The Poems (We Think) We Know: “Battle Hymn of the Republic”




The Poems (We Think) We Know: “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Alexandra Socarides

November 11th, 2013 reset - +

I.

IN EARLY 1862, less than a year into the Civil War, the Atlantic Monthly paid Julia Ward Howe $5 to have her newest poem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” printed on the front page of their February issue:

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

This poem would not only become the song sung by Union troops on the path to victory over the next three and a half years, but it would also be taken up over the next 150 years by everyone from local choirs to pop stars to leaders of nations around the world. While both its lyrics and its tune are known by many of us today, there’s very little about its author or its composition that made it a likely candidate for this kind of popularity. In fact, given that most of what was written by women poets in the 19th century has been relegated to obscurity in the dustheap of history, the fact that this poem has infiltrated our collective consciousness is quite remarkable.

The Civil War context is crucial to understanding Howe’s poem precisely because it highlights just how strange the poem (and its afterlife) is. This poem presents a vision of a large and angry God causing mass destruction and death in the South. It figures God literally stepping on the vineyards of the South, producing, we can only assume, a river of wine that is meant to conjure up the blood of slavery. In his rampage, God is in league with the Union soldiers, who can see him in their camps at night and in the dark. Through a vision of God’s writing, the soldiers understand his message to be that, if they crush their joint enemy (the Confederacy), they will receive God’s grace. But the message is not just that they should go fight immediately; they must fight forever, for God will “never call retreat” from this particular cause and battle. While the poem closes with a slightly less militaristic reminder of the lesson of Christ’s life and death, the poem is, in the end, a bold war cry and a demand, in the name of religion, for individual sacrifice. Given all of this, it might seem strange that a Transcendentalist woman wrote it, or that soldiers of many different wars have marched to it, or that churches the world over sing it. In fact, I would venture to guess that it is precisely all of these unexpected parts of this poem’s story that make it so compelling.

When Julia Ward Howe wrote this poem, she did what many writers have done over the course of history: She took something that was already there and she tried to make it better. Reverend James Freeman Clarke suggested that Howe write more uplifting lyrics to the marching song “John Brown’s Body.” And so, in the early morning hours of November 18, 1861 while staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, Howe had this experience:

I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.

The day before this early-morning scribbling down of what would become one of the most recited American poems and sung American songs, Howe and her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe (the reformer, abolitionist, and director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston), had gone to visit a Union Army camp. Howe’s husband thought progressively about many social issues, but he held conservative ideas about a woman’s role in marriage and usually isolated his wife in the home. But they had been invited to Washington by President Lincoln himself because of their work with the Sanitary Commission, whose task it was to promote clean and healthy conditions for soldiers during the war, and so Howe was allowed to accompany her husband on this trip. Once at the camps, they heard the soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body,” a song that is rumored to have originated with the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia. This Battalion had a Scotsman among them by the name of John Brown, and the song invokes both this man and the famous martyr abolitionist John Brown, who had led the raid on Harper’s Ferry in the hopes of causing a slave uprising three years earlier.

Because the lyrics to “John Brown’s Body” were informally added to and revised many times, it is impossible to know exactly what Howe heard that day. It would have been some version of the following, set to the tune of “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” a different song which had come out of the Christian camp meeting circuit of the early-19th century:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
His soul's marching on!

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul's marching on!

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!
He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!
He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!
His soul's marching on!

(Chorus)

John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back!
John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back!
John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back!
His soul's marching on!

(Chorus)

His pet lambs will meet him on the way;
His pet lambs will meet him on the way;
His pet lambs will meet him on the way;
They go marching on!

(Chorus)

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree!
They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree!
They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree!
As they march along!

(Chorus)

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union;
Now, three rousing cheers for the Union;
Now, three rousing cheers for the Union;
As we are marching on!

It’s surprising how different these six stanzas are from Howe’s six stanzas, in both content and form. The most obvious difference is that “John Brown’s Body” is a song driven by repetition at every turn — each line is repeated 3 times before the chorus comes back again, and in this way it is a perfect marching song, as all can join in even if they don’t initially know the lyrics. “Battle Hymn” is syntactically and rhetorically complicated. Given this, we might call “John Brown’s Body” the more simple song. But in some ways its outlook and ideology are more disorienting, and more complicated, than Howe’s song. Where “Battle Hymn” has a clear and serious message that’s consistent throughout, “John Brown’s Body” is sometimes confusing in its perspective, probably because of the two John Browns that it was originally written about. John Brown is in the grave, but he is also fighting as a soldier (albeit in a war going on in heaven); he has worldly objects, like a knapsack, but is also accompanied by heavenly companions, like a lamb; and some stanzas abandon the narrative of this dead-yet-alive Brown entirely and call for the hanging of Jefferson Davis and the future success of the Union Army. In other words, while both “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn” are pro-Union songs that share a tune, they are, at the level of detail and narrative, very different kinds of songs.

