Since the September terrorist attacks on the United States, a spirit of patriotism has swept the country. American flags are seen everywhere and patriotic anthems are often performed. One the most powerful songs heard at memorial services and other events is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", whose lyrics were written 140 years ago today during America's Civil War of the 1860s.
One of the bedrock principles of American democracy is the separation between church and state. Nevertheless, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", one of the most enduring of American songs, declares the United States to be protected by the might of God.
Deane Root, the Director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, says the words written by Julia Ward Howe, and set to a familiar melody, equated God's will with the Union cause during the Civil War. "She wrote something that had all the religious fervor and militaristic passion that made this song popular throughout the Civil War," he said. "It became an emblem to the war, very much as the flags were emblems. The song melody was sung in the South in camp meetings that is, religious revival meetings but nobody wrote it down, nobody published it until 1857."
The original lyrics encouraged others to take part in the religious meetings.
"It's entirely possible," Mr. Root continued, "that this melody was actually sung on plantations. It could have been a what was called at the time Negro spiritual something like 'Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore.' We can't prove that but people who were alive at the time swore that it was something that the African-American attendees at these camp meetings knew and sang and danced to in their religious revival spirit."
Once the Civil War was under way, Professor Root says some Union soldiers in Massachusetts wrote new lyrics that dealt with the death of a well-known American. He said, "John Brown, of course, had been a famous spokesperson and activist on behalf of the liberation of the slaves. He was caught and hung in December of 1859. So about a year-and-a-half before, the soldiers of Massachusetts made their parody. And instead of singing 'say brothers will you meet us' they started singing 'John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.' And they began singing it all over the North. It became, sort of, a marching song for the new recruits for the Union army."
"I think everybody knew that melody," said historian Deborah Pickman Clifford. she is a biographer of Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the final set of lyrics. Juilia Ward Howe was one of the most remarkable women of her era. Born in 1819, she became a writer, a poet, a reformer, and a lecturer. She helped her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, edit an anti-slavery newspaper in Massachusetts.
Ms. Clifford says Julia Ward Howe was visiting Washington in a highly emotional state after witnessing the Civil War for the first time. She said, "When she was in Washington in the fall of 1861 going out to view the troops just before the first Battle of Bull Run, there was a skirmish and they had to turn back and come back into Washington. The Union troops were marching along their side and they were singing 'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave.' And one of Julia's companions turned to her and said, 'Mrs. Howe, you should write some more stirring words for that tune.'"
Julia Ward Howe had by then published one book of poetry, which had been well received. The next day, in the pre-dawn darkness of November 19, 1861, she showed that she was up to her new challenge.
Ms. Clifford said, "She got out of bed and she took up a stub of a pencil. And it was the way she wrote a lot of her poetry. They would come to her in the middle of the night and she'd get up because she was always afraid that she would forget them. She thought out all the stanzas just lying there in bed and said, 'I must get up and write these verses down lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So she sprang out of bed and scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. Having completed her writing, she then went back to bed and fell asleep, saying to herself, 'I like this better than most things I have written.' I love the second verse because as she came into Washington on that visit, she saw outside her train window groups of soldiers sitting around their campfires on the outskirts of the city waiting to defend the Union cause. And that little glimpse inspired her to write, in the second verse, 'I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps, They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps.' And I just love that image of the soldiers outside. And the reality of the war that sort of, in some ways, came home to her for the first time with that vision."
Julia Ward Howe took a song that had begun as a religious hymn and turned it into a marching song for Union soldiers heading to battle. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly and her stirring words made it into an anthem that equated God's will with the defense of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Professor Root said, "The 'Glory' Glory Hallelujah' chorus is one of the constants that goes from the earliest versions that we have printed up to Julia Ward Howe's text. And it's the spirit-lifting, upraising idea that you're praising God and this is a glorious, glorious thing and you can't help but be excited by it."
Dean Root of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh says the chorus is his favorite section of each rendition of the song. He continued, "In her version, of course, 'His truth is marching on.' In the John Brown version it's 'his soul is marching on.' And in the earliest versions, the camp meeting hymn, it was 'forever, ever more.' God is triumphant. There's no doubt in this song. There's no questioning. It's absolute certainty."
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung at Abraham Lincoln's funeral and at reunions of Civil War soldiers. And it has remained popular especially during wartime.
Mr. Root says the song took on another role four decades ago. ""The depth of meaning in this song that it acquired during the Civil War," he said, "certainly made it a civil rights anthem in the 20th Century. So that Martin Luther King naturally was drawn to those images from the Civil War that had brought about emancipation. He was quoting liberally from the song in some of his speeches and his sermons as well."
"Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!"
Writing the "Battle Hymn" was also liberating for Julia Ward Howe. She became an advocate for women's rights and a spokeswoman for a Mother's movement for world peace. She became so famous that a biography of her life was awarded one of the first Pulitzer Prizes.
Historian Deborah Clifford says America is finding comfort in her words again in a very trying time - exactly 140 years after she scrawled them with the stub of a pencil just before sunup. "It speaks out in favor of war and violence, which some people don't like," she said. "And so we tend not to sing it when we are in a pacifist mood. But right now I guess it's pretty popular."