The By R. BLAKESLEE GILPIN
Hymn of John Brown Battle
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
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
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.
But Brown’s bold invasion of Harpers Ferry and polarizing trial by the state of
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
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
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
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
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.
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