II.

Given this poem’s relation to other texts, it should not be surprising that “Battle Hymn” went on to be revised, edited, and performed in a variety of ways. From its very inception, it had wide roots, which predisposed it to a kind of diverse cultural proliferation. Howe’s manuscript version is different from the first published version, both of which are different from the version she included in her 1899 memoir. All of these are different from the song that many of us learned to sing in 20th-century churches and schools. These contemporary versions have been changed depending on the leanings and interests of those who are doing the singing. In hymnals (where the poem is most often found today) it is often revised to fit the theology of the group, or tweaked to eliminate some of Howe’s now-unfamiliar words. In fact, most people reading this column will have a very specific version of this song in their heads, which probably differs in minor (or sometimes major) ways from that of other readers. Many people won’t be familiar with the third stanza, which is the one that is often omitted from hymnals for its militaristic content.

What’s most interesting to me about the afterlife of “Battle Hymn” is the way in which the constellation of issues that the poem was intended to embody when Howe wrote it in 1861 have been repurposed in the last 150 years. For instance, when it is sung as a hymn in church, the singers rarely think about it as a poem about war. Instead, it is a hymn about God’s presence and glory, his sense of justice, and his sacrifice in the form of Christ. People the world over sing this hymn, across denominations, and sometimes without knowledge of its specific American historical context. One marker of this is the fact that most hymnal versions revise the line “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” to “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.”

Although the context of battle is often extracted in churches, the poem has been adopted and celebrated because of its emphasis on war and struggle in many other instances. For instance, it was sung through the Spanish-American War and then again during World War I, when one line was revised to "We have heard the cry of anguish from the victims of the Hun." In the 1890s, women’s rights activists revised the poem and titled it “Battle Hymn of the Suffragists;” Union organizers in 1915 sang a version of it as “Solidarity Forever;” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it in both his 1965 speech “How Long, Not Long” and in his 1968 speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which he delivered to sanitation workers on strike, the day before his assassination. It is also often used to honor prominent politicians in death. It was sung at the funerals of Winston Churchill, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. In 1963 Judy Garland sang it on national television in honor of John F. Kennedy. And it was, more recently, sung at the memorial services for the victims of 9/11 and at President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address.

In addition to these numerous political recontextualizations, the poem has had a long and varied life as a pop song, sung by stars such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Whitney Houston. It is Houston’s version that I want to end on, although they are all worth listening to. Her 1991 performance for troops at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia is remarkable not only for its beauty, but also because when Houston sings it, she draws on all of its resonances. Her performance honors the deaths and triumphs of the Civil War soldiers while it also honors the sacrifices that these late 20th-century soldiers made far from home in an international war. She invokes its history as an American military song while also using it to serve, strangely, as an anthem of peace — for she is singing to soldiers who have returned home and who cannot yet know what is to come in the decades ahead. She allows, maybe better than any other performer, this song to be about racial equality, America, and wars across history.

III.

In 1916, Harriet A. Townsend wrote, in reference to Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, and Frances E. Williard: “We do not need to write in detail the lives and achievements of women whose names are as household words in our own and other lands.” I think it’s worth reflecting on this quote for a moment, since it marks how significantly Howe, if not her poem, has fallen off the radar in the last hundred years. There was a time when knowledge of Howe as the author of this poem was so universal that few people thought to repeat, record, and therefore preserve her story. But now we only know her — this activist, suffragist, and mother of six, who wrote poems, plays, articles, speeches, travel books, and a novel — through this one poem. In fact, in a 2013 book by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis about the poem, they use the word “biography” to describe their treatment of the song and not the woman: The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On.

I am probably at least partly guilty here as well, for I have told the story of her poem without really telling her story. We might say, though, that when it comes to poetry, it is the receivers — readers, reciters, singers — that keep the lines alive, and not the author herself. And in the case of “Battle Hymn” there are the millions of such receivers: literate and illiterate, adult and child, black and white, American and non-American, those who have chanted and marched to it, those who have sung it and worshipped through it, those have who repurposed it for new political situations. In the end, though, it’s worth remembering Howe’s moment in the early morning of November 18, 1861, when, like so many writers before and after her, she wrote down lines as they came to her, not knowing what, if anything, would become of them.

¤

Alexandra Socarides is currently at work on a new book, which reads antebellum American women's poetry through the tropes, conventions, and postures made possible by the transatlantic literary marketplace.

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