'The Battle Hymn Of The Republic': An Anthem For Every Cause

Aug 12, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 8:15 am

Julia Ward Howe wrote a rousing anthem for the Union in the Civil War. Since then, it's been caught in a cultural tug-of-war over who it's an anthem for — social conservatives, evangelical Christians, labor workers or civil rights leaders.

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We're going to revisit a story from NPR's American Anthem series, exploring songs that tap into the collective emotions that listeners and performers have around an issue or belief.

And today, that song is "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic." There's an episode of "The Johnny Cash Show" from 1969 where the man himself is about to sing the song, but before he starts, he makes a little speech with a pretty big error.


JOHNNY CASH: Here's a song that was reportedly sung by both sides in the Civil War.

SINGH: The history is clear. "The Battle Hymn" was first written by Julia Ward Howe as a pro-Union, anti-slavery song. But then, Cash makes this point.


CASH: Which proves one thing to me - that a song can belong to all of us.

SINGH: About that, he's right.


CASH: (Singing) Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

SINGH: NPR's Andrew Limbong guides us through one of America's most enduring anthems.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: I should go easy on Johnny Cash for flubbing the history of "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic." I had it wrong, too. I didn't even know the song had ties to the Civil War up until embarrassingly recently because I - and maybe you, if you grew up with a similar flavor of Christianity - only sang it at church.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) His truth is marching on.

LIMBONG: Little did I know, the song was being used to root for college football teams - "Go Georgia"...


LIMBONG: ...As an anthem for labor unions.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Solidarity forever.

LIMBONG: Evangelist Billy Graham, who helped popularize the song among Christians, even took it to the Russian Army Chorus in 1992.


RUSSIAN ARMY CHORUS: (Singing) His truth is marching on.

SPARKY RUCKER: It's a good march. I mean, it's just the right cadence to march along if you're marching in a picket line or marching down the street carrying signs.

LIMBONG: That's Sparky Rucker, a folk singer and Civil War historian who performs a show of Civil War music called "Blue And Gray In Black And White" with his wife, Rhonda.

RUCKER: It sets your heart to - (panting) - and really gets your blood going - and that you can slay dragons.

LIMBONG: Dragons are relative, though. Anita Bryant used to sing the song at anti-gay rallies. And it's also been used to justify racism. On the flipside, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "Mountaintop" speech the day before he was killed in 1968. And it ends like this.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

BIRGITTA JOHNSON: How people relate to patriotism is kind of how they come into the battle hymn.

LIMBONG: That's professor Birgitta Johnson and ethnomusicologist at the University of South Carolina, who teaches in the schools of music and African-American studies.

After Martin Luther King Jr. died, she says his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, made the song about him and his truth of the civil rights movement. Johnson says this anthem is all about what you bring to it.

JOHNSON: For example, when you see your white nationalists kind of digging deep into their heavy patriotism messages, they bring up things like the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the battle hymn, and it becomes their battle cry just as easy as it can become the battle cry for Ebenezer in Atlanta.

LIMBONG: And that flexibility is by design.


LIMBONG: Quick history - it's the middle of the Civil War. Union soldiers are sitting around a campfire, goofing off, singing songs, and they're ribbing on this one guy.

JOHN STAUFFER: One of the members of the singing group is a Scottish immigrant named John Brown.

LIMBONG: Not that John Brown, says Harvard professor John Stauffer. We're not talking about the famous abolitionist, just a regular soldier. Stauffer is the co-author of the book "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic: A Biography Of The Song That Marches On." He says the soldiers were making up lyrics to the tune of an old hymn - to "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?"

STAUFFER: So when they start making up songs to pass the time, comrades needle him and say, you can't be John Brown. John Brown's dead. And then another soldier would add - but his body's mouldering in the grave.


RUCKER: (Singing) John Brown's body lies a-mouldering (ph) in the grave.

LIMBONG: So even though it's about a regular soldier, the ghost of the abolitionist looms large, and a song called "John Brown's Body" is born. It becomes super-popular among Union soldiers for a few reasons. It's easy to sing. The melody is simple. The lyrics are easy to remember. And, most importantly, it glorified the righteous fight against slavery.


RUCKER: (Singing) The stars of heaven - they are looking kind of down on the grave of old John Brown.

LIMBONG: A couple of years later, a well-to-do, highly educated poet from New York named Julia Ward Howe comes to Washington, D.C., with her minister to visit Union troops.

STAUFFER: As they do so, Confederates attacked.

LIMBONG: But the Union troops defend and impress Howe. Her minister pushes her to rewrite "John Brown's Body."

STAUFFER: Rewrite it and elevate it for a kind of educated audience.

LIMBONG: John Stauffer says Julia Ward Howe was not interested in creating an anthem. She wanted to make capital-A art with metaphor and symbolism, so she could join the ranks of the better-known writers of her time.

STAUFFER: Symbolism was seen by Hawthorne or Melville, Thoreau, that part of the way in which they were understood as great writers was their use of symbolism.

LIMBONG: So Howe ditched many of the crowdsourced lyrics of "John Brown's Body" like let's hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree. But that crowdsourcing is what made the song so popular in the first place - that and the stirring melody of the original hymn. Birgitta Johnson says African-American units picked up the melody as their anthem.

JOHNSON: And you also had this "Marching Song Of The First Arkansas" being sung by black Union soldiers.

RUCKER: (Singing) We need to show Jeff Davis how the African can fight as we go marching on.

We're done with hoeing cotton. We're done with hoeing corn. We're colored Yankee soldiers now, sure as you're born.

LIMBONG: That's folk singer Sparky Rucker again, whose versions of the songs we've been hearing. He says that when he sings the black Union soldiers' version of the song, even in the south, where, in his words, the wounds of the Civil War are still fresh, everyone sings along.

RUCKER: Even though a lot of my unreconstructed Southerners (laughter) will sing it along with me because we've also sung some of their songs.


RUCKER: (Singing) Singing glory glory hallelujah.

LIMBONG: Rucker says everyone also sings the Julia Ward Howe version, which eventually won, getting published by The Atlantic magazine in 1862 and becoming canonized.

And while it does transcend centuries and cultures, Birgitta Johnson is quick to point out that it is, at the end of the day, a war song.

JOHNSON: So the Kumbaya moment will not be happening across the aisles because of this song because it's really about supporting whatever your perspective is on freedom or liberation and having God as the person who's ordaining what we're doing. And Glory Hallelujah about that.

LIMBONG: The song does belong to everyone, as Johnny Cash said in 1969. But what really matters is why they're singing it. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.


CASH: (Singing) As he died to make them holy, let us live to make men free while God is marching on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.