Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of John Brown


November 25, 2011, 8:30 pm

The Battle Hymn of John Brown


Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

John Brown, Julia Ward Howe, Music, The Civil War

On Nov. 17, 1861, Julia Ward Howe traveled with her husband Samuel, then director of the Army’s Sanitary Commission, to review a Union camp outside of Washington. Howe recalled the troops singing “the army songs so popular at the time,” noting especially their enthusiasm for the lyrics, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground; His soul is marching on.” One of Howe’s companions, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, made a suggestion: “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

Howe never explained the reasons why Brown, the radical abolitionist, was deemed an unsatisfactory subject, but she woke up “in the gray of the [following] morning” with new lyrics in her head. “I sprang out of bed,” she recalled, “and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen [and] I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written in the early morning of Nov. 18, 1861, and eventually published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, became one of the most memorable patriotic songs in American history. When Abraham Lincoln first heard it, he reportedly cried, then requested an encore.

Library of CongressA popular daguerreotype of John Brown, taken by J.B. Heywood. [go through URL]


While the public used “John Brown’s Body” to celebrate its namesake in a Unionist framework, Howe’s new hymn underscored God’s role in wartime. But a close examination of Howe’s relationship with Brown reveals how his radical beliefs and religious violence were far more discernible in “Battle Hymn” than “John Brown’s Body.” Still, the song’s eventual application, much like the war itself, would ultimately minimize such associations, erasing any trace of Brown and his racial egalitarianism, radical violence and extreme religiosity.

Lincoln’s apparent ignorance of the tune’s origin and his enthusiasm for lyrics that drew so heavily on Brown’s symbolism and meaning is ironic. Before the war, Lincoln had contorted himself mightily to distance himself, his party and the nation from Brown’s radicalism. As Lincoln explained in his famous Cooper Union speech, “John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.”

But Brown’s bold invasion of Harpers Ferry and polarizing trial by the state of Virginia aroused the sympathy and anger that would help elect Lincoln and eventually spark the Civil War. On the day of his execution, Brown seemed to predict the cause and extent of that conflict. “I John Brown,” he wrote, “am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Since his hanging on Dec. 2, 1859, all manner of writing, art and memorial were employed to understand this intriguing and controversial man. After Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, Brown’s prophecies and posthumous symbolism took on ever-widening applications. “The John Brown Song,” first sung in May 1861 and quickly adopted as the marching standard of the Union Army, was an early effort to frame Brown’s mission inside the coming Civil War.

Library of CongressAn early lyric sheet for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” [go to URL]


Beyond “the stirring tune” of “John Brown’s Body,” the abolitionist’s symbolic power was one of the key attractions for Julia Ward Howe. Brown was already a familiar personality to Howe; her husband Samuel was one of Brown’s “Secret Six”: the wealthy and influential white men who helped fund the attack on Harpers Ferry. Howe first met Brown in the 1850s, and she remembered his special devotion “to the redemption of the colored race from slavery.” In fact, Howe likened Brown to “Christ [for] willingly offer[ing] his life for the salvation of mankind.” On one of Brown’s visits to her home in Boston, Howe “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.”

In this sense, Brown did not merely mirror Christ’s sacrifices; to Howe and others, he came to resemble Jesus physically. Before the raid, Brown’s Boston supporters excitedly circulated a photographic print by J.B. Heywood in which Brown appears as a white-bearded and regal patriarch. Reprinted in cartes-de-visites, frontispieces and lithographs, this three-quarters portrait was widely distributed throughout the late 1850s.

Captured in Virginia as the violent instigator of an invasion to destroy slavery, behind bars, Brown became a saint, a man of words and principle, not bayonets and violence. When news of Brown’s raid made the papers in October 1859, this martyrdom became even more explicit. In her autobiography, Howe invoked Victor Hugo’s assessment of Brown. “The death of John Brown would thenceforth hallow the scaffold,” she wrote, “even as the death of Christ had hallowed the cross.”

It is unusual then, that many consider “John Brown’s Body” to be so distinct from “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The songs’ similarities underscore how Howe’s feelings about Brown’s martyrdom informed every element of her new song. Rather than forsaking Brown, “Battle Hymn” forcefully blended elements of the past, present and future to celebrate a radical vision of the Civil War.

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From Howe’s powerful opening line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” the song celebrates some deity presiding over the nascent national conflict, “in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps.” One can easily imagine Howe’s first verse, “he hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword” describing Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Howe’s choruses also neatly mimicked the earlier song. At the very least, if Brown was not being transformed into a Christ figure in “Battle Hymn,” the abolitionist could be imagined as an instrument of the Lord.

For her choruses, Brown’s soul marching on was transformed into “his truth is marching on.” Largely because of the ubiquity of “John Brown’s Body” during the war and its direct lyrical association with Brown, the abolitionist and his millennial religiosity could not have been far from Howe’s or listeners’ minds when “Battle Hymn” was sung. Like “John Brown’s Body,” Howe’s song included the requisite nods to Unionism, even if they were rendered in biblical terms. Her admonishment that “the Hero, born of woman” would “crush the serpent with his heel” was a clear message to the seceding states that their rebellion would be quashed.

Lest readers and listeners forget the significance of the song’s divine supervision, Howe explained in the final published verse: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” In this phrasing, Howe did not betray the song’s inspiration, she merely tweaked the lyrics of “John Brown’s Body” to put Brown’s beliefs in a broader context. Brown certainly believed in exactly such an equation; as he explained numerous times to anyone willing to listen, free Americans must be willing to die to liberate their enslaved brethren. It is a telling and sad truth about the memory of the Civil War that this pivotal line has consistently been changed to “let us live to make men free” – anything to make the nation’s bloodiest conflict comprehensible and palatable.

Even if Howe’s song spoke to a different understanding of the war, her efforts to transform “John Brown’s Body” into a national patriotic text meant that, much like Brown’s afterlife, people would end up using and abusing “Battle Hymn” as they saw fit. What Howe observed in that Union camp outside of Washington in 1861 was just the beginning of a war of clashing agendas and endlessly obscured meanings. To be sure, those north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line knew that the developing war was being fought over slavery – its brutal realities, its political volatility and especially its uncertain future – but even in its opening months, commentary about the war was already cloaked in the bland language of preserving the Union or defending states’ rights. Assessing the war itself, Howe later wrote that “its cruel fangs fastened upon the very heart of Boston and took from us our best and bravest.”

For Howe and generations of Americans, the cruelty of war demanded a providential overseer. Despite her urge to celebrate noble-hearted men like Brown, “Battle Hymn” helped to take responsibility for the Civil War out of the brutal and clumsy hands of ordinary mortals. To be sure, Brown his death would help to make his nation holy and especially to make all men free, but his radical extremism was frightening to most Americans. Soon enough, the Civil War would be transformed by songs like Howe’s into a conflict of necessity and destiny – a providential trial by fire. That narrative, of a harrowing but essential national adolescence, would eventually be at the expense of those Brown had died for, and whose fate the war was being fought to settle.

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Sources: Julia Ward Howe, “Reminiscences: 1819-1899”; Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address, Feb. 27, 1860”; John Brown, “Statement,” Dec. 2, 1859; Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 1862.

R. Blakeslee Gilpin is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the author of “John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change.”

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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