It would be impossible to estimate how many people have been stirred by a resounding choral and/or symphony rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Army Chorale, The Choir of the National Cathedral, and many other talented groups have produced modern versions with the accompaniment of grand pipe organs or symphony orchestras (or both). Even Elvis Presley had a unique rendition. The song is a treasure from the Civil War era and is a fixture at patriotic events.
But, during the Civil War, it was often sung acappela or with minimal accompaniment, sometimes with a piano, a trumpet, or perhaps a small military band. In those days, people often sang together in social gatherings and the song quickly became popular; however, at the time, perhaps the words were even more inspiring than the music.
At least to those in the North!
This was after all, a call to arms for those who supported the Union of the States and opposed the Confederacy and slavery. Therefore, it was only appreciated by, and patriotic to, that portion of Americans in the Northern states who favored the Union cause; including President Abraham Lincoln who heard it many times.
But the genesis for the heroic “Battle Hymn of the Republic” involved a rather ignoble ballad titled “John Brown’s Body” about a violent abolitionist. A Massachusetts militia unit had added words about John Brown to an old and familiar tune and the song quickly became a rousing, sometimes boisterous, rallying call for the men who were fighting the Confederates. While soldiers often sang together as a form of entertainment, they also used songs to reinforce their common bond of courage to their mission. This particular ballad lionized Brown, who had been executed for a raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry; a bold, but failed, plan to ignite a slave rebellion throughout the South. While the song quickly gained favor in both military and civilian circles, as soldiers often do, they soon added other words, many of which were not acceptable in more polite civilian society.
So, two distinctly different types of “John Brown’s Body” emerged. The first was one sung by soldiers (and frequently by tavern patrons) who often spontaneously changed verses to add more coarse language. The second version stayed closer to the original and could be heard in homes and community gatherings, especially among abolitionists. But, both types maintained the pro-Union and anti-slavery message.
However, as often happens in a broad culture, to the chagrin of many, the ever changing and less respectable versions, became more popular. In late 1861, during a dinner at the Willard hotel in Washington DC, a few friends who were committed to the abolition of slavery, lamented that versions of “John Brown’s Body” often heard in public no longer portrayed the somber message they appreciated. That night, they decided to re-form the verses and create their own anthem.
The result is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” we know today.
At the dinner that evening was Julia Ward Howe. Mrs. Howe and her husband, Samuel Howe, were committed abolitionists who also opposed to the formation of the Confederacy; which they deemed unconstitutional. They were not early supporters of Abraham Lincoln, preferring William Seward, the former Governor of New York who shared their disdain for slavery and slave-holders; however, after the nomination of Lincoln in 1860, they actively promoted his election.
Mr. Howe was a well-known scholar who had developed techniques for the education of the blind; while Mrs. Howe had gained fame, and a substantial income, from her poetry which was regularly published in the major periodicals of the day. But Mr. and Mrs. Howe did more than just speak against slavery, they financially supported several related causes. And, Mr. Howe was one of the “Secret Six” who funneled funds to John Brown for his anti-slavery campaign which led, ultimately, to the ill-fated attack on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal.
At that dinner in the Willard hotel, Mrs. Howe had expressed hope that President Lincoln would use the might of the Union armies, not only to repair the fractured Union, but to end slavery for all time. Mrs. Howe had long believed that the South would not give up their “peculiar institution” without the use of force; so, to her, the ongoing Civil War was not unexpected. Her friends asked if she would compose words to a similar tune as “John Brown’s Body” which would convey the folly of secession and the hope for a restored Union without slavery. They agreed that they wanted a “resolute march” which would “be a joy to sing and hear.” During her stay in Washington, she had heard several versions of “John Brown’s Body” and, after the dinner and her friends’ request, she retired to her hotel room. She later said she awoke with “words swirling in my head” and began to write and, by mid-day, the verses were finished. After she completed the poem, a trio of composers/arrangers were provided with a copy of her words and they modified the “John Brown” tune to fit the longer verses Mrs. Howe had written. The result was essentially a new musical work. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was published in February 1862 in the popular magazine, Atlantic Monthly and quickly became the anthem of the Union.
The first verse and chorus are well known to many, but Mrs. Howe’s full message is found in the complete poem. Also, the accompanying music did (and does) resonate with the public; and most find it impossible to read the words without finding the music swirling in their heads.
Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintages where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loose’d the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
Each verse is followed by three rounds of the famous chorus: “Glory, Glory Halleluiah,” but in an unusual change from other songs of the time, Mrs. Howe repeated the last phrase of the prior verse as closing line for the following chorus; so, the first chorus ends with “His truth is marching on”.
I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps.
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps.
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.
As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal.
Let the Hero born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel.
Since God is marching on.
He sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement seat.
Oh, be swift my soul to answer Him, Be jubilant my feet.
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea.
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.
While God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succor to the brave.
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of time His slave.
Our God is marching on.
Verses one, two, four and five are found in most modern arrangements but verses three and six are often not included; perhaps a space and time consideration, but also perhaps the religious references were too pointed. Also, in verse 5, “let us die to make men free” was changed in most versions over time to “let us live to make men free.”
So, from that gathering of abolitionists in December, 1861, a grand and lasting musical masterpiece was created. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” became so universally appreciated that Winston Churchill requested the song be played at his funeral. However, it is likely today that, while some of those performing and some of those listening appreciate the music and the flow of the verses, they do not realize that Mrs. Howe’s underlying message is of Divine leadership toward the abolition of slavery and opposition to what she considered the “slaveocracy” which controlled the South.
But, in the 1860s, Southern political leaders and clergy clearly understood, and vilified, the anthem’s message, primarily because of phrases in verse (3). For the previous two centuries, the southern clergy had crafted a theological argument that slavery was biblically supported and consistent with their view of Christianity; and as a result, major denominations had split into northern and southern factions. Therefore, many Southerners were offended by the line which reads, “As you deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal,” because it implied that God would reward those who fight against slavery (and for the Union); and conversely that those who are pro-slavery are His “contemners” who hold God in contempt or scorn. And, continuing with her theme, Mrs. Howe then called for the pro-slavery “serpent” to be crushed.
Even some northern worshipers must have thought those characterizations were a bit harsh.
But, Mrs. Howe believed the oppression of slavery must end and hoped her “resolute march would ring true” with the people of the North as they fought to conquer the Confederate states, end slavery, and re-unify the nation. She was pleased that her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” became the anthem for the North throughout the Civil War, but probably would have been surprised at the wider audience her song has reached over the last 150 years.
However, as we enjoy the beauty of the music, we do a disservice to Julia Ward Howe if we do not remember the fundamental message of her poem; oppression of one person by another is wrong, and we have a Sacred duty to fight against it.
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