we stood by our guns in the morning
And eagerly watched for the foe -
When a rider came out from the darkness
That hung over mountain and tree,
And shouted, "Boys, up and be ready,
For Sherman will march to the sea."
Then cheer upon cheer for bold Sherman
Went up from each valley and glen,
And the bugles re-echoed the music
That came from the lips of the men.
For we knew that the stars in our banner
More bright in their splendor would be,
And that blessings from Northland would greet us
When Sherman marched down to the sea.
Then forward, boys, forward to battle,
We marched on our dangerous way,
And we stormed the wild hills of Resaca,-
God bless those who fell on that day,-
Then Kenesaw, dark in its glory,
Frowned down on the flag of the free,
But the East and the West bore our standards
And Sherman marched on to the sea.
Still onward we pressed, till our banners
Swept out from Atlanta's grim walls,
And the blood of the patriot dampened
The soil where the traitor flag falls;
But we paused not to weep for the fallen
Who slept by each river and tred,
Yet we twined them a wreath of the laurel
As Sherman marched down to the sea.
O, proud was our army that morning
That stood where the pine darkly towers,
When Sherman said: "Boys, you are weary,
This day fair Savannah is ours."
Then sang we a song for our chieftain
That echoed o'er river and lea,
And the stars in our banner shone brighter
When Sherman marched down to the sea.
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Iowa Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Iowa Commandery, MOLLUS. 1898. War Sketches and Incidents, as Related by Companions of the Iowa Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Published by the Commandery, Volume 1, Des Moines: The Kenyon Press 1893, pgs.393-400.
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