The Battle Hymn of the Republic is 158 years old

The 6th Wisconsin Infantry inspired Julia Ward Howe to pen new lyrics to an old tune.
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Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” I sang out as loud as my six-year old lungs would allow. I circled the interior of our old Victorian home, belting out the refrain of what I knew to be a “Civil War song.”

Through the kitchen, into the dining room, across the living room and down the hall back to the kitchen where my grandmother was busy baking cookies. “His truth goes marching on” did not end my song, but simply signaled the repetition of the chorus, accompanied by another marching around the “loop.” 

I was only six, but at that tender age, the refrain had a powerful impact, being a mixture of spirituality, patriotism, and Civil War lore. It was not until many years later did I come to realize two important things: First, my grandmother was infinitely patient with me, and second, the Battle Hymn of the Republic had an interesting background.

First published in February 1862 The Atlantic Monthly, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was built on the shoulders of other contemporary pieces of music. Abolitionist and writer, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics that appeared in the Monthly, sampled several popular tunes.

Howe wrote the lyrics in November 1861, after hearing the tune in a different song during a review of Union troops just outside of Washington, D.C. Writing about that day, Captain Rufus Dawes of Co. K, 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, indicated that it was a sergeant in his company who began singing a song popular among Union soldiers: “John Brown’s Body.”

And while "John Brown" was the name of a notorious abolitionist who had been executed two years earlier, the lyrics — sung to the tune of “Oh! Brothers” with the addition of the “Glory Hallelujah chorus — actually referred to a member of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia who shared the name.

When George Kimball wrote his account of the origins of the song, "John Brown's Body," in 1890, he described how members of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts Militia (also known as the "Tiger Battalion") collectively worked out the lyrics in early 1861. He recalled,

"We had a jovial Scotchman in the battalion, named John Brown. ... [A]nd as he happened to bear the identical name of the old hero of Harper's Ferry, he became at once the butt of his comrades. If he made his appearance a few minutes late among the working squad, or was a little tardy in falling into the company line, he was sure to be greeted with such expressions as "Come, old fellow, you ought to be at it if you are going to help us free the slaves," or, "This can't be John Brown—why, John Brown is dead." And then some wag would add, in a solemn, drawling tone, as if it were his purpose to give particular emphasis to the fact that John Brown was really, actually dead: "Yes, yes, poor old John Brown is dead; his body lies mouldering in the grave."

In his article for The New England Magazine, he colorfully added,

"…ditties composed of the most nonsensical, doggerel rhymes, setting for the fact that John Brown was dead and that his body was undergoing the process of decomposition, began to be sung to the music of the hymn above given. These ditties underwent various ramifications, until eventually the lines were reached,—

‘John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul's marching on.’

And,—

‘He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
His soul's marching on.’

…They were sung over and over again with a great deal of gusto, the "Glory, hallelujah" chorus being always added"

Officers of the 2nd Massachusetts at Camp Andrew near West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1861.

Officers of the 2nd Massachusetts at Camp Andrew near West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1861.

Kimball noted that several of the Battalion’s officers felt that the lyrics were coarse, perhaps even irreverent. They tried to convince their soldiers to adopt other lyrics. Perhaps this is what motivated some of them to write down the lyrics and submit them to a publisher, C.S. Hall. With that, “John Brown’s Body,” became nationally known.

A CHANGE OF TUNE

By the time the Sixth Wisconsin started singing about the woes of John Brown during the review outside of Washington, thousands of soldiers were prepared to take up the chorus of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!”

Stunned by the soldiers' seemingly irreverent behavior, American theologian, The Reverend James Freeman Clarke, suggested to his companion poetess, Julia Ward, that she pen a different, more appropriate set of lyrics to go with the catchy tune. Returning to the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the evening of November 18, 1861, she struggled to put new words to the music. Of the night's efforts, she later recalled,

"I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pencil which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper."

Cover of sheet music for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" words by Mrs. Dr. S.G. [Julia Ward] Howe, Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1862

Cover of sheet music for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" words by Mrs. Dr. S.G. [Julia Ward] Howe, Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1862

Pleased with the results, she submitted her song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to The Atlantic Monthly. A little more than two months later, the magazine published her song with musical score for the first time in the February 1862 issue.

As originally published 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly

As originally published 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly

The published version went:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Chorus: 
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires 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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

Interestingly, Howe's original manuscript differed slightly from the published version. Most significantly, it included a final verse:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

With its wide distribution and obvious overtones of patriotism and Christianity, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” quickly supplanted “John Brown’s Body.”  Union soldiers and northern churches adopted the song as a popular anthem.

Before I close out, why don't we start your day with a quick listen to this 1908 recording of Howe’s original lyrics — this is probably as close to listening to Civil War soldiers singing it as we will get in this life:

Now why wouldn’t my Grandma enjoy hearing her gusto-infused, six-year-old grandson belt that out?

Preserve the memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine