Last month we looked at the history of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The tune, attributed to William Steffe, carried various sets of words that many found objectionable. Mrs. Howe, an admirer of the abolitionist John Brown, was disappointed about the less than flattering lyrics of the song that immortalized him; she also took offense at the raw and more ribald lyrics that soldiers sang to the catchy melody. In answer to her disgust, and in response to a challenge by her pastor, Mrs. Howe wrote what we now sing in various venues as a hymn, a patriotic song, and a War/Peace song. But the song did not stop with its composition (in 1861) or publication (in 1862). Let's look at what happened with the anthem after Mrs. Howe completed her part.
The words of the "Battle Hymn" have been only slightly altered over the years. Five verses are usually printed in the books that carry this song, though some shorten it to only four (removing the verse that clearly speaks of the Civil War: "I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps . . ." probably finding that verse harder for some to relate to). But there is a sixth verse that has been all but forgotten and does not appear in the original sheet music or the first published version in the Atlantic Monthly (Crawford, pp. 5-8): "He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave;/ He is wisdom to the mighty, he is honor to the brave;/ So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of wrong his slave./ Our God is marching on" (Davidson, p. 91). Perhaps that is omitted for fear of making the song just one verse too long.
Another interesting alteration in the song, again, to appease those who probably cannot even envision what it was like for the Boys in Blue as they marched off to war and a very likely death, appears in verse five. The last line of the original poem and song reads: "As he [meaning Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free . . ." (Crawford, p. 8). But some hymn books and choirs now sing the verse "As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free . . ." (Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #60), no doubt making more sense to a congregation singing this song in a church where they, as individuals, are hardly heading off to anything more dangerous than the freeway traffic on the road to home.
Different hymnals view different verses as being important to include (though none I have found include the one listed above, which seems to me to be odd, considering the content of the verse). The 1985 hymn book of the LDS Church lists only three verses, omitting, of the standard five, numbers two and three, both dealing more with the War than the Second Coming. In singing all of the verses, the chorus in that version (as in most of those I have located) repeats itself, with the tag line "His truth is marching on" (#60). Folk and popular singers often change the tag line of the chorus to agree with the last line of whatever verse has just been sung (i.e., "His day is marching on," "Since God is marching on," "Our God is marching on," and "While God is marching on"), using "His truth is marching on" for the chorus after only the first verse, where that is the tag line.
Out of curiosity, I decided to check some old hymn books to see what other alterations might exist there. Earlier versions of the LDS (Mormon) song books do not include the song at all (Davidson, p. 91), though it has always been a favorite of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and recorded by them at least a half dozen times (I gave up counting). (On at least one recording, the choir sings "let us live to make men free" [Songs of the Civil War & Stephen Foster Favorites, 1992].) What about other song books?
The Presbyterian hymnal Hymns of Praise omits the third verse that begins "I have read a fiery gospel . . ." (Kingsbury, #283) as does their New Hymnal for American Youth (Smith, #280). The Baptist hymnal Songs for Service also omits that verse (Rodeheaver, #328). A children's songbook, used in elementary schools in the 1930s, includes the five best known verses, including the original form "let us die . . ." in verse five (McConathy, et al., p. 173). A popular, non-church-related, songbook of the early 1900s, lists four verses, this time omitting the usual final verse with that controversial "let us die to make men free" (Wier, p. 233) - possibly by omitting the entire verse, one need not have to worry about upsetting the singers or audience. Finally, I checked a new (comparatively) publication of songs from the 19th Century and found our subject song to be listed even before the first numbered page of the volume! This version, like the hymnals, contains only four verses, but this time the omitted verse is traditionally number two, beginning, "I have seen him in the watchfires . . ." (just as we saw with the 1985 LDS hymn book); but this version retains the original ending of the last verse "let us die to make men free" (World Charts, p. vi-vii).
