The Almost National Anthem

By Meg Sutter ’16

Julia Ward Howe, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Atlantic Monthly 9, no. 52 (February 1862): 10.
Julia Ward Howe, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Atlantic Monthly 9, no. 52 (February 1862): 10.

Before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the United States’ national anthem in 1931, there was another: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1861, the Committee for a New National Hymn became one of the first efforts to enact an official United States national anthem. There were 1,200 submissions, but the committee was not satisfied. Those citizens against the committee held up “John Brown’s Body” as an example of what a national anthem should be. This popular Civil War song would go through many changes before it became what we know today as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Today “The Battle Hymn” represents an invented Union cause for the Civil War and symbolizes a false reconciliationist notion of unity.

The melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a broadside melody that has been attached to many lyrics. In 1861, the popular Union song “John Brown’s Body” was created when soldiers from the Second Massachusetts Infantry Battalion at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor harassed their comrade, Sergeant John Brown, for his name’s association with the infamous abolitionist. Whenever Brown arrived late to roll call his friends would exclaim, “this can’t be John Brown – why John Brown is dead.” In response, others would chime in that “his body lies mouldering in the grave.”[1] Within weeks, two of Brown’s friends, Henry Halgreen and James E. Greenleaf, turned their catcalls into lyrics set to the popular hymn “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us on Canaan’s Happy Shore,” a slave spiritual sung on Southern plantations. Soon the whole Second Massachusetts regiment was singing the new song called “John Brown’s Body”. The song became popular among the troops in Fort Warren, but the public first heard it when the Twelfth Massachusetts, which had absorbed the Second, marched down Broadway in New York City playing their new anthem. Its popularity steadily increased throughout the first years of the war, although it was not until the siege of Yorktown in April 1862 that it would reach its full potential. At Yorktown “the men soon found their spirits lifted when the Thirteenth New York ‘struck up “John Brown’s Body.”’ A soldier noted that “’the wearied forms grew erect . . . and beneath the bursting shells and to the accompaniment of the deep double bass cannon, the ranks cadencing their steps to the inspiring melody, debouched upon the plain, deployed, and were arrayed to face the foe.’”[2] From this point on, “John Brown’s Body” would become a sort of unofficial anthem of the Army of the Potomac.

The song’s allusion to the contested abolitionist John Brown would have complicated implications for Northerners singing it. Not all Union soldiers were abolitionists and many did not agree with Brown’s methods. Southerners, though, despised Brown even more and so Union troops began using the song to irritate their enemy. “John Brown’s Body” was also especially celebrated by the African-American regiments after President Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and played at rallies to recruit African-American troops.[3] To many, though, including the poet Julia Ward Howe, “John Brown’s Body” needed revision. After hearing the song at the grand review of the Army of the Potomac in December 1861, one of Howe’s friends turned to her and requested she write “some good words” to “that stirring tune.”[4] Early the next morning Howe scrambled out of bed to scribble down new lyrics to “John Brown’s Body.” In February 1862 she sold her lyrics entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the Atlantic Monthly for five dollars. Although her lyrics never became as popular as “John Brown’s Body” during the Civil War, they would serve a greater purpose later.

In 1951, historian Edward Snyder described Julia Ward Howe’s Biblical inspirations when writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn.” Indeed, many of her lyrics are taken directly from the Day of Jehovah and become a metaphor for the perceived Union cause.[5] The song as a whole represents the second coming of Christ, and by extension Union troops carrying out Christ’s mission.

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 has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

In this first stanza, Howe refers to God’s wrath, which is commonly compared to a winepress in the Bible. In this biblical metaphor, the grapes are sinners, but in the Civil War context the grapes become Confederates to be wrathfully stomped upon by Union soldiers.

