“Hold The Fort, I Am Coming”

Last year in October, I posted about Sherman’s return to Ruff’s Mill three months after the 1864 battle there. Confederate General Hood had crossed the Chattahoochee and was determined to attack Sherman from behind, disrupting his supplies and communications, jeopardizing his army 100,000 strong and his control of Atlanta. We left the army on the 5th of October, patiently waiting in strong earthworks, originally built by the South, now occupied by Union soldiers.

General Hood did indeed attack, but it was not at Ruff’s Mill, nor in Cobb County. Hood attacked further away, north of Kennesaw Mountain, and marched up to Allatoona Pass. For quite some time during the fall of 1864, Sherman had been stockpiling ammunition, supplies, and rations at Allatoona Pass while he worked out the details and got permission for his “March to the Sea” campaign. These massive reserves were guarded with a surprisingly small force, and were at risk of capture by the Confederates.

The resulting battle was fierce and deadly. General Corse, in need of reinforcements, but with telegraph communications destroyed, sent a desperate request to General Sherman by way of visual signalling from Allatoona to Kennesaw Mountain over the heads of the Confederate Army. Sherman’s short response, also sent by signal or “wig-wag” as it was called, became instantly famous: “Hold the fort, I am coming”.


The Battle of Allatoona Pass, by Thure de Thulstrup

The following story was published in the Presbyterian Banner on June 27, 1907. This is an interview with James A. Graham, the soldier who personally took Sherman’s dictation while at Ruff’s Mill, and signaled it to Kennesaw Mountain, to be relayed to Allatoona Pass:

By O. W. Scott.

Much has been said and written about the famous dispatch sent by General W. T. Sherman to General Corse at the battle of Allatoona Pass, Ga., October 4-6, 1864.

Whatever has been published has never included the name and deeds of the man who, as a member of the signal corps attached to the headquarters of General Sherman, personally sent the dispatch.

The substance of this story was taken from the lips of James A. Graham, the man referred to, who vouches for the truth of the statement and is confirmed in his claim by his Grand Army comrades. Mr. Graham is a member of the Charles Ward Post, 62, Grand Army of the Republic, Newton, Mass.

Mr. Graham enlisted in the Sixteenth Massachusetts Regiment, on July 2, 1861. He was but sixteen years and five months old, one of the many “boy soldiers” who helped to make up the Union army. He was transferred to the signal corps, on detached service, in December, 1861.

His first experience in battle was in the action between the “Congress” and “Cumberland” and the Confederate ironclad “Merrimac” at Newport News, Va. on March 8, 1862. He helped rescue the crew of the “Congress” while the “Merrimac” was firing hot shot at her in order to set her on fire. He witnessed the fight between the “Monitor” and “Merrimac.”

The following May, Norfolk was evacuated by the Confederates, and in order to escape capture the”Merrimac” was blown up. It so happened that President Lincoln was visiting Fortress Monroe at this time. About five o’clock on that May morning he came to the signal station where Graham was on duty and asked what was the news. Mr. Graham relates that he told him that a few hours earlier that morning he had seen a flash and heard a loud report from the direction of Norfolk, and he said, “Mr. President, I think that means that the ‘Merrimac’ is blown up.”

Mr. Lincoln asked him to hasten to the wharf and see if he could get confirmation of his supposition. This Graham did, and a boat just arriving confirmed the good news. Thus Graham came to be the first to announce the destruction of the “Merrimac” to President Lincoln.

It was most interesting to hear Mr. Graham speak of the President as seen on that May morning and at another time, He described his appearance and address. He always spoke to the soldiers in a very kind and polite way, as, “Well, gentlemen, what is the news this morning?” And he asked many questions concerning the fleet in the harbor, questions Graham could answer, for he was in touch, not only with Fortress Monroe, but with Newport News, through the signal service corps to which he had been detailed.

In the autumn of 1862 Graham was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland, and he figured in all the engagements of that division. In connection with this assignment comes the story of his participation in the famous dispatch, “Hold the fort!”

