The Battle Hymn of the Republic: The Story Behind the Anthem


Civil War Battle

“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.”

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was how the Union “slapped the face” of a Confederacy committed to slavery and secession.

They just did so with a catchy tune.

This song became the victory tune for the North during a bloody, four-year Civil War that left 620,000 dead and tens of thousands wounded.

“He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift word! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”

Today, this “battle hymn” is a song of controversy and hate to many on the Left, particularly the secularist.

Dr. Robert Bray, an English professor (emeritus) for Illinois Wesleyan University nicknamed it “the ‘Bad Old Hymn of the Republic” and labeled it “an evil song.” He claimed the song “preached a military crusade” that was “justified…morally as God’s (Jesus Christ’s) apocalyptic will.” This “evangelical Christian ilk,” he wrote, was no different than “uncivilized” Islamic jihadists slaughtering people in the name of Allah.

With respect to Dr. Bray, perhaps he hasn’t taken any American history courses on the Civil War. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the reasons the secessionist, slavery-bound South and the free, abolitionist North fought to protect their way of life. Nor why both sides (at that time) thought they were “doing God’s Will.”

“I have seen Him in the watchfires 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.

For four long years, the Southern Confederacy whistled “Dixie” going into battle, while Union soldiers belted out a song penned by a poet.

Julia Ward HoweJulia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was born and raised the fourth child of a strict Calvinist Episcopalian banker father (Julia’s mother died when she was five). Well-educated and pedigreed, she lived in New York City’s high society. Howe eventually married, bore six children and moved to Boston. Her marriage was troublesome and unhappy.

Raised Episcopalian, Julia converted to Unitarianism at 22 years of age. She also began writing. Her plays, dramas, essays and poetry were published, opening opportunities for social activism. She worked for a “Mother’s Day of Peace” (eventually became “Mother’s Day”) and advocated for women’s right to vote.

“He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement seat; Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet; our God is marching on.”

In November of 1861, a visit to D.C. and a meeting with Abraham Lincoln inspired Howe’s most famous poem.

At the time, the Civil War was only months old. When she was in Washington, Howe watched a squadron of Union troops march by loudly singing a popular marching song called “John Brown’s Body.” His execution two years earlier had incited a slave rebellion.

John Brown was a devout Christian who believed he was God’s instrument to end American slavery, even if it required violence.

John BrownBrown was convicted and hung for treason on December 2, 1859 in Virginia (a southern slave state). He was the first person executed for treason in the United States. In the crowd watching him hang were two soldiers who’d eventually play big parts in the Civil War story: Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth.

Northern abolitionists viewed Brown as a martyr. Frederick Douglass admiringly wrote that Brown’s “zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine…I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”

John Brown was a traitor to the South, but was the “emblem” for the Northern Cause to abolish slavery.

Once again, the Black abolitionist Douglass lauded Brown: “He was with the troops during that war, he was seen in every camp fire and our boys pressed onward to victory and freedom, timing their feet to the stately stepping of Old John Brown as his soul went marching on.”

“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.”

As Julia listened to those Union troops sing “John Brown’s Body,” a preacher friend leaned in and suggested she pen new lyrics to the song.

That seemed like a big ask to Howe. Until Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, John Brown was unquestionably America’s most popular (in the North) and famous person. It would take a special poem to replace John Brown’s legacy. Howe wished for inspiration.

The very next morning Julia awoke at dawn…with “the wished-for lines” rumbling around in her head. She later recounted how she laid still and silent until the very last verse was “completed…in my thoughts” and then wrote it down quickly. Once completed, she fell back asleep, remembering “feeling that something of importance had happened to me.”

Indeed, it had.

A few months later in February 1862, the Atlantic Monthly magazine bought that poem for five bucks.

When the new lyrics reached the Union troops they traded the old “John Brown” lines for Julia’s Divine Call to finish the job John Brown started.

Julia used the Bible as her template–especially the Book of Revelation–to hammer out a new “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Her target was slavery. The injustice of human bondage. The evil of owning another person. The true moral cause that drove Union soldiers to fight. And the “glory hallelujah” of victory when God’s on your side.

Now for the irreligious, secular and atheist, I imagine this song does sound like “jihad” but it’s not.

It’s an unfair comparison that reveals ignorance of Islam and world history. “Jihad” has come to mean many different things today in Islamic theology. But originally “jihad” or “holy war” was a call to expel and exterminate a group of people in order to create a Muslim city or nation. In 620s AD, Muhammad called a “jihad” upon certain cities to force their conversions to Islam. In the Middle Ages, Islam used “jihads” to overtake and rule other nations under Allah and Islamic religion. More recently, Hamas–in its founding charter–called for “jihad” to take all of Palestine from the Jews and destroy the State of Israel. It’s a violent, forced religious overthrow. That’s jihad.

So the good English professor for Illinois Wesleyan University is sadly misled and wrong about what a “jihad” is.

In reality, the Battle Hymn of the Republic wasn’t calling for “jihad” but rather a “Jubilee.”

A Jubilee is an ancient Jewish tradition (Leviticus 25). Inherent to this celebration (every 50 years) is a liberation of property (mostly land, but also some slaves). The “Battle Hymn” pronounced a freeing, an emancipation of the Black and an end to slavery in America. Yes, it was God’s Will. Even the most hardened atheist would confess that emancipation and abolition of slavery was a good thing.

Ultimately, that’s what the Civil Way was about in the end. It was a spiritual battle. It was a moral war concerning an ethical question related to the worth of human life. And, as anyone who trusts in God will profess, when you’re on the side of God then you’re already on the winning side.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a timeless poem and song for our nation.

It’s still relevant today for an American culture that’s lost its moral center. Yes, the song will have it’s critics, naysayers and objectors but remember they protest from bias and ignorance. It’s why we must be patient and helpful to educate (even while we remain open to learn ourselves).

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
God’s Truth is (still) marching on.

1 Comments

  1. Delbert Durfee on March 21, 2024 at 9:38 am

    Rick, thank you for this article both inspiring and educational about our nation’s history regarding slavery. Well Done!

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