Democratic Thinker: Hold the Fort

Weekly Story

A Civil War signal message saves Sherman’s March to the Sea and inspires a hymn.

The message crept into a proverb; it inspired an immortal hymn; and General Sherman said of it that “it was worth more than a million dollars to the North.”

“Hold the Fort—I Am Coming.”


IN a new made grave in the pretty little cemetery at Point Marion, Pennsylvania, lies buried a U. S. signalman who sent one of the most famous messages in history. The message crept into a proverb; it inspired an immortal hymn; and General Sherman said of it that “it was worth more than a million dollars to the North.” Sergeant Allen D. Frankenberry, U. S. signalman, wig-wagged the message on that October day in 1864, “Hold the fort; I am coming—(signed) Sherman” ; and that other dispatch of even greater practical importance, “Move your command to Allatoona. Hold the place. I will help you—(signed) Sherman.” The dispatches were directed to the fighting general, John M. Corse. Around them history and literature cling.

Sergeant A. D. Frankenberry was the last of a historic group—the group that sent the messages, received the messages, obeyed the messages and and made them into literature. Sherman, the ideal commander, Corse, the fighting brigadier, P. P. Bliss, the songwriter, who wrote the most famous of all his hymns on the message, the hymn that Ira D. Sankey sang around the world, “Hold the Fort, for I Am Coming,”—all are gone. Gone too are Sergeant Frankenberry’s associates in the signal station on Kenesaw Mountain on those three trying days of October 3, 4, and 5, 1864. When Sergeant Frankenberry’s comrades of Will F. Stewart Post, G. A. R., of Uniontown, Pa., gave him a soldier’s funeral a while ago it seemed that then a chapter of Sherman’s Georgia campaign was finally closed—and not till then.

For Frankenberry was a part of the chapter. As Sherman said, he was “essential” in the sending of the messages. His eye read the answering signals 18 miles away. He interpreted them. The little ragged flag shown in the illustration, gray-white with its black center, and bullet-torn, waved all the signals and took all the answers. Sherman had Hood baffled in September. He had taken Atlanta and was dreaming of his March to the Sea—more than dreaming of it; getting ready for it; getting ready to destroy Atlanta, cut loose from his base and “cleave the Confederacy in twain,” if Grant willed; getting ready for one of the most hazardous campaigns in military history. With this idea uppermost, he had collected immense stores at Allatoona Pass—4,000 cattle in the neighborhood, a million rations in the station at Allatoona, besides clothing an ammunition.

Kenesaw mountain is midway between Atlanta and Allatoona. The signal operators at Kenesaw, where Sergeant Frankenberry was in charge, notified General Sherman at Atlanta of the breaking of his communications by the Confederates. This was on the evening of October 3. The next day Sherman learned of the movement of French’s Division of Hood’s army against Allatoona. And he knew why; the Confederates would make a desperate fight for the stores. Allatoona was only lightly garrisoned. Only a brigade defended the station with the stores and the little redoubt (the “Fort” of the famous telegram). Then Sherman signaled to General Corse at Rome “the message that made history”: “Move your command to Allatoona. Hold the place. I will help you.”

Signalman Frankenberry received this message and sent it over “the heads of the Southern hosts” eighteen miles to Allatoona Pass. Thence it was forwarded to Corse at Rome. Later Sherman signaled “the message that made poetry.” Over the valley to Allatoona, over the heads of the Confederates, went this message waved by Frankenberry’s little flag—the message of romance, the message of Bliss’s hymn: “Hold the fort; I am coming—Sherman.”

