Battle Hymn of the Republic
with Say, brothers, will you meet us
and John Brown's Body
Text: Origins. In her Reminiscences (1899), Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) relayed the story of how her famous poem came to be written:
We were invited, one day, to attend a review of troops at some distance from the town. While we were engaged in watching the manoeuvres, a sudden movement of the enemy necessitated immediate action. The review was discontinued, and we saw a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat. The regiments remaining on the field were ordered to march to their cantonments. We returned to the city very slowly, of necessity, for the troops nearly filled the road. My dear minister was in the carriage with me, as were several other friends. To beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time snatches of the army songs so popular at that time, concluding, I think, with “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground; his soul is marching on.”
The soldiers seemed to like this, and answered back, “Good for you!” Mr. Clarke said, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” I replied that I had often wished to do this, but had not as yet found in my mind any leading toward it.
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 pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. I had learned to do this when, on previous occasions, attacks of versification had visited me in the night, and I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept near me. I was always obliged to decipher my scrawl before another night should intervene, as it was only legible while the matter was fresh in my mind. At this time, having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, “I like this better than most things that I have written.”
The poem, which was soon after published in The Atlantic Monthly, was somewhat praised on its appearance, but the vicissitudes of the war so engrossed public attention that small heed was taken of literary matters. I knew, and was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung by the soldiers (pp. 274-276).
Howe’s original manuscript from November 1861 was reproduced in her Reminiscences (see it here). The text was first printed in the New York Tribune, 14 January 1862, then more famously in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1862, in five stanzas, but without the familiar refrain “Glory, glory, hallelujah” (Fig. 1). Shortly thereafter, it was published with music by Oliver Ditson & Co., adding the refrain (Fig. 2). Howe’s original sixth stanza, “He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,” shown in her manuscript, was not published in the earliest copies but was reclaimed in later editions.
Fig. 2. Battle Hymn of the Republic, Oliver Ditson & Co. (1862).
Text: Analysis. In her text, Howe drew strongly from the apocalyptic vision of Revelation, especially chapter 19, verse 15:
From His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (ESV).
Additional allusions include Genesis 3:15 in stanza 3 (“he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”), and 2 Corinthians 5:10 in stanza 4 (“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ . . .”). Some poetic license is involved in placing the birth of Christ “in the beauty of the lilies,” perhaps evoking the Messianic forerunner, Moses. The danger inherent in singing the text as a whole, however, is in the way this apocalyptic text is so closely intertwined with the purposes of the U.S. military. The most egregious example, which is almost never printed anymore, is in the original stanza three, where Howe wrote, “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.” Surely, the Good News was not intended to be carried by way of rifle and cannon.
All the same, warfare is a part of fallen humanity, and any military (U.S. or otherwise) is right to seek divine guidance and wisdom, with study and prayer, “in the evening dews and damps,” as it were. Careful eyes will notice that while some modern renditions will admonish us to “live to make men free,” the original text asks us to do the opposite, perhaps calling to mind John 15:13 (“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”).
Tune. This strong, stirring tune has a heritage that passed through a couple of different sources before becoming known as BATTLE HYMN. The refrain seems to have started as a simple camp-meeting song, “Say, brothers, will you meet us,” that had been in circulation orally before it was first printed in the American Tract Society’s Songs of Zion Enlarged (1864 | Fig. 3). Even though this printing post-dates Howe’s text, historians credit the camp-meeting version as coming first. Following the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry, 16-18 Oct. 1859, and the subsequent death of John Brown (1800-1859 | Fig. 4), the popular camp-meeting song was then conscripted, contrafacta, as a war song, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” This was later distributed via sheet music by Oliver Ditson & Co. (1861, Fig. 7) and as a single broadsheet (1861, Fig. 6).
According to one historian, Boyd Stutler, the John Brown song actually started in jest at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor:
In one of the companies was a young Scotsman who bore exactly the same name as the dead raider—John Brown. It was inevitable that he would become the butt of jokes and witticisms by his comrades. . . . There were also in the three companies of the battalion a number of good singers and a choral group, usually referred to as a quartet, but as the impromptu organization was flexible there were usually eight to twelve voices in the ensemble—including the voice of John Brown as second tenor. . . . In the process of teasing Sergeant John Brown, one of the men, said to have been Henry J. Hallgreen, came up with the line, “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave.” . . . The balance of the song was hammered out in folk song fashion at Fort Warren over a period of several weeks.
Note that in the Oliver Ditson copy (Fig. 7, below), John Brown’s name can be substituted for “Ellsworth’s body,” which, according to Stutler, refers to Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, “a protegé of President Lincoln who was shot dead while pulling down a Confederate flag at Alexandria, Virginia.”
Another account, given by Louis Albert Banks in 1899, confirmed the origins of the John Brown song among soldiers in Boston Harbor, and indicated that the remainder of the song after the first stanza, as eventually published, was by Charles Sprague Hall. Both accounts (as given by Banks and Stutler) include James E. Greenleaf, who had been organist of the Harvard Church in Charlestown, who was a member of the singing group at Fort Warren, and was reportedly responsible for adapting the camp-meeting tune into John Brown’s tribute. Banks attested that the camp-meeting song had been known in existence as early as 1859.
Fig. 7. Sheet music by Oliver Ditson & Co. (1861).
In 1862, Howe’s text and the BATTLE HYMN tune appeared in J.W. Dadmun’s Eolian Harp: A Collection of Hymns and Tunes (Fig. 8). This is sometimes credited with being the first pairing of text and tune in print, but it is more accurately credited as being the first appearance in a hymnal.
Fig. 8. The Eolian Harp: A Collection of Hymns and Tunes (1862).
Julia Ward Howe (Fig. 5) had known John Brown (the raid leader, Fig. 4) personally, because her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), was a supporter. She later wrote in her Reminiscences:
Some time in the fifties, my husband spoke to me of a very remarkable man, of whom, he said, I should be sure to hear sooner or later. This man, Dr. Howe said, seemed to intend to devote his life to the redemption of the colored race from slavery, even as Christ had willingly offered his life for the salvation of mankind. . . . It may have been a year or more later that Dr. Howe said to me: “Do you remember that man of whom I spoke to you—the one who wished to be a saviour for the negro race?” I replied in the affirmative. “That man,” said the doctor, “will call here this afternoon. You will receive him. His name is John Brown.” Thus admonished, I watched for the visitor, and prepared to admit him myself when he should ring the door.
This took place at our house in South Boston, where it was not at all infra dig. for me to open my own door. At the expected time I heard the bell ring, and, on answering it, beheld a middle-aged, middle-sized man, with hair and beard of amber color, streaked with gray. He looked a Puritan of the Puritans, forceful, concentrated, and self-contained. We had a brief interview, of which I only remember my great gratification at meeting one of whom I had heard so good an account (pp. 253-254).
How curious that her greatest legacy would later be built on a rallying cry over John Brown’s dead body.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
28 June 2018
Boyd B. Stutler, “John Brown’s body,” Civil War History, vol. 4, no. 3 (Sept. 1958), pp. 251-260.
Louis Albert Banks, Immortal Songs of Camp and Field (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1899 | PDF), pp. 97-106.
Julia Ward Howe, Reminiscences 1819-1899 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900 | PDF).
Annie J. Randall, “A censorship of forgetting: Origins and origin myths of ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” Music, Power, and Politics (NY: Routledge, 2005), pp. 7-24.
Charles Eugene Claghorn, “The Battle Hymn: The Story Behind ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” The Papers of The Society, XXIX (Fort Worth: The Hymn Society, 1974 | HathiTrust).
John Stauffer & Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013 | Amazon).
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: