George Frederick Root

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George Frederick Root
George F Root.jpg
Born (1820-08-30)August 30, 1820
Sheffield, Massachusetts
Died August 6, 1895(1895-08-06) (aged 74)
Bailey Island, Maine
Nationality American
Known for Wartime songs

George Frederick Root (August 30, 1820 – August 6, 1895) was an American songwriter, who found particular fame during the American Civil War, with songs such as Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! and The Battle Cry of Freedom.

Early life and education[edit]

Root was born at Sheffield, Massachusetts, and was named after the German-born British composer George Frideric Handel. Root left his farming community for Boston at 18, flute in hand, intending to join an orchestra. He worked for a while as a church organist in Boston, and from 1845 taught music at the New York Institute for the Blind, where he met Fanny Crosby, with whom he would compose fifty to sixty popular secular songs.[1] In 1850 he made a study tour of Europe, staying in Vienna, Paris, and London.[2] He returned to teach music in Boston, Massachusetts as an associate of Lowell Mason, and later Bangor, Maine, where he was director of the Penobscot Musical Association and presided over their convention at Norumbega Hall in 1856.[3] Root would spend most of his career (when not writing, or helping to manage his publishing company) traveling and teaching at Musical Institutes that move from town to town. He applied a version of Pestalozzi's teaching (although misunderstood by both Root and Mason) and was instrumental in developing mid- and late-19th century American musical education. He was a follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg.


On his return from Europe, Root began composing and publishing sentimental popular songs, a number of which achieved fame as sheet-music, including those with Fanny Crosby: Hazel Dell, Rosalie the Prairie Flower, There's Music in the Air and others, which were, according to Root's New York Times obituary, known throughout the country in the antebellum period. Root chose to employ a pseudonym George Wurzel (German for Root) to capitalize on the popularity of German composers during the 1850s. Besides his popular songs, he also composed gospel songs in the Ira Sankey vein, and collected and edited volumes of choral music for singing schools, Sunday schools, church choirs and musical institutes. He also composed various sacred and secular cantatas including the popular The Haymakers in 1854. Root's cantatas were popular on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 19th century.

Cover to "The Battle-Cry of Freedom" by George F. Root

Building on his talent for song-writing, Root moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1859 to work for his brother's music publishing house of Root & Cady. He became particularly successful during the American Civil War, as the composer of martial songs such as Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner's Hope), The Vacant Chair (with lyrics by Henry S. Washburn, about the death of John William Grout), Just before the Battle, Mother, and "The Battle Cry of Freedom". He wrote the first song concerning the war, The First Gun is Fired, only two days after the conflict began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He ultimately had at least 35 war-time "hits", in tone from the bellicose to the ethereal.[3] His songs were played and sung at both the home front and the real front. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp became popular on troop marches, and "Battle Cry of Freedom" became well-known even in England.[3]

After the war, he was elected as a 3rd Class (honorary) Companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Root's songs, particularly "The Battle Cry of Freedom", were popular among Union soldiers during the war. According to Henry Stone, a Union war veteran recalling in the late 1880s:

A glee club came down from Chicago, bringing with them the new song, 'We'll rally 'round the flag, boys', and it ran through the camp like wildfire. The effect was little short of miraculous. It put as much spirit and cheer into the army as a victory. Day and night one could hear it by every camp fire and in every tent. I never shall forget how the men rolled out the line, 'And although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave.' I do not know whether Mr. Root knows what good work his song did for us there, but I hope so.

— Henry Stone, 1887[4]

Later life and death[edit]

Root was awarded the degree of Musical Doctor by the first University of Chicago in 1872.[5] He died at his summer home in Bailey Island, Maine, at the age of 74.


Root was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching provided the tune for the later Jesus Loves the Little Children, with lyrics by C. Herbert Woolston, and also for the later God Save Ireland. The Vacant Chair provided a tune reused in Life's Railway to Heaven, and sometimes reused in To Jesus' Heart All Burning.

See also[edit]


  • George F. Root: The story of a musical life; an autobiography
  • Polly Carder: George F. Root, Civil War songwriter : a biography
  • Polly Hinson Carder: George Frederick Root, pioneer music educator his contributions to mass instruction in music
  • Cheryl Ann Jackson: George Frederick Root and his Civil War songs


  1. ^ Neptune, Darlene (2001). Fanny Crosby Still Lives. Pelican Publishing. p. 108. 
  2. ^ Obituary, New York Times, August 8, 1895, p. 2
  3. ^ a b c Edwards, George Thornton. Music and Musicians of Maine. p. 95. 
  4. ^
  5. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Root, George Frederick". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. 

External links[edit]