Corse threw part of his force into Allatoona that night, all he could get in, over the railroad the Confederates had torn up in gaps and which he had to rebuild. It is a mad race to Allatoona. Of his 4,000 men he had 1,000 there in time. Sherman reached the station on Kenesaw mountain from Atlanta about eight o’clock on the morning of the 5th. Shortly after, the desperate battle of Allatoona began. For two hours Frankenberry’s signal operators waved in vain for news of the battle. At 10:30 A. M. they got this glad answer: “We hold out; General Corse is here.” Until this message was received from Allatoona Sherman was not sure that Corse had gotten there. The battle raged furiously. Corse’s force was being besieged by 6000 of French’s men. No more word did the anxious watchers on Kenesaw get of the battle until near the end. They heard the roar of the cannon and through their glasses got glimpses of the charging Confederates. Sherman waited for the news, restlessly moving to and fro, now taking a look through his glass, now talking to members of his staff or turning to the signal officers. He had hurried reenforcements forward, and all he could do was to watch and wait. The little flag waved and waved but could get no responses from the heights at Allatoona. The cloud of smoke obscured the signal station there most of the time. This message was received in the afternoon: “We still hold out. Corse is wounded.” Another message said: “We are all right so far.” Then the battle became fiercer than ever. The smoke cloud lowered and shut out the view. The battle of Allatoona must be fought out before the commander-in-chief on Kenesaw could have another word of news.

It was fought out as the world knows at a fearful cost. Altogether Corse had 2000 men and lost over 700 in killed, wounded and captured. The Confederate loss was nearly 1,200. All day Corse held out against the overwhelming odds. Wounded and wounded again and seeing his dead and wounded piled in heaps, he still held firm. One shot rendered him unconscious for forty minutes. When he recovered he heard the cry, “Cease firing!” and thought his officers were arranging to surrender. Pulling himself to his feet he urged all around him to hold on, that Sherman’s re-enforcements would soon he there. They responded, the officers setting a splendid example of bravery to the men. And so they “held the fort.” Marvelous deeds of valor were performed on both sides. A Confederate major deliberately gave his life in an effort to destroy the stores. When it was known that the attack must fail, he seized a firebrand and rushed toward the storehouses through an open space swept by the Union infantry. He fell pierced by many balls. The re-enforcements rushed by Sherman were approaching to cut off French’s column; whereupon he withdrew. Hut he had been repulsed at every point by Corse’s men, and was practically beaten by them.

The watchers on Kenesaw guessed from the lull in the firing and the rift in the smoke clouds that the battle was practically over about 4 o’clock. The little flag, in the hands of signal. man Robert J. Walker, was waving frantically for news. General Sherman was standing near Walker. All were looking toward Allatoona; when suddenly a banner of white broke out on the heights, the familiar banner with the center of black, the “talking flag” of the signal corps. Walker began taking the message it was sending. He got it down, wrote it out from the cipher and handed it exultingly to Sherman. The General laughed; the strained look came out of his face as he read the message from General Corse—famous, too, in military history—picturesque, profane, and altogether beautiful: “I am short a cheek bone and an ear but can whip all hell yet.” The General only said, “I knew Corse would hold Allatoona.”

Tremendous consequences turned on the delivery of the cipher messages to General Corse. Latter-day historians more than agree with Sherman that they were worth a million dollars to the North. They speculate that they may have saved the country. If Corse had not reached Allatoona or had lost it, Sherman’s army could not have been provisioned and equipped for its march to the sea. The march might have been indefinitely delayed, the Confederacy might not have been “cleft in twain.” The South might have held out; European recognition might have come, and the Southern ports been opened. The course of history might have—but it wasn’t. Signalman Frankenberry and his associates on Kenesaw mountain those three October days attended strictly to business. Their work was especially commended by Sherman in his letter to the War Department; and that is honor enough for most men.

Frankenberry cast his lot with the growing little town of Point Marion, contented to remain there and become one of its first citizens—burgess of the town, justice of the peace, bank director, successful merehent. When he died in the Army and Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, whither he had gone for his health, and was brought back for burial, the little town went into mourning. Frankenberry had the soldier spirit always. He was usually an attendant at the G. A. R. National Encampments. There he met his old comrades of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, many of them prominent in professional and business life in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, in the cities of the West, and as far away as Mexico City. He was honored by them and truly beloved, as many letters will show. He served one term as president of the U.S. Veteran Signal Corps Association, presiding at the twenty-fourth annual reunion of the corps in 1899 held at the G. A. R. National Encampment in Philadelphia. The little signal flag was one of his precious possessions until 1902. The sentiment attaching to the flag was deep in his heart. On a Southern trip in 1895 with two army comrades and his son Howard, he showed the soldierly spirit and the poetic temperament in a pretty act of his. Going with his companions to Kenesaw mountain, he located as nearly as he could the spot where he stood thirty-one years before when he sent the famous messages. Then fixing through his telescope the place of the signal station at Allatoona Pass, a signal station no longer, with the little flag he sent the messages over again “for old times’ sake.” On the eve of Memorial Day, 1902, Sergeant Frankenberry turned the signal flag over to Adjutant General Stewart of Pennsylvania. The adjutant general, as custodian, placed it in a case for preservation in the flag room at the capitol. In his communication accompanying the flag Frankenberry wrote: “All messages sent to Allatoona Oct. 3, 4 and 5, 1864, were sent by this flag, and all calls answered with it. Early on the morning of Oct. 6, I took the flag from the staff, and have retained possession of it until the present.” Attached to the flag are the messages to Corse in the original cipher code. So the little flag in its glass case at Harrisburg tells its own story; but the hands that made it speak the famous messages now lie still.

