By Dean Nelson
First published in Connecticut Explored Fall 2008.
Mid evening on a glorious Friday this past April, having rough measured the Henry Clay Work monument on Middletown’s South Green, I checked my sketch notes, snapped back the Stanley steel tape, and headed to my car. Nearby, on the sidewalk in front of the Methodist church, stood a small gathering of folks who perhaps were unwinding from a hard week at the office, several with open containers of package-store beverages. One wryly observed to me and his companions, ‘It won’t fit in your car.” I explained I was writing an article about Henry Clay Work, gesturing toward his monument. I got blank stares; not a hint of recognition. “You all know that famous Civil War song ‘Marching Through Georgia’?” I asked. Their faces lit up with smiles; some nodded enthusiastically. I added that this great Union victory song was written by Henry Clay Work, born a few blocks away, and the monument 40 yards distant was one of two in Connecticut to honor him.
The epiphany suggested by this and other impromptu history mini-encounters I experienced while writing this story is that engagement with Connecticut’s Civil War musical hero should invariably lead with his famous achievement, “Marching Through Georgia,” a song known to many, and end with claiming Connecticut as the birthplace of the genius behind it. Connecticut Governor Frank Weeks’s (1909-1911) accolades summed it up best at the Hartford dedication of a monument to Work, reported in The Hartford Courant, June 19, 1909:
Every war throughout the ages has had its bard to sing of its brave men and valorous deeds…!Work rendered a service that would entitle him to be called the chief singer of the Civil War…. We have come together today to do belated honor to Henry Clay Work, one of Connecticut’s noble sons, whose life work did so much to keep burning brightly the flame of patriotism during the four dark years when the fate of this nation trembled in the balance.
The Work family moved from Middletown in 1835 to Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, where Henry’s arch-abolitionist father, Alanson, devoted his energies to helping enslaved persons escape to freedom. In 1841, Alanson and two associates were arrested in Missouri and imprisoned; he served three and a half years of a 12-year sentence and was pardoned in 1845 by the Missouri governor with the “express condition…that said Work returns to the State of Connecticut, his former residence, with his wife, his children, and settles himself there.” Henry returned to the town of his birth at age 14, attended common school, and began to learn the printer’s trade. The Works moved to Hartford two years later, and Henry got a job at Geer’s printing office, rooming above it “…where he had a small, wheezy melodeon on which he practiced his music.” In 1857, at age 25, Henry returned to Illinois, working principally as a printer in Chicago and selling occasional musical compositions. In 1862 he affiliated with the prestigious Chicago musical publishing firm Root and Cady and wrote music and lyrics for them at a prolific pace.
Work’s “Marching Through Georgia” debuted to wild acclaim in February 1865, less than two months before the end of the war. Overnight, it became the Union’s victory song above all others. It was perfect for right-shoulder-shift parade cadences and clanging tin-cup toasts. Mark Twain initially trounced the year-old song in his April 24, 1866, Sacramento Daily Union column: “The popular song nuisance follows us here [Hawaii]…. last and most dreadful of all, came that calamity of ‘When We Were Marching Through Georgia.'” Twain changed his tune, though, after an 1879 Chicago fete for General (and. recent president) Ulysses S. Grant. He described the emotion-charged scene in a letter to friend William D. Howells:
…in the midst of it all somebody struck up “When we were marching through Georgia.” Well, you should have heard the thousand voices lift that chorus and seen the tears stream down. If I live a hundred years I shan’t ever forget these things, nor be able to talk about them…
General William Tecumseh Sherman is said to have been plagued by the song so often and for so long that he “heard it in supreme disgust.” Late in life, residing in Bath, New York, Work commented on it in a letter, now in the Library of Congress, published in Richard S. Hill’s “The Mysterious Chord of Henry Clay Work” (Notes, Music Library Association, 1953):
…. it is really surprising to find that I have excited so much curiosity and interest… My connection with “Marching Through Georgia” seems to be the cause…the “Camp Fire” of the G.A.R…. took place not long since, on which occasion (to please soldiers and citizen, and thoughtless of consequences) I sang the song in the Opera House before an audience of several hundred – something I never did before in my life. Since then I have been compelled to repeat it at almost every social gathering I have attended.
Work wrote lyrics and music for some 70 songs over a career spanning 30 years, covering social issues of gender, ethnicity, equality, temperance, religion, and nature. Many of his military and patriotic compositions stand out from thousands of songs of his era as most memorable to this day. “Kingdom Coming! (The Year of Jubilo)” (1862), written in Work’s approximation of a black dialect, celebrated the liberation of slaves occasioned by the approach of de Linkum gumboats.” “Grafted into the Army” (1862) parodies recruitment and conscription and asks “Oh, what if the ducky should up and die; now they’ve grafted him into the Army.”
