The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On

Article excerpt

The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On

By John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis

Oxford University Press, 392 pp., $29.95

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How did Julia Ward Howe's pro-federal Union and abolitionist-inspired "Battle Hymn of the Republic" become the most recognizable American anthem of the 20th century? Why is it embraced by liberals and conservatives, radicals and businesspeople, whites, blacks and beyond? The story of the song, detailed exquisitely in this book by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis--respectively an esteemed professor of American history at Harvard and a newly minted Ph.D. from Yale--is more than a fascinating picture of the United States from the 19th century to the present. The book contains a multitude of stories that feature biracial friendships, social dramas and political intrigues. The whole tale is suffused with religious fervor. If you want to hear the harmonies within American civil religion as they sounded throughout American history, grab The Battle Hymn of the Republic and prepare to be moved.

The origins of the "Battle Hymn" are as fabulously twisted as the world of the antebellum United States. Its seeds were sown in the biracial evangelical awakenings of the American South. Revival fires had swept through the nation in the decades after the American Revolution, and from them a new song emerged, "Grace Reviving the South." More commonly known as "Say Brothers," it could be heard from the forests of Tennessee to the sea islands of South Carolina and in the Gullah dialects of slaves. The song migrated north into hymnbooks, but then it took an unexpected turn in the late 1850s, when John Brown changed America and a new song changed him.

After decades as a failed businessperson and an abolitionist zealot, Brown led a small group of African Americans and whites to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. The plan was to distribute arms, munitions and pikes to the hundreds or thousands of slaves who would flock to the uprising. They never showed. Brown's group was defeated, and he was imprisoned. Several months later, he was executed. His physical body was buried. Another one was created in song and trotted out to war.

The various versions of "John Brown's Body" rang through Civil War America and infuriated southern whites. Union soldiers adapted the tune and structure of "Say Brothers" to joke, to pass time and to inspire righteous rage; Brown became a "soldier in the army of our Lord," and northern soldiers would one day see "Jeff Davis hang from a sour apple tree." Although military men loved the tune, more refined Americans--like Boston reformer Julia Ward Howe--hoped for something less brutish. So Howe composed the song that keeps marching on. Today it can be heard from the camps of George W. Bush to those of Barack Obama, from neo-Klan rallies to civil rights commemorations.

Howe supposedly wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the wee hours of one morning in November 1861. Her goal, as Stauffer and Soskis recount it, was to pour the sacred sentiments of"John Brown's Body" into a more dignified wineskin. The result was a depersonalized, apocalyptic and millennial rendering of war for God's sake that more effectively carried the bloody, prophetic qualities of Brown's spirit. Where others may have seen disease and diarrhea, Howe found "the glory / Of the coming of the Lord." Where others saw death and destruction, she witnessed "a fiery gospel / Writ in burnish'd rows of steel." In hellish violence, she beheld holy victory.

After the Civil War, "John Brown's Body" and the "Battle Hymn" existed in tension. The former clearly invoked the abolitionist cause, and its vindictive bent hindered sectional reconciliation. The latter seemed more malleable; like the words of the Bible, the apocalyptic language of the "Battle Hymn" was adaptable for just about every position. …