- The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis
On Friday, September 14, 2001, dignitaries from across the nation gathered in the National Cathedral for a memorial service honoring the victims of September 11. Following President George W. Bush’s address, the Navy’s Sea Chanters climbed to the pulpit, where they launched into an emotional rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A century and a half after [End Page 473] its birth, the anthem still proves capable of stirring both somberness and a will to fight. But such solemn affairs are not the only occasions on which the memorable strains of Julia Ward Howe’s Civil War–era melody can still be heard. On any given football weekend, University of Georgia fans belt out a more upbeat version of the song in “Glory, Glory.”
How is it that the song considered the anthem of the Union cause has come to play such decidedly different roles in American culture? Why has it proved to be so adaptable, used by conservatives and liberals, black and white, northern and southern? These are the questions that John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis explore in their splendid “biography of the song.”
For more than 150 years, the hymn has resonated with Americans and proved incredibly adaptable in part because of the inherent contradictions and tensions at its core. The song and its many uses have highlighted the tensions between a nation unified and divided; between millennial promise and disappointment; and between “visions of perfect peace and of cataclysmic violence” (16).
The song originated as a hymn at a camp meeting outside of Richmond in the early 1800s. Over the course of the next sixty years, it was sung not only by white slaveholders, but also by their slaves—albeit with different meanings. In the spring of 1861, soldiers stationed at Boston’s Fort Warren forever altered the song through their good-natured taunting of a jovial young soldier who carried the name John Brown. The song quickly spread from Massachusetts regiments through the Army of the Potomac, but its fame gave some northerners pause. How were they to reconcile the notion that most Union soldiers and the northern home front supported a war for union, not emancipation, with the popularity of a song that worshiped Brown as a martyr and glorified bloodshed in the name of abolition? Did not the song undercut assurances made to the border states that the war was about preservation of the union and not the destruction of slavery? On one hand, the lyrics were indeterminate enough to allow those soldiers who did not claim abolitionist sympathies to belt out the song without worrying about conveying some ideological message. Troops could celebrate “hang[ing] Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree” without invoking Brown’s holy mission. On the other hand, a small but vocal minority of northerners as well as African Americans found in the song a rallying cry for their abolitionist principles. For Confederates who heard Union troops singing the tune, the song provided evidence of northern depravity. Here was just one of the many instances in which the song pulled Americans in varying directions, provoked intense debate, and reflected the simultaneously fractured and unified populous. [End Page 474]
In the fall of 1861, a Boston minister encouraged Julia Ward Howe to compose new lyrics for the song that might elevate it above a martial camp song. She did just that, penning words that freed the song from association with the abolitionist Brown and provided even greater range of meaning and interpretation for Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Howe’s lyrics, like those of the earlier soldiers’ tune, offered several avenues of interpretation: military sacrifice, vengeance, as well as spiritual and national redemption. The millennial framework of the song could be invoked by radicals and conservatives in the name of either preserving the United States...