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A Songwriter Meets a Song

In 1861, a religious camp song and a New York woman met on a Virginia road. The result was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," one of the most famous and arguably most important songs in American history. Originally known as "Canaan's Happy Shore," but also known as "Brothers, Will You Meet Us?," the music that eventually became this stirring hymn was first published in 1858. The song had grown out of revivals and camp meetings after the Methodists had devised a creative solution to the challenge of bringing religion to America's spread-out population. With too few churches and clergy, the denomination ordained circuit riders to carry its evangelical message and songs on horseback to farmers and frontiersmen in the South and West. By 1860, "Canaan's Happy Shore" was a camp meeting favorite, largely because of its repetitive lyrics and rousing melody, which made it easy to sing and to remember:

Say, brothers, will you meet us
Say, brothers, will you meet us
Say, brothers, will you meet us
On Canaan's happy shore

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Forever, evermore

“Canaan’s Happy Shore” Becomes “John Brown’s Body”

Despite—or perhaps because of—its popularity, the song changed along with the times. By the start of the Civil War, the old repetitive lyrics had been replaced by new repetitive lyrics, and the chorus was a little bit different. Most importantly, people were now singing it at battlefield campfires instead of at Methodist camp meetings:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.

A pretty straightforward religious song had been transformed into a song about a soldier who just won't give up on his mission, even after he's dead. The "John Brown" of the song was most likely inspired by a real-life John Brown, but it's not certain which one. According to most accounts, the song was about the abolitionist who led a raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry 1859. Another account claims that the song mocked a bumbling member of Massachusetts' Twelfth Regiment. It may not have mattered much to the people singing it, though; either way, "John Brown's Body" quickly became a marching favorite for the soldiers of the Union Army.

A Reformer Searches for a Purpose

In 1861, the song was poised to take on new meaning once again. Julia Ward Howe found herself singing "John Brown's Body" as a Union regiment marched by the carriage she was riding in. Howe had been born into a prominent New York family in 1819; in 1843, she married Samuel Gridley Howe, an equally prominent reformer best known for his work educating the blind. Samuel Gridley Howe was also an ardent abolitionist. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1846 on an antislavery platform, and he published an antislavery newspaper in Boston.

Like many abolitionists, the Howes soon became upset that the movement wasn't bringing about change. For many years, abolitionists had operated under the comfortable conviction that reform could be achieved peacefully; they believed that Southern slave owners could be convinced that slavery was a terrible thing and that they would decide to abandon slavery once they recognized how evil it was. These abolitionists had hoped that, without violence, without even political coercion, moral suasion (basically, making Southerners feel bad about themselves) would bring the institution to an end. Much to the abolitionists' surprise, Southerners resisted these moral arguments. In fact, Southerners generated religious and moral arguments of their own in the defense of slavery.

It looked like moral suasion wasn't going to work after all, and some abolitionists—Samuel Gridley Howe among them—started embracing more aggressive tactics to fight slavery. Howe joined a group of Boston abolitionists when they bashed through a courthouse door in an attempt to free a runaway slave. Even more dramatically, he was a member of "the secret six," a group of teachers, preachers, physicians, and businessmen who provided covert support and funding for John Brown and his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

While neither as violent nor as physically active as her husband, Julia Ward Howe shared the frustrations of her fellow abolitionists. She felt that words, petitions, and prayers hadn't done much good. Once the Civil War began, she felt even more useless; since her husband was a doctor, he was able to support the cause as a member of the Sanitary Commission, an agency charged with improving the health and hygiene of the rapidly formed Union army, but Julia didn't have the skills or training to help out in the same way. "I could not leave my nursery to follow the march of our armies, neither had I the practical deftness which the preparing and packing of sanitary stores demanded," Howe explained. "Something seemed to say to me, 'You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.'"

As Howe had much to do at home and could not help out on the front lines, she began to doubt that she even had the potential to do something worthwhile. She would sing along with marching songs as Union soldiers passed by to express her solidarity with them, but otherwise she felt powerless. Once while a group of soldiers was passing by her coach, the soldiers enthusiastically joined Howe in singing "John Brown's Body," and she was thrilled. When another passenger in her coach suggested that she write new lyrics for the song, she jumped at the chance to contribute. She may not have been able to volunteer for the Sanitary Commission with her husband, but this she could do.

“John Browns’ Body” Becomes “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

The very next morning Howe wrote the lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" using the same tune she had sung with the passing soldiers the day before. She made only a slight change in the chorus, but the verses she wrote were much more complex than those of the song’s predecessors. “Canaan’s Happy Shore,” had celebrated the reunion with God awaiting believers in the Promised Land. (According to the book of Genesis, the land of Canaan was promised to the descendants of Abraham.) "John Brown's Body" was less about Christians’ heavenly rewards than the earthly battle that Northerners were called to fight. With the promise to "hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree" and the shout of "three rousing cheers for the Union," this song celebrated the work and purpose of the Union Army.

