Fateful Lightning–The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Most people know the tune from The Battle Hymn of the Republic, even if they only know the words of the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on”) or the first line of the first verse (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”). Even those who know the song might not realize that it’s a Civil War-era song with heavy meaning in relation to the war and American history in general.

The version of the song most remembered today, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was not the first version by any means. During the Civil War, the earlier song “John Brown’s body” was probably better-known and more popular. It turns out that in 1861, in a Massachusetts battalion (the 2nd Infantry Battalion), there was a man named John Brown. Now, of course, the famous John Brown–the one who dragged five proslavery men from their homes in Kansas and hacked them to death with the help of his many sons, and the one who had tried and failed to take over Harper’s Ferry and start a massive slave uprising across the South–had been executed in 1859. Then, as now, soldiers liked to rib one another. The men in John Brown’s battalion started saying things like, “You can’t be John Brown; John Brown’s dead and in the grave!” Before long, they were putting their jokes to the tune of a camp-meeting song called, “Oh Brother!”. The “Glory, hallelujah!” chorus was retained, but the verses were changed to, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul is marching on.” The soldier John Brown was of course the “soul” that was literally “marching” on.


The song caught on quickly. The silly genius of the refrain is that, when the battalion marched along belting out the song about John Brown, everyone assumed it was the John Brown they were singing about. Many Northerners approved of old John Brown’s mission and even his methods, and they took to the song.

This happened early in the war, and it was still early in the war when Julia Ward Howe, a young woman with strong religious beliefs, was in Washington City with her husband and a preacher friend ans saw the troops being reviewed on Upton Hill. Howe watched the spectacle and heard “John Brown’s Body” being sung by the soldiers. Her friend the Reverend suggested that she should put some more pious (read “more tasteful”) lyrics to the song.

That night, November 14, 1861, Julia Ward Howe woke up in the middle of the night in her room at Willard’s Hotel (it’s still there–quite a historical location) and, apparently in a fit of inspiration, wrote out a poem of five stanzas to go to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

And what words she wrote! The more you examine the words, the more apocalyptic they seem. We start off with a bang, with the “coming of the Lord”, which is of course a reference to the Second Coming, also known as, well, the Apocalypse. Then we have the grapes of wrath–God is angry–and His “righteous sentence”. A trumpet sounds; the serpent is crushed under the heel; hearts are “sifted” at the “judgment seat”. Very pointedly, Howe writes that, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

I know that in some performances, this line is changed to “let us live to make men free”. But I really don’t like that. First of all, those aren’t the words the Julia Ward Howe wrote. She did not write them because (secondly) she was not being figurative; she was writing about a real war and real men who were really dying. When she writes about the camps and watch fires, they are literal. What she was seeing was an earthly manifestation of God’s will. To change the word “die” to “live” absolutely derogates the deaths of the many men and women who died for this nation and for freedom, as far as I’m concerned. And what exactly does it mean to “live to make men free”, anyway? It’s pretty weak. Saying nice things is never going to be enough. Action and sometimes death are necessary to preserve freedom.

Backing up a step, we might ask, why the (melo)dramatic, apocalyptic tone? When you think about the times Howe was living in, it becomes clearer. When she wrote the words, the war had only just begun, yet it was already taking on dimensions that were breathtakingly different from any war that had come before. The Battle of Shiloh, just a few months after Howe wrote the words of the Battle Hymn, had more casualties than all previous American wars combined, in one battle. Shiloh was just the beginning. The slaughter went on for four years. The pace of war was different from previous wars, with rifled guns and powerful artillery and trains and the telegraph; and there were unimaginable numbers of casualties to go along with the new technologies. This must have been very unsettling for the people of the time. It might well have seemed like the End really was nigh.

The lyrics aren’t actually about the Apocalypse, though. That language is rhetorical (and would have been very familiar to a culture that was drenched in the Bible). The point was to elevate the cause–the soldiers were fighting God’s war. It was a fight for freedom, and in this case, Howe certainly meant freedom for slaves (she was an abolitionist). So early in the war, not many others would have shared Howe’s vision of the war, so it’s a bit astonishing just how thunderous her views are. For her–as Lincoln later echoed in his Second Inaugural–the war was ordained by God, though she saw it less as just recompense for wrongs and more as a smiting of the sinful Confederates by the divinely-backed Federals. Same basic idea, though: this was beyond just a struggle over territory between two sections. This was a struggle between good and evil. Hence, in Howe’s mind, the apocalyptic tone was entirely apt.

Since the Civil War, the tune has remained very popular, sometimes being spruced up with new lyrics for new causes (such as “Solidarity Forever” to support workers’ rights). It’s also been played at patriotic events of all kinds, notably after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was even played at Winston’s Churchill’s funeral.

It also happens to by mt favorite patriotic song:

For more about The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I suggest The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press; 2013)  by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis. The Wikipedia page also has some great “further reading” ideas.

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