Categories: Civil War

by Jeanne Gehret

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Civil War soldier with rifle in front of large line of cannons, 1865, Library of Congress
Photo Library of Congress

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was one of the most popular and stirring songs of the Union troops in the Civil War. Did you ever wonder why it has almost the same tune as “John Brown’s Body?”

It’s because the lyricist heard soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body” and fulfilled her friend’s request to write more inspiring lyrics.

Poet Julia Ward Howe had been visiting Union camps in the Washington, D.C. area. As she sat waiting in a carriage with her husband, soldiers passed them singing the “John Brown Song.” You may remember the lyrics:

 John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave (3x)

His soul is marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah (3x)

His soul is marching on.

D.R. Anthony might have sung this somewhat coarse, irreverent marching ditty while serving with the Kansas Seventh Cavalry in 1861-62.  In his youth, Anthony regularly supped with noted abolitionists at his parents’ table; it’s possible he knew Brown personally, and his brother Merritt certainly did.

According to Ward’s account, she awakened during the night with the words of “The Battle Hymn” and merely wrote them down.  It was published in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Battle Hymn tune came from an older song

Actually, the “John Brown Song” itself was a rework of an earlier hymn called “Say Brothers Will You Meet Me.” It was popular in Baptist and Methodist revival meetings, both Northern and Southern. Anna could have heard the revivalist version on Martha’s Vineyard near the Campground meetings that flourished every summer. (link to previous post)  Here are the lyrics to the hymn:

Say, brothers, will you meet me (3x)

On Canaan’s happy shore!

Glory, glory halleluhah (3x)

For ever, evermore!

Even these earliest lyrics could be taken as a bid for abolition: “Canaan’s happy shore,” which was a reference to heaven, could also be construed by slaves as freedom from bondage.

One tune, three songs that effectively trace the development of American sentiment from a vague stirring for freedom to a full-blown civil war. Music is powerful stuff.

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