The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Byers, Samuel Hawkins Marshall
(July 23, 1838–May 24, 1933)

–poet—was born in Pulaski, Pennsylvania. His mother died soon after he was born. In 1851 his father took him to Burlington, Iowa, finally settling in Oskaloosa in 1853. Byers received a few years of frontier education and studied law with an Oskaloosa attorney. He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1861.

    Byers was profoundly influenced by a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, where he witnessed slaves being whipped and beaten. Thus, when the Southern states seceded, Byers was one of the first to enlist in a company of volunteers from Newton, Iowa. The company became B Company, Fifth Iowa Infantry, and Byers was promoted to quartermaster sergeant. He saw action at Iuka, Corinth, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. The Fifth Iowa participated in the attack on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, where Byers and about 80 of the regiment were captured.

    It is not known if Byers had any literary ambitions before the war, but military service and wartime captivity made him a writer. He spent seven months in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and was transferred to Macon, Georgia, in 1864. He escaped from the Macon camp only to be recaptured. He was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, and then to "Camp Sorghum" just outside Columbia, South Carolina. He escaped again and was captured again. After the camp was closed, the prisoners were moved into Columbia itself and housed in a large building that had previously served as a state mental asylum. The Union prisoners, shut off from the outside world, had no idea how the war was progressing. A slave, assigned to carry food to the prisoners, hid an article from a South Carolina newspaper inside a loaf of bread. The article carried news of General William Sherman's victory at Atlanta and his triumphant march across Georgia to Savannah. Byers read the article and was inspired to write a poem that he titled "Sherman's March to the Sea."Another prisoner, W. O. Rockwell, set the poem to music, and soon the camp's glee club was singing it. The song rapidly worked its way through the network of prisoners. When another prisoner, Lieutenant Daniel W. Tower, was exchanged by way of an Alabama prison camp, he left the prison carrying a copy of the song with him, smuggled through the lines in his wooden leg. Once available outside the prisons, the song quickly became a national sensation. It gave Sherman's march its famous name and became a Union rallying cry.

    Byers, still in prison, had no idea that his song had become so popular, but when Sherman's army closed in on Columbia, his troops were singing Byers's song right along with "John Brown's Body" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."With Sherman getting closer to Columbia, the prisoners were taken from the asylum and transferred out of the state. Byers and a few others took advantage of the confusion to hide in the attic of the building and were overlooked as the other prisoners were taken away. When the Yankee soldiers entered Columbia, Byers was one of the first to greet them. General Sherman heard that Byers was in the town and was eager to meet the poet. He rewarded Byers with a position on his staff. Back in Iowa, Byers was promoted to the rank of brevet major by Governor William M. Stone.

    Byers would always be known for his song, but it was just the start of a long and distinguished career. His articles on the war for the Annals of Iowa and his books What I Saw in Dixie: Or Sixteen Months in Rebel Prisons, With Fire and Sword, and Iowa in Wartime are invaluable contributions to Civil War scholarship. He served as U.S. consul to Switzerland from 1869 to 1884, which resulted in the books Switzerland and the Swiss and Twenty Years in Europe. He wrote articles for Harper's and the Magazine of American History as well as several volumes of poetry. His best-known poems are about Iowa. In 1911 the state legislature declared "Song of Iowa" Iowa's state song.

    Byers moved to Los Angeles in his later years and wrote poetry for the Los Angeles Times. He died in Los Angeles on May 24, 1933.
Sources For more on Byers, see Charles Aldrich, "The Song 'Sherman's March to the Sea,'" Annals of Iowa (1913), 215–17; Ruth A. Gallaher, "S. H. M. Byers," Palimpsest 13 (1932), 429–69; and Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa (1903).
Contributor: Kenneth L. Lyftogt