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Sherman’s March to the Sea

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Mark Zelesky's arrangement of Byers' poem was based on J. O. Rockwell's music. "Sherman's march to the sea" by J. O. Rockwell. New York: Wm. Hall & Son, 1865.

The following blog post is by Mark Zelesky, recent graduate of the School of Library and Information Science, Louisiana State University.

During our internship, my colleagues and I in the Junior Fellows internship discovered several items that highlight the diversity of materials collected by the Library of Congress. For ten weeks, we processed materials from multiple collections, including the so-called “Communist Collection,” named for the time period in which these items were acquired. This collection included several treasures which we presented at the Junior Fellows exhibit open to members of Congress and Library staff. The Junior Fellows spent several weeks researching these items, poring over old newspapers available online, items in the Rare Book Reading Room, and other online sources, placing the individual items in a larger historical context.

One such discovery was the manuscript of a poem dating back to the Civil War. In 1864, Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers III of the 5th Volunteer Iowa Infantry was imprisoned in Columbia, S.C. when he heard of General Sherman’s successful march across Georgia to Savannah. Inspired by this decisive military operation, Byers wrote five stanzas that celebrated victory and recognized the loss of life. Two stanzas are excerpted below.

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.”

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,
We slept by each river and tree;
Yet we twined them a wreath of the laurel
As Sherman marched down to the sea.

According to Byers’s autobiography, With Fire and Sword, the original manuscript of this poem was smuggled out of the prison camp by an exchanged prisoner named Tower with the assistance of an artificial leg, who “carried the song in this wooden limb through the lines to our soldiers in the North, where it was sung everywhere and with demonstration.” (p. 158) The song eventually made it to General Sherman himself, which prompted him to send for Byers after he had escaped from the Columbia prison. “ “Our boys shall all sing this song,” he said; “and as for you, I shall give you a position on my staff.” “ (p. 175) In the final days of the war, he traveled as a messenger to General Grant’s base in Wilmington, relaying news of Sherman’s campaign across the Carolinas.

For a presentation at the Junior Fellows exhibit in the Jefferson building, I arranged the music for what instruments we had available, much like a prison camp musician would do. This trio for horn, viola, and alto saxophone (with dramatic interpretation) showcases the ability of these similarly-ranged instruments to blend their timbres. Our performance can be viewed on YouTube. Performers include Terri Abney, dramatic reading; myself, alto saxophone; Erin Terwilliger, viola; and Megan Martino, horn.

Comments (3)

  1. Bravo to all the Junior Fellows for a fine performance, and a productive summer.

  2. Thank you for making history come alive.

  3. Thank you

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