You can hear Work’s compositions on several Web sites. The Chicago Historical Society’s “Civil War Jukebox” (www.chicagohs.org/wetwithblood/multimedia.htm#jukebox) features a splendid rendition of “Grafted…” and “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” (1862), a song about tough-minded Union women who promise to beat the rebels if their men can’t. This song’s striking sheet-music cover depicts and angry swarm of ladies brandishing brooms in pursuit of a retreating foe. The cover of “Babylon Has Fallen” (1863) depicts seven United States Colored Troops (the war Department’s official designation for African-American troops during that period) poised to loose a musketry volley at a fleeing rebel officer; “We’sagwine to shoot; Look out dar; Babylon is fallen!”
Come Home Father” (1864) became a front-running temperance song. The song’s lyrics are seeped with anguish as they tell of daughter Mary’s night-long plea for father to leave the bar to tend to a dying son at home. Work’s friend and employer, C. M. Cady of Root & Cady, recalled, “His songs sold so largely that the surplus revenue derived from his copyrights, judiciously invested, realized a snug little fortune.” Work alluded to his new wealth in ?Dad’s A Millionaire” (1867): “…the fortune’s come, we’ve waitd for so long….”
Work’s most productive period spanned the war era from 1861 to 1866. A decade later, he resumed his published agreement with Cady, who had moved to New York City after the disastrous 1871 Chicago fire put Root & Cady out of business. Work flourished again with “Grandfather’s Clock” (1876), telling of the faithful bond between man and mechanism, “But it stopp’d short-never to go again-When the old man died.” In “Sequel to ‘Grandfather’s Clock’” (1878), the brass works get melted down and the mahogany case is splintered as kindling. George Birdseye’s 1879 review of Potter’s American Monthly declared”…’Grandfather’s Clock’…is without doubt the most popular song in this country, much to the surprise of its composer for a single song.”
Work’s litany of family misfortunes, though, most particularly the untimely deaths (whether by accidents or illnesses is not on record) of two sisters and a brother, the loss of his own infants, son Willie and daughter Clara, and the death of his teenaged son Waldo from consumption, deeply influenced his work. The losses weighed heavily on him all his life and gave mournful cast to a majority of his songs. Again and again in his lyrics, children die, soldiers die, ships sink, love goes unreturned, poor folks starve, and the lonely remain so. Work, a deeply religious man, sought solace and sonsolation for himself and society through his songs. Victorian America embraced such sentimental conceits.
After their daughter Clara’s death in 1868, his wife Sarah, became mentally ill. At the same time, they lost their music fortune on risky New Jersey real estate gambits. Sarah did not recover and returned to her family’s home in Greenwich Village, Massachusetts. She and Henry lived separate lives until her death one year before his.
Work died in Hartford in 1884, at age 52, while visiting his mother, Aurelia, and is buried in Hartford’s Spring Grove Cemetery. The song “Come to me Sunbeam, I’m Dying” writted in 1879, hinted at the heart disease that would kill him five years later: “Even now the pale angel with icy hand seizes the heart that throbb’d along with your own.” Illness clearly was on his mind in “Come, Take Your Medicine!” (1879)
The approach of the 20th century brought a Civil War monument-building frenzy. The idea for Hartford’s tribute to Work (and, by association. General Sherman) sprang out of an 1894 New York City dinner party attended by the late General Sherman’s friends, as reported in the New York Times. It was envisioned as “…a granite pedestal with bas-reliefs in bronze…representing war scenes….a bust of the author…erected on the City Park, south of the State Capitol…” Fifteen years later, on May 11, 1909, the monument committee “appeared before the [city] park board to ask that a site be given to them….” But realizing how much more time city permission might consume, with outcome uncertain, they selected instead the Work family burial plot in Spring Grove Cemetery. Just five weeks later came the dedication, complete with a parade.
The Hartford Courant reported:
… an impatient veteran dropped out of the line and came back to the band leader and made his request, which was in the minds of many:—”Give us Marching Through Georgia; I can keep step to that.” As it was first started the canes of the old soldiers went up into the air and they stepped off with a new life, singing the familiar strains.
