The Story of “Hold the Fort”

Christian Inspiration from the Battle of Allatoona Pass

Sherman’s message was received at the Union forts that guarded the Deep Cute at Allatoona Pass. The earthworks of the Star Fort are seen here.

The Battle of Allatoona Pass was fought in Bartow County, Georgia, on October 5, 1864. Signal flags used before the first gun was fired inspired one of America’s most beloved Christian hymns.

“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 at Allatoona Pass was given 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. One of the speakers, Maj. Daniel Webster Whittle, described how, on the day before the battle, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman sent messages by signal flag urging the Allatoona garrison to hold out.

Whittle remembered the message as “Hold the Fort; I am coming!” and his story so inspired Bliss that he used it as the basis for a new hymn:

Philip Paul Bliss wrote “Hold the Fort!” after hearing a Sunday School account of the Battle of Allatoona Pass, Georgia. Library of Congress

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 men around us falling,
Courage almost gone!

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”
Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By thy grace we will.”

See the glorious banner waving,
Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s name we’ll triumph,
Over every foe.

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”

William Tecumseh Sherman as he appeared in 1865. Library of Congress

Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By thy grace we will.”

Fierce and long the battle rages,
But our help is near,
Onward comes our great Commander,
Cheer, my comrades, cheer.

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”
Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By thy grace we will.”

Christian churches have used the song for more than 140 years and it is loved by many believers. A version with different words is even used as a rally song for labor unions in Great Britain and the Caribbean.

Philip Paul Bliss and Daniel Webster Whittle traveled through the country telling and singing the story of “Hold the Fort!”



They visited Georgia in 1876 and climbed to the top of Kennesaw Mountain where they saw the ruins of the Civil War signal tower used to send the original message. In the distance they could see the Allatoona Mountains where the signal was received. It was a moving moment for both men and they kneeled in prayer on the mountain before singing “Hold the Fort” together. Bliss later told a friend that he was so overcome that he expected to see Jesus return at that moment.

The earthworks of the Eastern Redoubt at Allatoona Pass Battlefield in Georgia.

Sadly, the talented composer and lyricist went to his Heavenly reward before the end of that year. Philip Paul Bliss went on to his Heavenly
reward before that year was out. He and his wife were aboard a train that crashed in Ohio’s Ashtabula Creek when a bridge gave way on December 29, 1876. Kerosene lanterns in the passenger cars shattered and ignited a fire that burned many of the passengers alive. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were among them.

As is often the case, Whittle’s version of the signals story different somewhat from the actual record. Gen. Sherman himself wrote of the incident on June 22, 175. He remembered some of the details as used in the hymn but questioned others. “I do not think I used the words ‘Hold the Fort’,” he wrote.

The general’s memory was correct. Two messages were sent by signal flag from Kennesaw to Allatoona on October 4, 1865. The first was “Sherman is moving in force; Hold Out!” The other was “General Sherman says Hold Fast. We are coming.”

Sherman noted that while he did not use the words “Hold the Fort,” his orders definitely conveyed that intent. Either way, the tough and controversial Civil War general unexpectedly inspired a beloved Christian hymn.

The peak of Kennesaw Mountain is now part of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Kennesaw, Georgia. The forts at Allatoona Pass are preserved at Allatoona Pass Battlefield Park.

Please click here to learn more about the Battle of Allatoona Pass.