Howe combined the religious promises contained within “Canaan’s Happy Shore” with the soldiers’ righteous dedication celebrated in “John Brown’s Body.” The new song suggested that the soldiers she passed in her carriage were fighting to build God’s Kingdom on earth. In the very first line she proclaimed that this was no common historical event unfolding before them; this war was being fought to bring about "the glory of the coming of the Lord." In other words, crushing the South was part of a much larger series of events—the Second Coming of Christ and the realization of God's kingdom on earth. In the second and third lines, Howe made it even clearer that God was striding alongside man in his resolution to wipe out the evil that plagued the nation. God was trampling things, shooting lighting, and swinging a terrible sword. And for those slow to get the point, Howe stressed again in the first lines of the second verse that God had sided with the North: "I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps."
Nations and armies almost always manage to find God on their side, but "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" employed Biblical passages and quickly recognizable Christian phrases to make a very specific argument. God did not just favor the Union; He was marching alongside the Union soldiers as they paved the way for the Second Coming of His Son and the realization of His kingdom on earth.

The War Takes on a Higher Purpose

Howe's words were printed on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, and by the time the Union Army took the field for their spring campaigns, soldiers were already singing the song. More than just providing catchy marching music, the deeply religious and self-righteous song gave greater meaning to the North’s cause. Abraham Lincoln had taken a narrow lawyer's approach the previous year in explaining why Northerners must fight. In rejecting the South's defense of secession, he had argued, "No State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union," and therefore, "resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void." He had also rejected abolitionists' pleas that he make freeing the slaves one of his war aims. It was about preserving the Union, he insisted:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Lincoln had taken this narrow, cautious position because he wanted to keep Northern conservatives and a few pro-slavery border-states in his camp, but while his lawyer’s approach made sense politically, it did not provide much chest-thumping inspiration for the men asked to fight the war. Julia Ward Howe's framing of the war within her newly composed hymn, however, gave the fighting a godly and ethereal spark. By attaching a new set of lyrics to a familiar tune, she transformed the cause and gave it holy, cosmic importance.

Many historians have described the Civil War as the first modern war: massive armies supported by fully mobilized civilian populations, conscripted soldiers funded by centralized banking schemes, modern weapons inflicting "modern" casualty rates, and lessons in the supply, organization, and movement of people that would be applied to the industries of America's modern economy. Moreover, the war is alleged to have led to the termination of an old, barbaric institution and the adoption of a "modern" national goal—"a new birth of freedom" and more modern commitment to equality.

This all may be true, but "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" reminds us that for many this was a very old school conflict—like, REAL old school, as ancient as the Old Testament and as foreign to modern sensibilities as pharaohs and evil serpents. Many Christian soldiers believed that this was a war that would not so much advance history as move it towards its inevitable conclusion; it was not a war to maintain the modern state and economy but rather to realize God's kingdom on earth.

Julia Ward Howe: Old Testament Prophet or Modern Woman?

And what about Julia Ward Howe? Does this song tell us that she was an “old school” thinker? a woman more comfortable with the ancient ideas of the Old Testament?

It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, she was raised a Calvinist. and apparently she retained enough of its old-school teachings to write the apocalyptic lyrics of her "Battle Hymn.” But during her twenties she adopted the modern, liberal teachings of Unitarianism. Moreover, other writings and the life she lived expressed a very modern take on the world. For example, since adolescence she had chafed against the restrictions placed on women in the nineteenth century. After marrying in 1843, she rejected her husband's demands that she conform to conventional standards. In fact, she challenged his authority in 1853 by publishing a "scandalous" book of poetry that spoke intimately about the relations between men and women. In addition, she insisted on engaging in a wide range of reforms, including abolition and women's right. After the war, she took on an even larger role in the women's movement. When her husband died in 1876, she wrote "start my new life today" in her diary before launching an international career as a speaker and writer for various reforms.

In other words, Julia Ward Howe lived a very “modern life.” Because of that, some have concluded that in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" she adopted the religious language she thought most likely to inspire the masses. But this is a too-easy solution to the apparent contradiction. It might be more useful to remind oneself that even a forward thinker like Howe was a product of the nineteenth century. While she might have been able to envision the future, her feet were planted in a religious and cultural foundation that went back centuries. Therefore, she could at one moment say, "I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others," and in the next call down God's righteous wrath on the people of the South. She could at one moment issue a forward looking call to the women of the world —"Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts!"—and in the next use ancient, Old Testament examples to profess "our God is marching on." Regardless of her background or motivations, Howe succeeded in composing a rallying cry for the North during a time of great hardship, and her words continue to inspire to this day.

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