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 (sic), so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

The image of Jesus in the second stanza is projected into the “watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” of the Union army, illuminated by the “dim and flaring lamps” of the campfires. God is apparently on the Union side in these lyrics, a position that is further demonstrated in the third stanza where Howe’s “burnished rows of steel” represent the Civil War as a holy war, with the Gospel being shot out of Union muskets.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement-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.[6]

The fourth stanza is a battle cry for all Northern men “sounded forth [by] the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” Finally, what is probably the most famous stanza, starting with “the beauty of the lilies,” ties the whole metaphor together with the line “As he died to make men holy let us die to make men free,” a direct reference to the Union cause.

But is this not a dramatized religious version of what the Union cause really was? Robert Penn Warren coined the term “the Treasury of Virtue” to describe the self-righteous mythos invented by Northerners after the war, a complimentary one to Southerners’ Lost Cause, or “Great Alibi.” This Treasury of Virtue allowed postwar Northerners to feel redeemed by their virtuous role in conquering the sin of slavery. “The Battle Hymn” became popular during Reconstruction because it represented a glorious Union cause revolving around emancipation. Historians John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis assert that the song “memorialized an understanding of the Civil War as a struggle over slavery and of the postbellum years as a struggle for racial justice.”[7] Within a few decades after the war, collective memory of the war would change, and so too would the meaning of the Union’s unofficial anthem.

By the 1880s the memory of the Civil War became less about abolition and more about celebrating the soldiers who gave their ultimate sacrifice. This shift in focus allowed both sides of the conflict to celebrate their dead, which made way for an era of reconciliation. Stauffer and Soskis claim that the “Battle Hymn” “was more comfortably incorporated into this culture of reunion than ‘John Brown’s Body.’”[8] The lyrics’ meaning was even altered to suggest that God was urging men to fight for freedom more generally, an idea behind which both Northerners and Southerners could rally. Florence Howe Hall reveals the hymn’s “slipperiness” that allowed it to represent either side of the war: “there is no word of North or South, no appeal to local pride or patriotism, no word of sectional strife or bitterness.”[9]

The Union hymn was widely used throughout GAR events such as veteran meetings, Memorial Day celebrations, and anniversaries and reunions. It was often sung alongside the Southern anthem “Dixie,” sometimes with Southerners performing “The Battle Hymn” and Northerners responding by playing “Dixie.”[10] In recent years, “The Battle Hymn” has most often been played during moments of national strife, such as after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Three days after the attacks, a service was held at the Washington National Cathedral and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was specifically chosen to be performed as an act of defiance against terrorism. As in many performances today, “The Battle Hymn” was played to symbolize our nation’s unity. In this way, the Union’s anthem becomes a song of unity formed during a period of violent disunity.


[1] Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012), 42.

[2] McWhiter, Battle Hymns, 44.

[3] John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, “His Soul is Marching On,” in The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 57-9.

[4] McWhirter, Battle Hymns, 48.

[5] Edward Snyder, “The Biblical Background of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” The New England Quarterly 24, no. 2 (June 1951): 233.

[6] Julia Ward Howe, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Atlantic Monthly 9, no. 52 (February 1862): 10.

[7] Stauffer and Soskis, The Battle Hymn, 113.

[8] Ibid., 117.

[9] Ibid., 119.

[10] Ibid., 118.

One thought on “The Almost National Anthem”

  1. Some great music history about, what today is still a well known tune and popular tune (well as popular as they songs can be in modern time) Certainly it is, from my experience as a performer, one of the most recognizable of the era..
    However this statement; “Today “The Battle Hymn” represents an invented Union cause for the Civil War and symbolizes a false reconciliationist notion of unity”

    I don’t see that at all, I think a great many young men went to war 150 years ago for any number of the reasons the song depicts. I also believe those young men, many of them sincerely believed the reasons, (which ever) they fought the war were right, and those lucky enough to survive held those beliefs long after the war ended.
    Having read countless, diaries, letters and memoirs of the veterans of the union cause, I think the picture you paint of this song and the motivations of the song’s writer, is unnecessarily harsh and cynical.
    As historians , looking back, all too often we forget to temper our modern notions and perspective with some hard core objectivity

Leave a Reply