“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is far more popular today than it was during the Civil War—beloved by Northerners and Southerners, conservatives and radicals, whites and blacks. The song’s origins have long been shrouded in obscurity. The tune is often attributed to William Steffe, a South Carolina native who settled in Philadelphia. Steffe claimed, decades after the fact and without any evidence, that he had composed it in the mid-1850s for a visiting Baltimore fire company, dubbing the tune, “Say, Bummers, Will You Meet Us.” Even today you see some sheet music and arrangements that attribute Steffe as the tune’s creator. But in research for our book The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, Ben Soskis and I discovered the “Battle Hymn” tune actually dates back to early–19th century Southern camp meetings, open-air services attended by whites and blacks, slaves and free individuals, where the liturgy consisted mainly of hymns.  The “Battle Hymn” tune was adapted from “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us / On Canaan’s Happy Shore,” a Southern camp-meeting spiritual first published in an 1807 Virginia hymnbook by Methodist circuit-rider Stith Mead. “Grace Reviving in the Soul” soon became known as the “Say Brothers” or “O Brothers” hymn. It is a folk hymn, meaning that it adapted sacred words to a secular tune. Like other folk hymns, it was easily memorized, and it circulated orally. As a result, there were frequent, usually modest, changes in the published lyrics. Mead probably included the song in his hymnbook after hearing it sung in camp.

What’s especially fascinating about this first known publication of “Say Brothers” is that it includes call-and-response directions:

Question: O brothers will you meet me
 [repeat 2X], On Canaan’s happy shore?
 Ans: By the grace of God I’ll meet you
 [repeat 2X], On Canaan’s happy shore.

 Call-and-response directions between minister and congregants typified the basic form and structure of African-American spirituals. The black roots of the “Say Brothers” hymn are further supported by numerous eyewitnesses who described slaves singing “Say Brothers” in a ring shout, an African religious ritual in which people gathered in a circle and sang (or shouted), dancing in a counterclockwise direction and using a call-and-response structure.

In addition, the “Glory, glory Hallelujah” chorus, which soon replaced “We’ll shout and give him glory,” was especially popular in black spirituals—and we know that Mead preached to slaves. The hymn’s call-and-response structure, the interracial makeup of camp meetings, Mead’s documented preaching to blacks, and eyewitness observers’ describing slaves singing the hymn in a ring shout all suggest the origins of “Say Brothers” were probably as much African as white American.

Whites and blacks interpreted “Say Brothers” quite differently in the antebellum South. For white Southerners, Canaan, a heavenly place, was “a metaphor of the South,” according to historian Christine Heyrman. “Canaan’s happy shore” offered deliverance from sin without touching slavery. It was a heavenly vision of whites’ own moral universe. But for slaves, “Canaan’s happy shore” meant deliverance from bondage; Canaan was both a heavenly place and a place in the world. For example, when Frederick Douglass first began working to escape from slavery, he and his conspirators repeatedly sang “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, / I am bound for the land of Canaan.” In this case Canaan meant “something more than a hope of reaching heaven,” Douglass noted; “we meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan.”

“Say Brothers” reached the North via hymnbooks in the 1840s. By the late 1850s, it was especially popular in Boston, then the nation’s cultural and publishing center. Introduced to it through hymnbooks, without the call-and-response structure, Northerners thought of it as a white spiritual associated with Methodists, owing to that sect’s explosive growth during that era.

In 1861 one Northerner in particular would become closely associated with “Say Brothers”: John Brown, infamous for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry with a small army of blacks and whites in October 1859. Federal troops led by Robert E. Lee had killed or captured Brown and his men, trying the survivors for treason and murder (except for five raiders who escaped), and executing them in December 1859 and March 1860. Brown’s violent legacy would result in the tune that had begun as a Southern spiritual spreading in the form of “John Brown’s Body.

Following the South’s bombing of Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Massachusetts Infantry, 2nd Battalion, known as the “Tigers,” garrisoned Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. At the time, Brown’s raid was widely looked back on as a major catalyst leading to secession and war, with most Bostonians regarding Brown as a martyr. One of the Tigers—a Scottish immigrant also named John Brown—joined a choral group with some fellow soldiers at the fort. Brown’s comrades needled him about his famous name, often quipping: “This cannot be John Brown! John Brown is dead.” And sometimes another soldier would add, “His body lies mouldering in the grave.” As a result, the singing group’s version of “John Brown’s Body” soon grew to six stanzas, set to “Say Brothers,” one of the Tigers’ favorite tunes.

