Henry Clay Work, one of the most popular songwriters of the Civil War era, died today in 1884 at age 51, while in Hartford visiting his mother.
Work, who composed such still-sung songs as “Marching Through Georgia” and “Kingdom Coming” (you know the tune), was born in Middletown in 1832 into an activist family deeply committed to the anti-slavery cause. When Henry was young, his family briefly lived in Illinois, where his father was jailed for a failed attempt to free enslaved people in neighboring Missouri. The Works returned to Connecticut, where Henry trained as a printer.
It was in the print shop that Work began to discover his creative gifts. He was not only an eager poet, but a self-taught musician and songwriter who learned musical notes from an old melodeon he found at the shop. As an adulT, Henry moved to Chicago to work as a printer but still pursued songwriting, constantly composing tunes in his head as he set type.
When he was 21, he produced his first musical success: a song called “Coming, Sister Mary,” written for the blackface minstrel act, the Christy Minstrels. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Henry took his first war song, “Kingdom Coming,” to the Chicago music publishers Root & Cady. They signed him to a contract immediately and went on to publish dozens of his works.
Though less well known today than contemporaries such as Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work was a celebrated songwriter in his own time and was especially well known for his Civil War compositions. These included sentimental ballads and stirring patriotic airs such as “Kingdom Coming,” “God Save the Nation,” and “Marching Through Georgia.”
The last, inspired by Sherman’s march to the sea, was among Work’s most successful songs – it sold as many as half a million copies of sheet music. It was played so often that General Sherman himself allegedly claimed that, “If I had thought, when I made that march, that it would have inspired anyone to compose the piece – I would have marched around the state.”
Work was most prolific during the war years but continued to write music throughout his life. His biggest hit, the song “Grandfather;s Clock,”was written in 1876 and sold 800,000 copies.
Work’s nephew Bertram G. Work issued a compilation volume shortly after the songwriter’s death in 1884, celebrating his uncle as a songwriter for the people. “Know the songs of a country,” he wrote, “and you will know its history; for the true feeling of a people speaks through what they sing. During a period of great stress, the popular songs of the day invariably give the most accurate expression of the popular mind.”
Work, whose songs were once on the lips of an army of Union soldiers, is buried in Hartford’s Spring Grove Cemetery.