Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe’s Inspiring Lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are First Published in “The Atlantic Monthly’

The Battle Hymn of the Republic“, also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” outside of the United States, is a song by American writer Julia Ward Howe using the music from the song “John Brown’s Body.” Howe’s more famous lyrics were written in November 1861, and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. The song links the judgment of the wicked at the end of the age (Old Testament, Isaiah 63; New Testament, Rev. 19) with the American Civil War. Since that time, it has become an extremely popular and well-known American patriotic song.

The “Glory, Hallelujah” tune was a folk hymn developed in the oral hymn tradition of camp meetings in the southern United States and first documented in the early 1800s. In the first known version, “Canaan’s Happy Shore”, the text includes the verse “Oh! Brothers will you meet me (3×)/On Canaan’s happy shore?” and chorus “There we’ll shout and give him glory (3×)/For glory is his own”; this developed into the familiar “Glory, glory, hallelujah” chorus by the 1850s. The tune and variants of these words spread across both the southern and northern United States.

At a flag-raising ceremony at Fort Warren, near Boston, Massachusetts on Sunday May 12, 1861, the John Brown song, using the well known “Oh! Brothers” tune and the “Glory, Hallelujah” chorus, was publicly played “perhaps for the first time.” The American Civil War had begun the previous month.

In 1890, George Kimball wrote his account of how the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia, known as the “Tiger” Battalion, collectively worked out the lyrics to “John Brown’s Body.” Kimball wrote:

We had a jovial Scotchman in the battalion, named John Brown. …and as he happened to bear the identical name of the old hero of Harper’s Ferry, he became at once the butt of his comrades. If he made his appearance a few minutes late among the working squad, or was a little tardy in falling into the company line, he was sure to be greeted with such expressions as “Come, old fellow, you ought to be at it if you are going to help us free the slaves,” or, “This can’t be John Brown—why, John Brown is dead.” And then some wag would add, in a solemn, drawling tone, as if it were his purpose to give particular emphasis to the fact that John Brown was really, actually dead: “Yes, yes, poor old John Brown is dead; his body lies mouldering in the grave.”

According to Kimball, these sayings became by-words among the soldiers and, in a communal effort—similar in many ways to the spontaneous composition of camp meeting songs described above—were gradually put to the tune of “Say, Brothers”:

As originally published 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly

Finally ditties composed of the most nonsensical, doggerel rhymes, setting for the fact that John Brown was dead and that his body was undergoing the process of decomposition, began to be sung to the music of the hymn above given. These ditties underwent various ramifications, until eventually the lines were reached,—

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul’s marching on.”

And,—

“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
His soul’s marching on.”

These lines seemed to give general satisfaction, the idea that Brown’s soul was “marching on” receiving recognition at once as having a germ of inspiration in it. They were sung over and over again with a great deal of gusto, the “Glory hallelujah” chorus being always added.

Some leaders of the battalion, feeling the words were coarse and irreverent, tried to urge the adoption of more fitting lyrics, but to no avail. The lyrics were soon prepared for publication by members of the battalion, together with publisher C. S. Hall. They selected and polished verses they felt appropriate, and may even have enlisted the services of a local poet to help polish and create verses. The official histories of the old First Artillery and of the 55th Artillery (1918) also record the Tiger Battalion’s role in creating the John Brown Song, confirming the general thrust of Kimball’s version with a few additional details.

Creation of the “Battle Hymn”

Julia Ward Howe was the wife of Samuel Gridley Howe, the famed scholar in education of the blind. Samuel and Julia were active leaders in anti-slavery politics and strong supporters of the Union. Samuel Howe was a member of the Secret Six, the group who funded John Brown’s work. John Brown, of course, was a radical Abolitionist whom Mrs. Howe admired and who had been hung for his raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 to secure weapons to arm slaves in Virginia for revolt.

Kimball’s battalion was dispatched to Murray, Kentucky early in the Civil War, and Julia Ward Howe heard this song during a public review of the troops outside Washington D.C. on Upton Hill, Virginia. Rufus R. Dawes, then in command of Company “K” of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, stated in his memoirs that the man who started the singing was Sergeant John Ticknor of his company. Howe’s companion at the review, The Reverend James Freeman Clarke, being familiar with Mrs. Howe’s poems, suggested to Howe that she write new words for the fighting men’s song. Staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington on the night of November 18, 1861, Howe wrote the verses to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Of the writing of the lyrics, Howe remembered:

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.

Before long the entire nation became inspired by her text and united in singing the new words with the old tune. Mrs. Howe’s hymn has been acclaimed through the years as one of our finest patriotic songs. At one time it was sung as a solo at a large rally attended by President Abraham Lincoln. After the audience had responded with loud applause, the President, with tears in his eyes, cried out, “Sing it again!” It was sung again. And after more than a hundred years, Americans still join often in proclaiming, “Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!

Battle Hymn of the Republic

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 lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.
Chorus:
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
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.
Chorus
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish`d rows of steel,
“As ye deal with my contemnors, so with you my grace shall deal;”
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel
Since God is marching on.
Chorus
He has sounded from 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.
Chorus
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.Chorus

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