In May 1861, the Tigers merged with the 12th Massachusetts Regiment, and “John Brown’s Body” (also known as “the John Brown song”) became the unit’s signature anthem. In June, Boston abolitionist C.S. Hall published the “John Brown Song” as a penny ballad, including the six verses and the “Glory, glory Hallelujah” chorus. Hall’s sheet quickly sold out. On July 18, the 12th sang “John Brown’s Body” on Boston Common while under review.

When members of the regiment sang it again one week later, while marching down Broadway in New York City, observers reportedly went “crazy with enthusiasm and delight.” A reporter for the New-York Tribune published the lyrics, and by August 1861, “John Brown’s Body” was the most popular song in the Union Army. Its popularity coincided with the First Confiscation Act, authorizing the Union Army to confiscate all the slaves of Rebel masters who had managed to reach Union lines, effectively freeing them.

Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that “John Brown’s Body” became a mascot of the Union at the moment when the conflict became a war for emancipation, for the lyrics are unambiguous in their abolitionist message. The lyrics portray John Brown as a martyr: His body “lies a mouldering in the grave,” but his soul is “marching on.” The second stanza is even more explicit:

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

The fifth stanza seeks vengeance against slaveholders: “We will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.” And the last stanza calls for “three rousing cheers for the Union”—at the moment in which a war for the Union was transformed into a fight for emancipation for slaves.

Despite its growing popularity, however, “John Brown’s Body” was not thought of as a national anthem. The words were too coarse, and needed to be elevated. That happened in November 1861, after Julia Ward Howe traveled to Washington, D.C., with her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, who had joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission, in company with her Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew—all of whom had actually known Brown. Clarke had introduced the abolitionist to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Samuel had been one of the “Secret Six,” leading fundraisers for Brown’s raid. As for Julia Howe, one of America’s most highly respected poets, she had even hosted Brown in her own home.

While in Washington, Howe witnessed a review of troops across the Potomac being broken up by a Confederate raiding party, resulting in the equivalent of a 19th-century traffic jam. To pass the time as they inched their way toward the city, the Howes’ party joined the soldiers in singing “John Brown’s Body.” The troops were impressed with Julia’s beautiful voice, shouting “Good for you!” When the Reverend Clarke suggested that she “write some good words for that stirring tune,” the poetess replied that she had often thought of doing so, but had not yet received the inspiration.

Inspiration came that same night at the Willard Hotel. As Howe later recalled, “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.” She jumped out of bed and scrawled her verses on Sanitary Commission stationery. In Howe’s telling, the suddenness of her inspiration suggested a supernatural visitation—echoing the sentiments of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who claimed, “I didn’t write” Uncle Tom’s Cabin; “God wrote it.”

Howe’s lyrics are deeply indebted to the Bible’s book of Revelation. The first stanza comes directly from Revelation 14, in which an angel “gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” Throughout that section, God or his angels are casting lightning bolts and thunder into the earth, inducing an earthquake. But Howe places the narrator of her poem within Revelation, personalizing its phantasmagoric imagery and turning it into a narrative lyric:

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 hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
 His truth is marching on.

Howe’s familiarity with Revelation’s verses was representative, reflecting the degree to which most Americans interpreted the Civil War in apocalyptic terms. Revelation explained the ravages of war in religious terms and offered hope for the future. If the war was the apocalypse, then a new age of peace and harmony was not far away.

The version of “Battle Hymn” published in February 1862 on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly was largely unchanged from Howe’s original scrawl, with one notable exception: She had omitted the sixth and last stanza—appropriately, I think, because in doing so the song ends with the climactic power of the fifth stanza.

The “Battle Hymn” was never as popular during the war years as “John Brown’s Body,” largely because of the “Battle Hymn’s” more sophisticated lyrics. Soldiers on the march found it more difficult to memorize, and even today few people know the whole song by heart. Moreover, Howe squeezed a lot of words into each bar of music, requiring singers to enunciate the lyrics quickly. The words are almost too big for the music.

The wartime popularity of “John Brown’s Body” stemmed partly from the fact that is a simple ballad, easy to memorize and soothing to march to. Then too, by 1860 sheet music was the most profitable printed medium. Publishers realized that “John Brown’s Body” would make money; as a result, the ballad rolled off the presses in countless variations.