Corse was made a major general for his heroic defense of Allatoona. He became a popular hero. His message to Sherman put him in the lime-light. In the first Cleveland administration he was appointed postmaster of Boston. He died in the nineties. A tablet in the corrider of the Boston postoffice commemorates his services.

Phillip Paul Bliss wrote some of the most famous hymns in the language. He was born at Rome, Pa., in 1833. At thirty he was in Chicago and already famous by the hymns written for the music house of Root & Cady. The Moody and Sankey revivals spread his fame to the ends of the earth. Mr. Sankey sang his hymns to millions in this country and Europe. The hymns have passed into the literature of gospel songs; and their place is permanent. After a test of nearly forty years most of them retain their popularity and power. Mr. Bliss was a born musician as well as a born poet. He had a genius for utilizing passing incidents in the composition of his songs. Here is an instance: Years ago, in the wrecking of a vessel, a lifeboat saved the captain and sixteen sailors, and in abandoning the old wreck the crew were told that there was nothing more to do but to “pull for the shore.” Mr. Bliss spiritualized this in the splendid and inspiring hymn, “Pull for the Shore.” Another of Mr. Bliss’s subjects was drawn from a graphic description Mr. Moody gave of a wreck in the Cleveland harbor. The lower lights of the light-house had gone out, leaving only one, and that but dimly burning. In a wild sea, and with the blackness of night all about him, the pilot made a desperate effort to reach the shore, but he missed the channel and the vessel went to the bottom. The fate of the boat and most of the passengers suggested Mr. Bliss’s beautiful hymn, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.”

The dramatic incidents of Corse’s desperate defense of Allatoona and Sherman’s famous message had long lain fallow in Bliss’s mind as material for a gospel song. Some time in 1871 he set himself to the task of shaping his material, and “Hold the Fort” was born. Mr. Bliss himself was not satisfied with it. It had no great merit either of music or sentiment, he thought. But it “took.” It appealed. It stirred the hearts of the multitude. “Hold the fort” passed into a saying. It stirred the hearts of the multitude. It became the most famous of all his hymns, sung at every camp-fire as well as every revival. It reached its first great pitch of popularity across the sea in the Moody and Sankey revival meetings in Great Britain. In this country it ranked next in popularity only to Mr. Sankey’s “The Ninety and Nine.”

The world was saddened by Mr. Bliss’s death in 1876. He and Mrs. Bliss had been on a Christmas visit to his mother at Rome, and were returning on the fated train that went down with the Ashtabula bridge that wild night of December 29. In that appalling disaster they were among the victims. When the train fell Mr. Bliss escaped through a broken window, but returned to save his wife, and both were lost.

Bliss once said to Mr. Sankey: “I have written better songs than ‘Hold the Fort’ and I hope I shall not be known to the world only as the author of that hymn.” But the world will hardly agree with him that he has written “better” songs. It will rather agree with his old neighbors, who, when a monument was erected to him in Rome, decided that the motto chiseled there should be, “Hold the Fort”—these three words, the cry of a militant religious faith, the faith he sang, and still is singing into the hearts of millions.



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.—Cho.

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

Fierce and long the battle rages,
But our Help is near;
Onward comes our Great Commander,
Cheer, my comrades, cheer!—Cho.


—Alfred M. Claybaugh , Out West Magazine, April 1911.

Column courtesy of Democratic Thinker.

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