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American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 639-670



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"The Blood of Millions": John Brown's Body, Public Violence, and Political Community

Franny Nudelman

[Figures]

Accustomed to the overnight successes, unexpected comebacks, and sudden reversals of celebrity culture, we might still find cause to wonder at the course of John Brown’s fame. At the time of his capture in October 1859, Brown was a pariah, a fanatic, a blunderer of enormous proportions. By the summer of 1861 he was a mascot of sorts for the Union army—his death commemorated time and again as soldiers prepared to fight, his name synonymous with bravery, self-sacrifice, and patriotism. No one was more aggrieved by this transformation than John Wilkes Booth. Writing to his brother-in-law in 1864 he lamented that "what was a crime in poor John Brown is now considered (by themselves) as the greatest and only virtue of the whole Republican party. Strange transmigration!"

Buried in obscurity, in the remote, unyielding soil of the Adirondacks, John Brown’s body was resurrected by a popular tune that caught fire among Union soldiers. From Sunday, 12 May 1861, when it was first sung at Fort Warren, "John Brown’s Body" quickly became a Union favorite:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul is marching on.

CHORUS:
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His soul is marching on. [End Page 639]

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
His soul is marching on!

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back,
John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back,
John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back,
His soul is marching on!

His pet lambs will meet him on the way,
His pet lambs will meet him on the way,
His pet lambs will meet him on the way,
They go marching on!

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,
They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,
They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,
As they march along!

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,
Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,
Now, three rousing cheers for the Union,
As we are marching on! (Browne 180)1

Offering a secular rendition of Christ’s burial and resurrection, "John Brown’s Body" puts religion to work in the service of wartime nationalism. Opening with the graphic "John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave," the song proceeds to describe the transformation of Brown’s corpse; he becomes a foot soldier in "the army of the Lord," and finally a martyr. As Brown’s body decays, his spirit is reborn and, in turn, donates new life to the army and the nation it serves.

Singing this song, soldiers celebrated the power of Brown’s body, as it disappeared, to produce a spirited community that found expression in "three rousing cheers for the union." And yet, even as the song translated death into martial enthusiasm, reminding soldiers that they died on behalf of a greater cause, it did not allow them to ignore the difficult reality of violent death. Brown’s body could not be long forgotten; each time the song was sung his rotting corpse was brought back into view. When soldiers sang "John Brown’s Body," they did not simply celebrate Brown’s death or its redemptive aftermath, but rather the very process of transformation through which corpses, in all their gruesome and seemingly intractable materiality, are reinterpreted as group spirit: [End Page 640] the song schooled soldiers in the abstraction of bodily suffering that allows for the amplification of the body’s social meaning.

Keeping the rotting corpse firmly in view, the song...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 639-670
Launched on MUSE
2001-12-01
Open Access
No
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