Battle Hymn

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Good morning. It’s Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

On this date 112 years ago, Julia Ward Howe became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a fitting member: If not for her there might not have been an American Academy of Arts and Letters — or, rather, there might be two, one North and one South.

Image result for julia ward howeIn 1908, Julia Ward Howe was only two years from death. What she had accomplished by then, however, sounds like the work of three lifetimes. A trailblazing writer before the Civil War who authored the most inspiring song of the war and afterward became a tireless advocate for causes ranging from prison reform to women’s suffrage, Howe was always at the front lines of freedom.

Born in New York City in 1819, Julia Ward pursued a writing career early in life. What might have seemed like an interruption in that career — her marriage to social reformer Samuel Gridley Howe — helped give her work focus. Her husband was an ardent abolitionist, and Julia threw herself into the movement with passion and purpose.

After Fort Sumter, the struggle to end slavery merged with the fight to keep the United States intact, and in 1861 the Howes found themselves in a group reviewing Union troops outside of Washington. Their visit was cut short by a skirmish with raiding Confederates, but on their trip back to the capital city, the Howes serenaded federal troops with a hypnotic tune they’d heard that very morning sung by other soldiers. It began, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave…” and ended with the chorus: “His soul goes marching on!”

The “weird melody,” as Howe called it, was apparently composed in the 1850s by a part-time songwriter named William Steffe, who sold insurance in Philadelphia. His up-tempo ditty was intended as a welcome song for a visiting fire company from Baltimore. It began, “Say, bummers will you meet us…”

Copyright law being less rigorous at that time than today, this catchy tune was soon appropriated by others, often by those who put religious lyrics to it. In one version, the opening line became, “Say, brothers will you meet us on Canaan’s happy shore…” In these versions, the chorus “Glory, glory hallelujah” began appearing.

The day Howe and her husband sang the John Brown version back to Union soldiers — who applauded wildly — their family pastor, Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, was also in the carriage. He asked Julia if she might pen some more uplifting lyrics “for that inspiring tune.”

She did so, that very night. Her poem appeared a few weeks later in the February edition of The Atlantic Monthly, without a byline but with a memorable title suggested by Atlantic editor James T. Fields: “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

This was a religious number, an abolitionist battle cry and a patriotic song all rolled into one, and it provided a noble purpose for the soldiers marching to war, many to their deaths. Union military commanders certainly understood its power. And officers in both armies appreciated how the men drew encouragement from the musicians in their ranks.

Robert E. Lee expressed pleasure at being serenaded spontaneously by a unit of Confederate soldiers from North Carolina. “I don’t believe we can have an army without music,” he said. Hundreds of songs were played during that war, every regiment having a favorite, with “Dixie” emerging as a Southern standard. This catchy ditty was even fancied by Abraham Lincoln, but suffice it to say that “I Wish I Was in Dixie”  suffered by comparison to “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

An anonymous Confederate major is said to have told his Union counterparts days after Appomattox, “Gentlemen, if we’d had your songs, we’d have licked you out of your boots.”

In hindsight, probably not, as the North had a lot going for it besides better music, not least of which was an infinitely nobler cause. And no song better captured that truth than the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Union soldiers held prisoner at Richmond’s Libby Prison sang it loudly after hearing the news of Gettysburg. Released before the war ended, one of those captives, a Methodist chaplain from Ohio named Charles Cardwell McCabe, related the story to an audience at the U.S. Capitol that included President Lincoln.

“I made a brief address and wound up as requested by singing the ‘Battle Hymn,’” McCabe recalled in a letter to his wife. “When we came to the chorus, the audience rose. Oh, how they sang! I kept time for them with my hand and the mighty audience sang in exact time. Some shouted out loud at the last verse, and above all the uproar, Mr. Lincoln’s voice was heard: ‘Sing it again!’”

As a people we have kept singing it, too, when we needed it most. That hymn, and the sentiments it evokes, have been an American touchstone through the years. It was sung in the Washington National Cathedral after 9/11. It was invoked memorably as a prose-poem by Martin Luther King Jr. on the capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965.

“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’s loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that will never call retreat!”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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