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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Origin of "Sherman's March to the Sea"

by Gordon Thorsby

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 marchin' through Georgia.

The preceding verse was from Marchin’ Through Georgia, by Henry Clay Work in 1865 and it sold millions of copies. People from the South were insulted by its words, especially when anyone witnessed the destruction that the march delivered to the countryside along the southeast. It was also not the original song.

On February 17, 1865 Generals O. O. Howard and John Logan rode into Columbia, SC at the head of the XV Corps. Howard took command of the city and torching of government officials’ residences and public buildings were already in motion. Sherman reached his headquarters and sat down to relax. He had just returned from a tour of portions of the city when an emaciated man on foot approached him and handed him a slip of paper. Staffers did not know their exchange of words. Now alone, Sherman read what was on the note given to him. Completing reading the contents, he smiled and was impressed by the lines of a poem “Sherman’s March to the Sea” the man had written. The man he met was Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers who had just been freed from the nearby prison called Camp “Sorghum.”

Samuel Byers (1840-1935) started a career as a lawyer in Nelson, IA just two days after the surrender at Ft Sumter. "Marsh" was 21 when he enlisted in the 5th Iowa Co. B on 6/24/1861 as Corporal. By 4/23/1863, he was promoted 1st Lieutenant of the company. The Fifth participated in battles including Iuka, Corinth, and fights leading up to and including Vicksburg. It was at Tunnel Hill on 11/25 that Byers was captured along with a large number of others in the regiment. The 5th Iowa advanced toward Tunnel Hill where Sherman’s assault failed.

The After Action report stated the following:

… I gave the order to retreat, but the enemy was now upon us demanding our surrender, and I regret to say many of my men were compelled to submit, including most of the color company and color guard. The colors also fell into their hands. Those who escaped did so through a shower of balls, and yells from the enemy to halt. I went into the action with 227 men and 21 officers, including field and staff. My loss is 2 commissioned officers wounded and 8 missing, including major and adjutant; 2 enlisted men killed, 20 wounded, and 74 missing. Total killed, wounded, and missing, 106.

He and his fellow Iowan prisoners were moved around to five different prisons over the next 14 months. Byers was transferred to an officers’ prison in Charleston until an outbreak of yellow fever and as Sherman’s approaching army necessitated movement. Camp “Sorghum” in Columbia was nothing but a 5 acre field, an outline of a prison camp with a dead line made of wood planks. The 1400 imprisoned officers were fed a dreadful diet of cornmeal and sorghum syrup. The potential for escape was easy and the prison became a sieve for prison breakouts.

In the previous December, Byers recorded his tribute when he heard of the march by Sherman while in prison and set it to music sung by the prisoner's glee club. As the blue columns were approaching Columbia, prisoners were about to be transferred to a nearby asylum out of the state. The song was hidden to prevent confiscation while Byers and other men hid in the attic of the main building during the prison was emptied of POW's and then they made their escape. When the invading column entered the capital, soldiers in Sherman's army were shocked at the escaped prisoners' condition and appearance.

The story of the poem that Byers wrote went eighteenth century viral in the papers and in sheet music. In the North, A million copies of sheet music were sold by different publishers (set to several tunes), and yet Byers received only $5 total from his work. He did continue writing and went on to publish a large number of books, articles and poems, many about the war. In 1865, when Work published his alternative piece, it became even more well known, but Sherman stated that he preferred Byers’ original poem.

In 1869, Byers married Margaret Gilmour of Detroit, MI, went on writing and served as consul to Switzerland and Italy. He explained that “Two squares a day, a good book, a little writing, some mild form of exercise gave the keen-eyed warrior-poet more than the average share of longevity. " Major Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers gathered 92 of his friends on his ninety-second birthday party at a Los Angeles restaurant. He was the last surviving member of the Fifth Iowa Infantry and the last of General Sherman's staff. He passed away in 1935 of pneumonia at 95 in Los Angeles, outliving his wife and two children.

Byers’ poem is following the Sources for this article.

Sources :

Sherman’s March through The Carolinas, Barrett, John G., University of North Carolina Press, 1956.

The Morning Herald Newspaper - Hagerstown, Washington Co., Maryland - Friday, May 26, 1933.

From the description of S. H. M. Byers sheet music, 1865. (Georgia Historical Society). WorldCat record id: 455403912.


Anderson, George L., ed. A Petition Regarding the Conditions in C.S.M. Prison at Columbia, S.C.: Addressed to the Confederate Authorities. Lawrence: University of Kansas Libraries, 1962.

-University of Iowa Press Library.

-Sherman Thomas Kirk.


To the Tune “Marchin’ Through Georgia”


by Major S.H.M. Byers

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 wearisome way;

And we stormed the wild hills of Resaca,--

God bless those who fell on that day--

Then Kennesaw, 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,

We slept by each river and tree;

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 over river and lea,

And the stars in our banner shown brighter

When Sherman marched down to the sea.

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