General Corse was guarding at Allatoona Pass the million rations stored there for Sherman’s army, to be used in his contemplated “march to the sea.” The Confederates attacked Corse with great energy and a fierce fight followed.

When the issue of the battle seemed somewhat uncertain, General Sherman saw that something must be done to encourage Corse to hold on until help should arrive. He came to the signal station, where Graham was in charge, and asked him for pencil and paper. This Graham produced, handing the General his own pencil.

Then General Sherman wrote the famous dispatch, giving it to young Graham to transmit to the Pass. He immediately wigwagged it from headquarters at Ruff’s Mills to another signal station on Kenesaw Mountain, and so it was sent on to the Pass. The dispatch read, “Hold the fort; I am sending reinforcements.” Back came an answer from Corse (Graham receiving it) assuring Sherman that he would withstand all attacks until help arrived. The victory was won. The enemy was repulsed, after seventeen hundred of the Confederates had fallen, Sherman’s precious rations were saved, and the famous march to the sea was made possible.

This is the true story of the famous dispatch. A soldier on Kenesaw Mountain on the day and date of its sending (A. D. Frankenberry, of Point Marion, Pa.), confirms the above statement in a recent letter to Mr. Graham, which the writer of this article has seen.

Quite an interesting incident connected with the sending of this dispatch is added by Mr. Graham. Whenever General Sherman wished to write a dispatch he seemed to forget that he had a pencil in his pocket, but would always borrow one, and promptly put it in his pocket. He never remembered to return a pencil. On this occasion he borrowed Graham’s pencil, as usual, and after using it he conveyed it to his own pocket. Being taxed by Graham for pocketing his (and other) pencils, General Sherman good-naturedly replied, “We all have our faults, and that is one of my bad ones!”

Mr. Graham was in the Union Army four years and four months, receiving his discharge September 2, 1865. His discharge gives him this character: “Prompt and faithful in the discharge of all duties assigned him—a good soldier.” He was in fifteen fiercely fought battles and thirty-five engagements; that is, running fights, where, he thinks, the Confederates did most of the running. Although experiencing many hairbreadth escapes yet he was never seriously wounded – a remarkable record.

The song of P. P. Bliss, the gospel song writer, entitled, “Hold the Fort.” greatly aided in extending the fame of this dispatch, and stimulated the fidelity of the soldiers of the cross. This Song was very popular in the Moody and Sankey meetings in the early seventies, and became almost as popular in England as in America. Mr. Bliss succeeded in retaining a marching rhythm in this song, as also the military terminology. This is seen in the following stanza:

“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.’”

The song was No. 1 in at least one of the English editions of the “Gospel Hymns,” “sacred songs and solos,” and was the appropriate introduction to a type of religious song hitherto unknown in Great Britain. But of the millions who sang it, scarcely one on that side of the Atlantic, and very few on this, have ever known the story of its origin.

You can review the original published sheet music here.
If you are interested in what the hymn sounds like, you can listen to an mp3 here.
The Library of Congress offers the following interesting artist interpretation of the hymn from 1875:
In the 1907 piece above, James A. Graham distinctly remembers “wig-wagging” the message from Ruff’s Mill to Kennesaw Mountain. It is possible he could have meant Ruff’s Station on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, I am not sure. But one last anecdote follows the relaying of the message from Kennesaw to Allatoona Pass. A. D. Frankenberry was the man who signaled that segment. He kept the flag after the signal was sent, took it home with him from the war, and displayed it over the following decades at reunions. This 1889 newspaper account details some of that:
In 1895, A. D. Frankenberry made a pilgrimage back to Kennesaw Mountain with some of his old comrades, and re-created the sending of the famous message to Allatoona. Again in 1913, another officer in the Signal Corps during the war, George Carr Round, returned and re-created the message with Frankenberry’s flag. The following photograph is from “Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology”, 1971, page 4, in which Round refers to the message as “the most important signal message ever sent since the history of war.”
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