Our Almost National Anthem
I learned most of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" before I started grade school. The lyrics were part of a special supplement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, published at the beginning of the Civil War centennial. I must have read that supplement to pieces.
But the "Battle Hymn" was burned into my consciousness by the version we sang with the Youth Orchestra of Philadelphia in 1971, a sprawling, all-flags-flying arrangement by Peter J. Wilhousky. It's the version that half of all high-school band, chorus, and orchestra directors whip out whenever they need a closer to rouse their audience to a standing-ovation pitch. And if it weren't for baseball games, tourists from afar would think the "Battle Hymn," and not "The Star-Spangled Banner," was our national anthem.
Of course, there was a moment when the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" nearly did become our national anthem. This discovery is one of hundreds of insights gleaned from John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis's book, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press). The "Battle Hymn," offspring of frontier revival meetings, really did originate as a hymn. Waves of improvement and variation shaped the words into its familiar rhythmic pattern, with a long stress on the first syllable—Say, brothers, won't you meet us over on the other shore—and ending with a call-and-response-like chorus possibly copied from African American sources: There we'll shout and give him glory, There we'll shout and give him glory, There we'll shout and give him glory, For glory is his own.
The original hymn also inspired parodies. At the outbreak of the Civil War, soldiers of the 12th Massachusetts produced their own doggerel version, John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. The butt of their joke was a Scottish-born recruit in the regiment. But the invocation of John Brown almost immediately raised the specter of a more famous John Brown, the abolitionist who had initiated the failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. By July 1861, "John Brown's Body" had sprouted wings and become a rally song so popular, "one can hardly walk on the streets for five minutes without hearing it whistled or hummed."
An Adaptable Anthem
It remained only for Julia Ward Howe, in that same year, to fashion words that transfigured an abolitionist's corpse into an ode to crusading militarism. Howe was the wife of one of Brown's Brahmin financial backers, and had actually met Brown in 1857. Prompted by a comment from theologian James Freeman Clarke—"write some good words for that stirring tune"—Howe wrote out a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in a single burst of pre-dawn creativity. Then she published its five verses in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly for the princely sum of five dollars, and without a byline.