The “John Brown” song was also open-ended enough to be interpreted in a variety of ways. It was a heroic song, an inspirational song, a revenge song and a comradeship song. It inspired soldiers to fight, and possibly die, for the abstract causes of freedom and Union. But it also helped build esprit de corps, encouraging troops to seek revenge for a friend who had been killed. One Union officer said that the ballad “made heroes of all his men,” while another required his troops to sing it every day, in hopes of imbuing them with “Cromwellian earnestness.” A New Hampshire lieutenant noted: “The effect of ‘John Brown’s Body’ when heard in camp or on the march was simply indescribable.”

There is one final explanation for the popularity of a song that enshrined an abolitionist who had been hanged for murder and treason. “John Brown’s Body” became popular when a war being waged to preserve the Union had also been transformed into a war to abolish slavery. The two discrete aims had converged into one: Preserving the Union required abolishing slavery, and vice versa.

Understandably, “John Brown’s Body” was especially popular among African Americans. The soldiers of the 1st Arkansas (Colored) Regiment created a new adaptation, which Sojourner Truth sang to inspire recruits. In February 1865, when the Massachusetts 55th Colored Regiment marched triumphantly into Charleston, S.C., they were cheered on by thousands of freedmen and women as they sang “John Brown’s Body.” For many Northerners, that marked the symbolic end of the war.

The “Battle Hymn” was widely promoted by Charles McCabe, a Methodist minister and chaplain of the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who was so taken with Howe’s poem in the Atlantic that he memorized it. But it was not until McCabe heard the “Battle Hymn” sung at a war rally that he realized the poem had been written to accompany the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

In June 1863, McCabe was captured by Confederate troops and sent to Richmond’s Libby Prison. A month later, when the prisoners heard rumors a great battle had been fought at Gettysburg, they were initially informed it had been a decisive Confederate victory. But after a slave who sold newspapers told them the truth about the “Great news in de papers!” McCabe jumped up onto a box and led the rest of the POWs in the “Battle Hymn.” It was reported that “the very walls of Libby quivered in the melody as five hundred” prisoners sang the “Glory, Hallelujah” chorus. McCabe himself likened the scene to a mass resurrection.

In 1864 McCabe, who had a rich baritone voice, turned Abraham Lincoln into an ardent fan of Howe’s song. Released from Libby after a bout of typhoid fever, the minister sang the “Battle Hymn” at a Christian Commission meeting at the U.S. Capitol, with the president in attendance. Lincoln was reportedly very moved by the fifth stanza, which equated Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross with the Union troops’ sacrifice on the battlefield. Increasingly, “John Brown’s Body” was sung only by blacks and radicals.

That change opened the way for the “Battle Hymn” to be reinterpreted. Whereas the original song evokes the memory of a militant abolitionist and calls for hanging Jeff Davis, the “Battle Hymn” lyrics are wonderfully vague and thus adaptable. God is the main actor, advocating freedom. Southerners believed that they too had fought for God and freedom. As a result, the University of Georgia adopted the “Battle Hymn” as its anthem in the 1890s, and it remains the school’s anthem today.

In 1911 an early silent film, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, gained popularity in the South. The movie focused on the hymn’s millennialist themes, while its artistic innovations helped to revitalize the “Battle Hymn” for a modern age.

The “Battle Hymn” also had many other legacies. At the turn of the century, it became a Progressive Party anthem. Theodore Roosevelt treated it as his personal anthem, encapsulating his advocacy of a sacred, strenuous life. Though he led a campaign to adopt the song as the official national anthem, he could not convince enough Southern politicians to make that a reality.

America’s entry into World War I further helped nationalize, and indeed internationalize, the hymn. It became the anthem of countless Northern and Southern soldiers who fought in that conflict, as well as Britons.

The “Battle Hymn” was also transformed into the workers’ anthem in 1915, when Ralph Chaplin, a leading Wobbly (the common name for Industrial Workers of the World or I.W.W.) wrote “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn.” Wobblies defined themselves as “the modern abolitionists, fighting against wage slavery.” Like abolitionists, they were racial egalitarians and millennialists. Chaplin retained the note of millennialism in his version of “Solidarity Forever,” reflected in the song’s last lines before the refrain: “We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old, / For the Union makes us strong.”