I could go on comparing versions and sources, but I think you get the idea: the song is a mainstay, in one form or another, in popular as well as religious venues. One would think that Mrs. Howe's valiant efforts to "clean up" old "John Brown" would be the end of it, but of course that's not the case (and, as mentioned earlier, "John Brown's Body" was sung in Union camps all throughout the War, in spite of Mrs. Howe's contribution). The familiar chorus, with various lyrics in the verses, has been used as campaign songs for Grover Cleveland, Eugene V. Debs, Herbert Hoover, and Thomas E. Dewey. Then, probably with Mrs. Howe's blessing, it became the carrier of the spirit of the labor force by Ralph Chaplin, who wrote "Solidarity forever!/ Solidarity forever!/ Solidarity forever!/ For the union makes us strong" (Silverman, pp. 21-23). Of course, since Mrs. Howe herself borrowed the melody from William Steffe, we cannot claim that the union (as opposed to Union) chant for togetherness is a take-off on "Battle Hymn"; none of Mrs. Howe's lyrics are included in the labor song.
It was almost traditional, during the Civil War, that when one side came up with a catchy song, the other side would grab it and adjust it for their purposes. George Root's "Battle Cry of Freedom" had its Southern counterpart: "Southern 'Battle Cry of Freedom'"; and his "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (AKA "The Prisoner's Hope") also had a Southern version. "Maryland, My Maryland," the Southern song by James R. Randall, had its Northern counterpart in "Answer to 'My Maryland,'" added to by writers from the ranks of various Union regiments (Silber, pp. 8-9, 13-15, & 54-55). But there is no Southern variant on "Battle Hymn of the Republic," or at least, none that has existed into the 21st Century. Perhaps some things are considered too sacred to "mess with."
Following the War, the veterans who made up the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) continued to meet in reunion encampments and regular gatherings across the North, and they created their own versions of songs to sing at their meetings. My great-grandfather was one such veteran and he saved his songbook from those monthly gatherings. In it I found what those Milwaukee volunteers sang: a song entitled "Glory, for Woman's Loyalty!" Those words went as follows:
"Glory for the valor that has triumphed everywhere,/ Sanctified and strengthened by self-sacrifice and prayer,/ And in those days of glory noble woman did her share. Defending liberty./ Proudly, gratefully remember (3 times) Woman's true loyalty" (Acme, p. 45).
I think Mrs. Howe would probably have approved of that version, too.
Ironically, that first version of the song, published in the Atlantic Monthly, credits the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to "Mrs. Dr. S. G. Howe" (Crawford, p. 5). For a woman who was progressive in her ideals and her writings, and considered, by some, to be a feminist before her time (Jones), it must have been something of an insult to see her lyrics that have become both a War/Peace song and a church hymn published without even listing her own name as the creator. She did not even provide the original title, that being attributed to the magazine's editor, James T. Fields (Silber, p. 10). Mrs. Howe became an active member of the women's suffrage movement, dying in 1910 at the age of 91 (p. 11). Her other claim to fame: the suggestion of setting aside one day a year to honor Mothers (Silverman, p.22).
Acme Haversack. Old War Songs and GAR and Patriotic Songs. Excerpts from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence. Syracuse: Comrade J.C.O. Redington, 1889.
Crawford, Richard (compiler). The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.
Davidson, Karen Lynn. Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988.
Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Corp. of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
Kingsbury, f. G. (compiler). Hymns of Praise for the Church and Sunday School. Chicago: Hope Publishing Co., 1922.
McConathy, Osbourne, Miessner, W. Otto, Birge, Edward Bailey, & Bray, Mabel E. The Music Hour: Two-Book Course, Upper Grades. New York: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1934.
Rodeheaver, Homer A. (compiler). Songs for Service for the Church, Sunday School and Evangelistic Services. Chicago: The Rodeheaver Gospel Music Co. (undated).
Silber, Irwin, compiler and editor. Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
Silverman, Jerry. Songs and Stories of the Civil War. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-first Century Books, 2002.
Smith, H. Augustine (ed.). The New Hymnal for American Youth. New York: The Century Co., 1930.
Wier, Albert E. (ed.). Songs the Whole World Sings. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1915.
World Charts. The American Songbook. New York: California Music Press, Inc., 1975.