Just before Sherman began his famous march to the sea in 1864, and while his army lay camped in the neighborhood of Atlanta on the 5th of October, the army of 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 here with about fifteen hundred men, Colonel Tourtelotte being second in command. A million and a half of rations were stored here and it was highly important that the earthworks commanding the pass and protecting the supplies should 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 Kenesaw 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.
This historical incident was related by Major Whittle at a Sunday-school meeting in Rockford, Illinois, in May, 1870. Mr. Bliss was present, and the song ”Hold the Fort” was at once born in his mind. The next day Whittle and Bliss held a meeting in the Young Men's Christian Association rooms in Chicago. Bliss went on the platform and wrote the chorus of this hymn on the blackboard. He there sang the verses for the first time in public, and the audience joined in the chorus. Soon after he had it published in sheet form.
Mr. Bliss said to me once, not long before his death, that he hoped that he would not be known to posterity only as the author of ”Hold the Fort,” for he believed that he had written many better songs. However, when I attended the dedication of the Bliss monument, at Rome, Pennsylvania, I found these words inscribed:
Author of”Hold the Fort.”
"Hold the Fort” was used frequently in our meetings in Great Britain during 1873-4. Lord Shaftesbury said at our farewell meeting in London: ”If Mr. Sankey has done no more than teach the people to sing ' Hold the Fort,' he has conferred an inestimable blessing on the British empire."
On a trip to Switzerland, in 1879, I stopped over Sunday in London with the family of William Higgs, and attended morning services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. While seated in a pew with Mrs. Higgs and three of her daughters, I was discovered by Mr. Spurgeon. At the conclusion of his address he sent : one of his deacons down to the pew, inviting me to his private room at the rear of the pulpit. There I was warmly greeted by the great preacher. In the course of our conversation he said: ”A few days ago I received a copy of a bill pending in Parliament in relation to the army, with a letter from a Christian gentleman, a member of the parliament, asking if I couldn't preach a sermon on this bill. I have decided to preach that sermon to-night, and I want you to come and sing, ' Hold the Fort.' I replied that he was not a man to be denied; and although I had not expected to sing in public in London on this trip, I would gladly comply with his wish if I could have a small organ to accompany myself upon. This I supposed that he would not have, as he did not approve of organs at public worship and never used one in his church; but he replied that ' when I arrived at the meeting there would be an instrument on the platform for me. In the evening, at the close of his address he announced that I was present and would sing ”Hold the Fort; ”and he asked them all to join heartily in the chorus. An organ had been secured from the Students' College. When the chorus was sung it was heard blocks away. At the conclusion of the service Mr. Spurgeon exclaimed: ”There now, I think our roof will stay on after that!”
On reaching Switzerland I sang in many cities. Sailing across Lake Lucerne, and ascending the Rigi, there I again sang ”Hold the Fort,” much to the interest of the Swiss peasants.
An indication of the impression this and other American songs made upon the people may be seen in the case of the two actors who came on the stage in one of the largest theaters in England and attempted to caricature Mr, Moody and myself. The galleries struck up ”Hold the Fort,” and kept on singing the piece until the actors had to withdraw from the stage. On their reappearing, with the purpose of continuing the performance, the song was again started, and continued until that part of the entertainment was given up. I have been informed that the cabling of this incident to this country at the time it took place turned the attention of our countrymen more thoroughly to our work across the sea than all the reports previously sent in relation to the movement over there.
Shortly after the evangelistic work of Henry Varley in Yorkville and Toronto, about 1875, when the songs in the first edition of ”Gospel Hymns” were heard all over the land, a carpenter and his apprentice were working on a building in Yorkville. The man was a Christian and had consecrated his fine tenor voice to the Master's use. The boy had just given himself to Jesus and was also a singer for the Lord. One morning, as they met at the usual hour for work, the following dialogue took place between them:
"No, I did not hear of anybody coming here."
"Well, Joe, we must give him a warm reception.” "Yes, we will sing like everything, so that he can't get a bad word in." So, when Tommy Dodd came, they struck up ”Hold the Fort.” And they kept on singing till he left his work and came closer to listen. He asked them to sing it over and over again, joining heartily in it himself, for Tommy was very fond of singing. This was followed by an invitation to the young men's prayer-meeting, where the Spirit led him to surrender to Christ. Afterward he was found at the church instead of the saloon, singing the sweet songs of Zion. Dr. R. A. Torrey, on his return from England recently, called on me and told me that while he and Mr. Alexander were holding meetings in Belfast, one of the most enthusiastic helpers was a typical Irishman, well-known as an active worker all over the city.” He was constantly bringing drunkards to the front and dealing with them, ”said Dr. Torrey,” and holding meetings in the open air all over the city. The story of his conversion was exceedingly interesting. At that time he was a prisoner in a cell in Belfast. The window of his cell was open. Mr. Sankey was singing ' Hold the Fort' in another building. The words floated across through the open window into his cell and went home to his heart. There in his cell he accepted Christ under the influence of this hymn. I think he never saw Mr. Sankey in his life."