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Battle Hymn of the Republic Introduction

In a Nutshell

Julia Ward Howe had a long career as an abolitionist, writer, and campaigner for women's rights, but funnily enough, she made her most famous contribution to American history as the result of a few brief moments of writing early one morning in 1861. She had awoken that day with the inspiration to compose new lyrics for a popular Civil War song called "John Brown's Body," which itself was a revised version of an old Methodist spiritual. Howe's lyrics were published in The Atlantic Monthly in early 1862, and the new song quickly became an anthem of the Northern cause.

The revised words to the song—Howe titled her work “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—have remained popular ever since. The hymn has been covered by everyone from Judy Garland to Whitney Houston. Pieces of it even show up in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s beautiful "How Long? Not Long!" speech. Perhaps most famously, the hymn gave John Steinbeck the title for his highly acclaimed novel The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has become a part of the American national identity in a serious and long-lasting way.

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Year1862 (first published; written in 1861)
Writer(s)Julia Ward Howe
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Shmoop Connections

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Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, during the first year of the Civil War. She wrote her lyrics just as Northerners were beginning to realize that this would be a long and costly war. They had embraced President Lincoln’s call to fight for the preservation of the Union in the belief that the Union army would quickly defeat the ragtag rebels of the South, but after the First Battle of Bull Run, they realized that this would not be the case.

The war would make extraordinary demands on Northerners. More than 2.2 million would serve in the Union Army (360,000 would die on the battlefield). New taxes would be imposed, women would be forced to assume new responsibilities on farms and in shops, and everyone would live with the uncertainties that war brings. In 1861, all this lay in the future, but many, including Howe, could foresee the difficulties ahead. Her hymn was an attempt to frame that sacrifice, to place it within the context of a great and glorious cause.

For Howe, that cause was the advance of God’s Kingdom on earth. When she wrote, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she was not just being rhetorical. Like many American Christians, she believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent and that this battle against the evil of slavery was part of God’s work to bring about His kingdom. That’s why “He” was joining Northerners in “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

Christian doctrine has always taught that Jesus would return, but in nineteenth-century America, this belief took on greater urgency. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening that swept across the country during the 1820s and 1830s preached that the end was coming soon and that Christians would see Jesus return during their lifetimes. His truth was marching on.

On the Charts

Many different artists have recorded versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but only a few have had major popular success with the song:

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded what is usually considered the most popular version. They won the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus and reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In 1972, Mickey Newbury and Elvis Presley both charted with recordings of Newbury’s “An American Trilogy,” a three-song medley that included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Newbury’s version reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart; Elvis’s reached #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #31 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

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