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 ...