The monument’s sculptor was Louis A. Gudebrod (1872-1961) of Meriden, Connecticut, who attended the Yale School of Fine Arts and studied under Augustus St. Gaudens. Unhappily, Gudebrod’s bronze bust of Work disappeared from Work’s Spring Grove monument long ago.
The Hartford initiative inspired in 1907 an “agitation” for a second Work memorial, this one for his 1832 birthplace in Middletown. The Mill Street house still stood and does today. (It was also the birthplace of revered Middletown politician Charles R. Lewis, who lived from 1831 to 1895.) The city graciously assigned a small plot for the monument at the juncture of Mill and South Main streets, not 100 yards from the house. The deaths of successive committee chairs delayed the project; sculptor Gudebrod “…offered to make a duplicate bust for the local monument,” and on September 9, 1917, the Middletown monument was dedicated, capping a 10-year project. Other than Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale and “war poet” Henry Clay Work, what other Connecticut historical figures were ever commemorated by two privately subscribed monuments?
Later, at an unknown date, the Middletown tribute was relocated to South Green to join the city’s Civil War monument. Both were cleaned and conserved in 1997.
Work’s ultimate Yankee victory song was one of few national patriotic airs arising directly from historical events of the war. It was inspired by Sherman’s campaign “to make Georgia howl.” After the forced evacuation of civilian Atlantans, Sherman had his soldiers torch much of the city. Against that fiery backdrop, the Union army(62,000 strong) in mid-November 1864 launched its destructive march to the sea, five weeks later taking the port city of Savannah, which had been abandoned by Confederate forces who escaped after a short siege. Sherman estimated “…the damage done….at $100,000,000; at least $20,000,000 of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder is simply waste and destruction…it brought the sad realities of war home to those who supported it.”
It seems the Union army felt the ends justified the means; might made right, and victors wrote the dominant histories. However, some Southern heritage Web sites, particularly that of the John K. McNeill Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #674, see it differently, detailing “Sherman’s atrocities and war crimes” and suggesting that the campaign did “more to divide this country, up to the present time” than any other episode in American history. Work’s song to this day evokes a much different response among many in Dixie, as “old times there are not forgotten.” A wonderful 1975 record album “Who Shall Rule This American Nation?” featuring 15 of Work’s best songs curiously omitted “Marching Through Georgia.” The jacket’s brilliant musicological essay by Jon Newsome, then head of the Library of Congress’s Music Division, Reference Section, speculated, “While there is no indication that Work ever felt any embarrassment at having composed this song, which cheerfully celebrates one of the darkest episodes of-the war—he may have wished to be remembered by something else.”
Work’s historically popular songs, and those of most of his contemporaries, get no air time now (or even much exposure at Civil War-era living history programs) because they are often doubly condemned by their use of 1860s terms that even in explained context might seem hurtful. Work and other period song writers often used then-commonplace racial descriptors for the persons brought to life in their verses, accompanied by stereotyping dialog and dialect that are unacceptable to modem ears. Though the notes are yet heard, the lyrics of Work’s rich and resonant American musical genre have largely gone silent. Hartford Courant columnist Frank Harris IH reminded us this past winter in a discussion of contemporary race issues: “One wrong bad word can send us tripping and stumbling over the thin race line….it is a line of no return.” Rightly so, broadcast and print media today appropriately go to considerable lengths to avoid offending audiences with racially objectionable words.
But history-minded folks looking for the original lyrics can find (with just a little effort on Internet search engines) unexpurgated period musical experiences. Benjamin Robert Tubb’s spectacular Web site, Public Domain Music (www.pdmusic.org) features hundreds of period American popular songs; the site even provides complete lyrics that a viewer wishing to enrich his experience and deepen his understanding of the impact of Work’s words can sing against an audio “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” of pianos and synthesizers in a kind of “cyber karaoke.” The Camp Lincoln String Band at www.camplincolnband.com presents for listeners’ edification and enjoyment 19 Civil War songs from their new CD Counting Stitches, including “Marching Through Georgia.”
The 150th anniversary of the American CM War is fast upon us. There will be a burgeoning revival of interest in its every conceivable aspect. Work’s oeuvre, difficult as it is to contemporary sensibilities, will—and should—certainly receive renewed scrutiny. Perhaps a signature project of a Connecticut Civil War Sesqui-Centennial Commission would be replacement of Work’s missing Spring Grove bust. Though a commercial revival of Work’s songs may or may not be in order, the Sesqui-Centennial offers an opportunity to reexamine and newly appreciate his songs for the way they captured the joys, sorrows, and aspirations of the Civil War and post-bellum eras.