Battle Hymn of the Republic: Background, Sources and Usage

Posted on September 24, 2011. Filed under: The American Civil War |

Bryan E. Walker

This popular hymn was written by Julia Ward Howe during the American Civil War, in November 1861. The day prior to her writing of the hymn, during a military review near Washington, D.C., she had heard Company K of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer sing the song “John Brown’s Body” to the tune composed in 1856 by William Steffe. That tune was originally a campfire spiritual, “Canaan’s Happy Shore”, that had become quite popular all over the country. Her Pastor who had accompanied her at the military review, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, suggested that she write new lyrics for the popular song. That night she woke up with the lyrics in her head and hastily scribbled them down in the dark. Published in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862 the song became an instant favorite with the Union troops. James T Shields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly suggested the martial sounding title, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Howe’s husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, was a physician and a reformer who founded thePerkinsSchoolfor the Blind inWatertown,Massachusetts. He was one of a group known as the Secret Six who had funded the radical abolitionist, John Brown, prior to his infamous Harper’s Ferry raid (Oct. 1859), an attempt to capture the Federal Armory and arm the slaves in a revolt that was expected to spread throughout the South. Brown’s raid failed and Brown was captured by a unit led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was quickly tried and executed but he had been captured with documents pointing to the Secret Six. Samuel Howe had to temporarily flee toCanadaalong with some of his co-conspirators. The connection with the song, “John Brown’s Body” for Julia Ward Howe, was more intense than a mere hearing of it as the troops marched by.

Here is the song with all six verses:

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)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospelwrit in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crushthe serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.”

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Since God is marching on.

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)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

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.

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

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 Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Our God is marching on.

The hymn caught on with the Federal troops after the chaplain of the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, C.C. McCabe, taught it to his unit (Reynolds, p.141). The tune, BATTLE HYMN, ironically came from the camp meeting circuit in South Carolina, by William Steffe. Reynolds tells us that the song was a favorite of General George S. Patton in World War II and became even more famous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang it at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration on January 20th, 1965. Winston Churchill loved the song so much that he requested it to be sung at his funeral, which it was, in Westminster Abbey. It was also sung at the memorial service for Senator Robert F. Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral inNew York City.

The biblical references and allusions are many throughout the hymn. In vs. 1 we begin with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” clearly not a reference to the meekness of our Lord’s first advent, but rather to the anticipated 2nd Coming, the Apocalypse, which will be both glorious (for the Believers) and wrathful (for the Unbelievers). But why sing about the coming judgment? If you look at the nation’s situation at the time of the writing of the song, Judgment Day was a very present thing. The War Between the States was seen in apocalyptic terms. Slavery was considered to be a horrible moral problem that deserved the wrath of God. There were more deaths of Americans in this war than all of our other wars in history combined. They understood the judgment of God. In November of 1861 the big battles lay ahead, but the hopes of both the North and the South for a short glorious war crumbled after First Manassas (Bull Run) in July where the casualty figures and the defeat of the Union forces came as a total shock.America would pay a terrible price for the sin of slavery, yet still the North, and the abolitionists like the Howes, fervently anticipated a glorious victory over the forces of evil.

“Terrible swift sword” could refer to Judges 7:20; Isa. 27:1; but mostly Rev.19:15 because this verse contains a reference to a sword and treading the winepress with a fierceness.

Verse 2 reflects the camp experience and the great turning to religion that occurred during the war. Though Howe’s song was written prior to the Great Revival of ’63-’64, she seems almost prophetic in describing it.

Verse 3 refers to Gen.3:15 and Rev.12:1-10 in “crush the serpent with his heal.” But notice the very harsh attitude toward the South in “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”. In a lot of ways the Civil War was a religious war, in today’s terms, a jihad perhaps (the term jihad is abhorrent to me and I am NOT comparing the American Civil War to a muslim jihad- but many today would, hence my use of the term). Southern preachers and theologians like John L. Dagg defended slavery (Christian Ethics, pp.338-374) while Northern preachers preached against it. The Civil War was most unusual in that it was Christian vs. Christian with real evangelism going on in both sides. Gordon Leidner claims in his article, “Religious Revival in Civil War Armies”, that “It is estimated that over 100,000 Confederate and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Union troops accepted Christ during the Civil War–roughly ten percent of the men engaged.”

Notice the evangelistic appeal of vs. 4 “Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!” yet also the note of triumphalism “never call retreat.” The theme of judgment is loud and clear with, “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat” probably alluding to 2Cor.5:10 “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”

Verse 5 references that Christ was born “In the beauty of the lilies”. This refers to Song of Solomon 2:1. The word “transfigures” comes from Matt. 17:2 and the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain. The famous 3rd line of verse 5 “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free” clearly points to the gospel purpose of Christ’s death and links his atonement with the deaths of Union soldiers who were seeking to free men from slavery. This important point should be noted by many who claim the war was not about freeing the slaves. Granted, the Union went to war to preserve the Union, but the clear understanding of a substanital number of Americans was that the basic issue was slavery.

In verse six she begins with “He is Wisdom” referring to Proverbs 8. Line 3 of vs.6 has “the world shall be His footstool”, a reference to Isa.66:1; Matt.5:35; and, Acts 7:49. Howe has a curious mention at the end of vs.6 of slavery, “the soul of Time His slave,” thus implying, perhaps, that only God is a rightful Master and all else his slave.

What we see with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a song that is born in a violent age that seeks to make sense of the violence and proclaim the biblical truths appropriate to the political situation. It seeks to wrap the mission of the Union army in an evangelistic and apocalyptic theme straight from Scripture. It is amazing that Julia Ward Howe so understood military life, the times in which she lived, and Scripture that she was able to write this out in the middle of the night.

Julia Ward Howe was born on May 27, 1819and died October 17, 1910. Julia and Samuel Howe had six children, but one-Florence-was named for the child’s godmother, the famous Florence Nightingale, the pioneer woman nurse for the British Army in the Crimean War. Another daughter, Laura, would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1917 for her biography of her mother, The Life of Julia Ward Howe.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Ward_Howe

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic

http://readseries.com/auth-oz/richardsbio.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_E._Richards

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5mmFPyDK_8&feature=related

http://www.greatamericanhistory.net/revival.htm

Dagg, John L. A Practical View of Christian Ethics. Sprinkle Publications: Harrisonburg, VA. 2006 (originally published as The Elements of Moral Science in 1859.)

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era in TheOxford History of theUnited States, vol. VI.OxfordUniversity Press:New York, 1988 (pp.204, 207).

Reynolds, William J. Companion to Baptist Hymnal. Broadman Press:Nashville, TN. 1976 (pp.140-141).

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/the-battle-hymn-of-john-brown/?ref=opinion

 

 

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