The Music of the Civil War – Henry Clay Work

The Music of the Civil War – Henry Clay Work

While driving home this evening, NPR’s All Things Considered did a feature entitled Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War Re-Imagined. The first composer discussed was Connecticut’s own Henry Clay Work.

Born in 1832 in Middletown to an ardent abolitionist father, Work was apprenticed after grade school to Hartford printer Elihu Geer. After making his way to Chicago, he had his first song We’re Coming, Sister Mary published in the late 1850’s. He soon caught the attention of publisher George Root who would later become his collaborator.

Henry Clay Work’s most famous Civil War era song is his 1865 Marching Thro’ Georgia, inspired by General Robert Sherman’s march to the Atlantic. It was a favorite song with the Civil War Union veterans, so much so that Sherman was said to have despised the tune since it was performed every time he made an appearance.

A prolific composer and inventor, Work was left bankrupt after suffering real estate loses in the 1871 Chicago Fire and from property speculation in New Jersey.  He died at the age of 52 while visiting his mother in Hartford and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Detail of Henry Clay Work monument, Spring Grove Cemetery

Detail of Henry Clay Work monument, Spring Grove Cemetery

On June 1, 1909 the citizens of Hartford erected a monument to Henry Clay Work at his grave site. The day’s ceremonies began with the aging veterans of Hartford’s two GAR posts parading down Main Street accompanied by the Governor’s Foot Guard Band. Uninspired by the band master’s choice of tunes, one veteran made his way to the front with a request – “Give us ‘Marching Through Georgia. I can keep step to that.”

And Marching Through Georgia” was given again and again. As it was first started the canes of the old soldiers went up in the air and they stepped off with new life, singing the familiar strains.[1]

After the speeches and songs, a collection was taken up among the crowd to purchase a stone to mark Work’s mother’s unmarked grave.

Listen to a 1907 recording of Marching Thro’ Georgia from the Library of Congress archives


[1] Monument Unveiled to Henry Clay Work. Hartford Courant, June 18, 1909
Ahles, Richard F. Notes on a Civil War Songwriter. Hartford Courant, April 30, 1861