Throughout the 20th century, the “Battle Hymn” has also been used as an evangelical anthem, serving as the theme song of immensely influential ministers such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. The “Battle Hymn” was the perfect anthem for Sunday’s revivals, for it fit his militant, patriotic style of “muscular Christianity.” A former professional baseball player, Sunday brought his athleticism to his sermons, shadow-boxing Satan, sliding home to Jesus and climbing atop the pulpit to wave an American flag while his orchestra performed “Battle Hymn”—garnering a terrific response. During Sunday’s 1917 revival in New York, he preached to one-quarter of the population.

For several decades, millions of listeners also heard “Battle Hymn” on Billy Graham’s weekly radio program. Graham’s love of the song reflected his background as a Southerner haunted by the Civil War. Both grandfathers had been wounded as Confederate soldiers; his maternal grandfather lost a leg and an eye at Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg, and his paternal grandfather died with a Yankee bullet in his leg. The young minister’s mother had recommended the “Battle Hymn” as his theme song, and just as the hymn had transcended its Northern, abolitionist origins, it helped Billy Graham transcend his roots and become a renowned revivalist rather than just another Southern preacher.

The “Battle Hymn” was also a Civil Rights anthem and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite songs. In March 1965, after King led a group of 25,000 blacks and whites from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., he delivered a speech ending with a millennialist vision of racial justice. “How long?” King asked. Not long, because:

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 hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
 His truth is marching on.

Progressives, Wobblies, Evangelicals and Civil Rights activists were never united in their vision of America. Many evangelicals (though not Graham) opposed Wobblies and Civil Rights radicals, and Progressives hated the Wobblies. Despite their lack of unity, however, Progressives, Wobblies, Evangelicals, and Civil Rights activists especially, are the legacies of the abolition movement—but those legacies have largely been ignored or downplayed. Members of these groups, like abolitionists, saw themselves as holy warriors, uniting religious faith with their visions of social reform. And much like abolitionists, they spoke truth to power and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause of freedom. Wobblies and Civil Rights activists also advocated, as abolitionists did, equality under the law for all people.

These legacies also highlight the degree to which the “Battle Hymn” has become America’s unofficial anthem. Perhaps it is a blessing that it is not the national anthem, since it has been freed from obligatory performance at sporting events. Instead, the hymn’s influence is apparent at more solemn occasions. For decades it has been sung as the finale of the National Democratic and Republican conventions. And it was performed at the funerals of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, along with those of Robert and Ted Kennedy. More recently, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir performed “Battle Hymn” at President Obama’s Second Inaugural.

The hymn served as the finale of the 9/11 Memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, where Billy Graham delivered one of his last public sermons. It also has a physical presence in America’s unofficial church: In the National Cathedral’s Lincoln Bay, seven ornamental keystones depict the “Battle Hymn’s” most vivid images, including grapes of wrath being trampled and lightning loosed; trumpets sounding forth; lilies growing where Christ was born; and soldiers singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Why has the “Battle Hymn” served as a national anthem for so long? First, it manages to both unite and divide Americans, distinguishing “us” from “them,” and clarifying a sense of national identity. It is ideal for a nation at war, which is when it has been most popular— and the U.S. has been at war for most of the last century. Like the Gettysburg Address, it encourages individuals to sacrifice themselves for a greater, collective good. The fifth stanza brilliantly emphasizes the theme of sacrificing oneself for freedom:

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,
 His truth is marching on.

 Second, the “Battle Hymn” has long functioned as a template of the United States’ “civil religion,” in which Americans act out what they believe is God’s will for their country. As the fifth stanza implies, Christ is both an exemplar and an object of faith. And since He (rather than humans) is the catalyst of social change, He lightens reformers’ burdens.

Third, the song has been immensely adaptable. It has served violent and nonviolent, postmillennial and premillennial, Northern and Southern, conservative and radical ends.

Fourth, it exploits the millennialist strain in American culture, revealing the degree to which the U.S. is exceptional among developed nations; it stands apart from Europe and Canada in its religiosity.

Fifth, it is aspirational, much like the Declaration of Independence. “The Battle Hymn” envisions a future good society, a reign of peace and harmony. The song evokes a terrible delight; it unites afflictions of the present with future joy.

Perhaps most important, the “Battle Hymn” is a musical masterpiece, especially when performed in largo—a slow, dignified tempo—as it was recorded by the U.S. Army Chorus, for example. In arrangements such as this, the melody notes have been expanded to allow the words the chance to express themselves. Even listeners who disagree with the song’s apocalyptic message cannot help but be transported by its aesthetic power.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.