October 1864

The Battle at Allatoona Pass, Georgia: Henry Rifles, Signal Flags, and a Famous Hymn

On October 5, 1864, Federal and Confederate forces struggled for control of Allatoona Pass, Georgia. Hard-pressed troops from Illinois and other “western” states held until a relief column drove away their attackers. The battle would remain largely a footnote in the war’s history but for the important role of some Federal armament and the popularity of a hymn inspired by the fight.

The battle
Following William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September 1864 the Confederate army of Gen. John B. Hood was reduced to attacking Federal supply lines, hoping to draw out small forces that might be defeated, and to seriously disrupt Sherman’s access to food and ammunition. Surprising his opponent, Hood was initially successful, destroying miles of important railroad track. By the time Hood ordered the capture of the supply depot at Allatoona Pass and the destruction of a nearby railroad bridge, Sherman was on the move against him.

On October 5 a Federal force of just over two thousand, about one-half of them Illinoisans of the 12th, 50th, 57th, and 93rd infantry regiments, defended the pass, ringed with defensive trenches and other works. Confederates mustered an estimated three thousand men to attempt capture of the position. The rebel commander, Gen. Samuel G. French, first called upon his opponent, Gen. John M. Corse, to prevent the needless shedding of blood by surrendering. Corse refused.

Powerful Confederate attacks drove Allatoona’s defenders from their outer positions into a fort at the summit and threatened them with capture. A special feature of the action was the presence in the 7th Illinois of about 190 men equipped with Henry rifles capable of rapidly firing sixteen shots without requiring a reload of the magazine.

Sherman, determined to hold his supply station and preserve the railroad bridge, sent Corse messages by signal flag – “Sherman is moving in force. Hold Out,” “General Sherman says hold fast,” “We are coming,” and “Tell Allatoona hold on. General Sherman says he is working hard for you.” It was a near-run thing. Corse and his men held on, awaiting relief from Sherman. As they did so, the Henry rifles belched an estimated 31,000 rounds of ammunition—about 160 per man. The rates of killed and wounded on both side were horrendous—25% for the Confederates and 32% for the defenders.

Men of the 7th Illinois ever after believed that they and their special weapons (which they had purchased using their own funds) had changed history. As one recalled at a regimental reunion, “But for” their regiment and its special weapons, “the Union flag would have gone down in humiliation on those hills that day, and Sherman’s contemplated march to the sea that year would have been defeated… The importance of the issue then and there involved has never, and never can be exaggerated.”

Battlefield to Sunday school meeting
The small but very sharp fight at Allatoona likely would have remained a footnote in the war’s history to all but those who participated in it but for a chance meeting at a Sunday school convention held in Rockford, Illinois. The dramatic story of the garrison’s relief following the wig-wagging of messages by signal flag inspired a hymn that would sweep the nation.

At the April 1870 Winnebago County Sunday School Convention, Daniel W. Whittle recounted the defense of Allatoona. Whittle, who had served during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign on the staff of Gen. Oliver O. Howard, dramatically described Sherman sending a message during the fight reading “Hold the fort; I am coming.” For Whittle that day in Georgia was “an illustration of the inspiration derived by the Christian from the thoughts of Christ as our commander and of His coming to our relief.”

Whittle’s story proved an inspiration to one member of the audience, Philip P. Bliss, attending the convention as a vocalist. According to Whittle, on the day following the convention in Rockford the two men conducted a meeting in Chicago. There Bliss wrote out a chorus and sang for the first time a song inspired by 1864 events at Allatoona he had heard described just the day before, calling for the audience to join in the chorus:

Ho, my comrades, see the signal,
Waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing,
Victory is nigh.
“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”
Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By thy grace we will.”

See the mighty host advancing,
Satan leading on,
Mighty men around us falling,
Courage almost gone!

See the glorious banner waving,
Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s name we’ll triumph,
Over every foe.

Fierce and long the battle rages,
But our help is near,
Onward comes our great Commander,
Cheer, my comrades, cheer.
Chorus“Hold the Fort” was published that same year in Chicago as sheet music and soon took the country by storm. It proved to have international appeal as well, when Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey introduced it in England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1874 “Hold the Fort” was published in the popular hymnal Gospel Songs. In April of that year Bliss and Whittle, while travelling in north Georgia, visited Kennesaw Mountain. There they saw remains of the signal station from which Sherman’s messages had been sent by signal flag and, in the distance, Allatoona itself. The two knelt and sang “Hold the Fort,” Bliss later calling the event “one of his blessed days.”

William T. Sherman, credited with authorship of the phrase that inspired the hymn, apparently did not learn of “Hold the Fort” until 1875. On June 22 of that year he wrote to William E. Dodge, a member of the committee responsible for publishing Gospel Hymns, that he was “glad to know for the first time that one of hymns of Messrs Moody & Sankey was founded on the defence of Alatoona Ga.” He added, “I do not think I used the words—’Hold the Fort’; that however was the duty of the garrison and they did it nobly—Manfully.”

Interested in learning more?
The 1864 Battle of Allatoona Pass is well covered in a new study: Brad Butkovich, The Battle of Allatoona Pass: Civil War Skirmish in Bartow County, Georgia (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2014). A detailed account of the hymn and its history is: Paul J. Scheips, Hold the Fort!: The Story of a Song from the Sawdust Trail to the Picket Line Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology 9 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971), which can be accessed at . To hear “Hold the Fort” visit .