The Story Behind the Hymn – “HOLD THE FORT”
John 14:3 (KJV), “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
Just before [William Tecumseh] Sherman began his infamous march to the sea in 1864, and while his army lay camped in the neighborhood of Atlanta [Georgia] on the 5th of October, the army of Gen. John Bell Hood, in a carefully prepared movement, passed the right flank of Sherman’s army, gained his rear, and commenced the destruction of the railroad leading north, burning blockhouses and capturing the small garrisons along the line.
Sherman’s army was put in rapid motion pursuing Hood, to save the supplies and larger posts, the principal one of which was located at Altoona Pass. General Corse, of Illinois, was stationed there with about fifteen hundred men, Colonel Tourtelotte being second in command. A million and a half rations were stored here and it was highly important that the earthworks commanding the pass and protecting the supplies be held.
Six thousand men under command of General French were detailed by Hood to take the position. The works were completely surrounded and summoned to surrender. Corse refused and a sharp fight commenced. The defenders were slowly driven into a small fort on the crest of the hill. Many had fallen, and the result seemed to render a prolongation of the fight hopeless. At this moment an officer caught sight of a white signal flag far away across the valley, twenty miles distant, upon the top of Kennesaw Mountain. The signal was answered, and soon the message was waved across from mountain to mountain:
“Hold the fort; I am coming. W. T. Sherman.”
Cheers went up; every man was nerved to a full appreciation of the position; and under a murderous fire, which killed or wounded more than half the men in the fort—Corse himself being shot three times through the head, and Tourtelotte taking command, though himself badly wounded—they held the fort for three hours until the advance guard of Sherman’s army came up. French was obliged to retreat.
"Hold the Fort!" was written in 1870 by Philip Paul Bliss, an evangelist and composer, after he heard the story of the Union defense of Allatoona Pass told in a Sunday School class. The use of signal flags to send messages from Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta to the threatened garrison holding Allatoona Pass was held forth as an example of how Jesus Christ signals Christians to hold strong to their beliefs, for "He is coming."
The meeting attended by Bliss took place in Rockford, Illinois, on a Thursday and Friday, April 28-29, 1870. Among the speakers was Major Daniel Webster Whittle, who told how on the day before the battle, General William Tecumseh Sherman had sent messages by signal flag to urge the garrison at Allatoona to hold out.
Whittle remembered the message as saying,
"Hold the Fort; I am coming!"
His telling of the story so inspired Bliss that he based a hymn on the story of Allatoona Pass.
After this Bliss and Whittle served as traveling evangelists, speaking to crowds large and small and carrying the story of the signals to Allatoona Pass and the song with them.
In 1876, they actually visited Georgia and climbed to the top of Kennesaw Mountain. There they saw the ruins of the Civil War signal tower and in the distance could see the Allatoona Mountains.
It was a moving moment for both men and after kneeling in prayer, they sang "Hold the Fort" together. Bliss told a friend that he almost expected to see Jesus returning in the sky at that moment.
Philip Paul Bliss went on to his Heavenly reward before that year was out. A railroad bridge collapsed in Ashtabula, Ohio, on December 29, 1876, sending a train crashing into Ashtabula Creek. Kerosene lamps in the cars shattered, igniting a fire that burned many passengers alive. Among them were Philip Paul Bliss and his wife.
As is often the case, the story of the signals sent to Allatoona as told by Whittle differed somewhat from reality. General Sherman himself wrote of the incident in a letter dated June 22, 1875. While he remembered some of the details used by Whittle at the Sunday School Convention, he also noted, "I do not think I used the words 'Hold the Fort'."
Sherman's memory was correct. The two messages sent by flag to Allatoona from Kennesaw Mountain on October 4, 1864, read as follows:
"Sherman is moving in force; Hold Out! General Sherman says Hold Fast. We are coming"
As Sherman himself later noted, however, while he didn't say "Hold the Fort," that was undoubtedly his intent. And in doing so, one of the Civil War's toughest general inspired one of Christianity's most beloved hymns.
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 ones around us falling, courage almost gone!
See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over ev’ry foe.
Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!