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Songs of Yesterday: Glory, Hallelujah! Part 1

The "Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, was the second Civil War song using a melody written by William Steffe. The first, of course, was "John Brown's Body," and here we look at the circumstances that led to the advent of both of these songs. The "Battle Hymn" is as popular today as it was in the 1860s and here we may discover why.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform The Battle Hymn of the Republic. To order the complete CD, see Songs of the War of the Rebellion.

"Glory, Glory, Hallelujah; Teacher hit me with a ruler! Knocked her on the bean with a rotten tangerine. . . ." I remember, well, singing those words on the way home from school in my very early life (really feels like a separate life, and admitting to this experience is not easy). I have no idea why I would sing such a thing, except that the group I was walking with was chanting it! (Ah, safety in numbers; and, luckily, no teachers were nearby; of course, both my parents were teachers, so I ran a major risk of being reported.) Perhaps you remember singing some odd words to that very familiar melody; did you know, though, that, if you did, you were carrying on an ages-old tradition? The tune had been around a long time before it was given those immortal words by Julia Ward Howe.

William Steffe, considered a classical composer, wrote a melody back in about 1852, originally intending it to serve as a march (Wright, p. 246). By 1856 it was altered, slowed, and turned into a religious camp-meeting song that went, "Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?/ Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?/ Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?/ To watch the Jordan roll." The refrain used a commonly known tune with the words we all know so well, "Glory, glory, hallelujah;/ Glory, glory, hallelujah;/ Glory, glory, hallelujah;/ To watch the Jordan roll." The song did not last in popularity as long as the tune did and soon people were using the melody to carry other lyrics that fit whatever their purposes were (Wikipedia).

Among the musical options for this catchy tune was one written about a man named John Brown. Those genealogists who are reading this know how horrible it is to have anyone in the family line with such a common name (I have one - John Bernard Brown), yet there was a man who was gaining notoriety by his abolitionist activities that would make him a likely object of a song. The song seems to have originated in the battalion glee club of the Boston Light Infantry. Ironically, within the glee club was a tenor, a certain Sergeant John Brown. The singers often sang Steffe's Methodist gathering song, and that morphed into a piece about their own John Brown, the tenor, some say to tease him about his death (Wright, p. 246), others say it was sung upon his death. The original song about Sergeant Brown was short and the many verses that were added later clarified that the eventual subject was not the singer, but the martyred abolitionist (Silverman, p. 18). In spite of the motivation behind the construction of the initial verses, both the choir and those in the audience, when it was first sung for public consumption, understood that it was to remember the man who had been hung in 1859 for leading a slave uprising (Silber, p. 11). One might wonder if, had there been no Sergeant Brown in Massachusetts, would the song ever have materialized?

Once introduced to the soldiers, and, specifically, after those first shots at Fort Sumter, "John Brown's Body" became a favorite marching song. A number of versions of the song exist and the variations on the lyrics are many. It is clear, by reading the multitude of verses, that no one is singing about a glee club performer, unless Sergeant Brown was also active in anti-slavery activities (he was not) (Silber, pp. 23-24). But let us pause a moment to look at the circumstances of the song and the activities of Mr. Brown, abolitionist. Here was a man who attempted to create a slave uprising at the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to motivate the anti-slave proponents in the north. His actions failed to create the desired effect and he was subsequently captured. Brown was executed by the U.S. Government, which considered his actions to be an example of insurrection; the result: both sides considered him a martyr (Silverman, p. 18). Following his death, which occurred over a year before the Civil War began, the song, immortalizing Brown's efforts, was soon being sung by Union troops in camps all over. It gained increased fervor after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and was popular among both black and white soldiers. The song was also dubbed "emancipation Marseillaise" (McNeil & McNeil, p. 66), which translates to mean "the emancipation anthem" (

Among the supporters of John Brown (the abolitionist) was a woman, short in stature, but tall in opinions and talent: Julia Ward Howe (Silverman, p. 19). Mrs. Howe and Mr. Brown had a mutual admiration of each other's ideals and their expressions - Mrs. Howe, through her essays and poems; Mr. Brown, through his political speeches (Jones). Mrs. Howe, wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was part of the Sanitary Commission by appointment of President Lincoln, was a self-proclaimed abolitionist (Silverman, p. 19).

As mentioned, the song about Mrs. Howe's martyred ally was a favorite among the Union troops, many units using it as their "marching song." Others elected to use the same tune to carry other lyrics, far less appropriate for public audiences. Perhaps some had forgotten that those listening were not limited to their fellow servicemen: frequently visitors would come to the camps, some of which were established just outside major cities and open to civilians; camps had little or no restrictions (hardly a situation than would exist today). One of the reasons that this happened is probably because, until a regiment was fully formed, the recruits were not sworn in to service with the Federal Government. While gathered together and recruited by the states from local communities (making the soldiers neighbors, friends, and family members), awaiting the completion of the regiment, the soldiers would answer to local authorities. The discipline was not always effective due to the inconsistencies from one state to the next. The state government was responsible for creating the leadership, however temporary, until the enlistment was complete and the group was turned over to the Federal Government; sometimes this leadership consisted of volunteers from the citizenry of the communities, not necessarily committed to the proper organization of the troops (many of whom were very young and immature) (Catton, p. 49).

Combine the lack of discipline among the troops, the young age of the soldiers, and the lack of regulations regarding civilian contact with the men and the camps and it is not surprising to learn a civilian visitor might show up at the camps and be offended by what he/she witnessed (probably not much different from the offense some more religious folks would have towards today's troops, if they witnessed them relaxing or engaged in off-duty banter).

During an 1861 inspection tour of at the Virginia army camps near Washington, D.C. (Hill, p. 192), where Dr. and Mrs. Howe had recently relocated from Boston, the poet was disturbed by the soldiers' treatment of her late friend in their versions of "John Brown's Body," adding degrading verses to the popular song. Her upset was apparent to James Freeman Clarke, the Howes' Boston pastor, who was visiting the couple and "along for the ride," and he suggested to her that, though the use of ribald, filthy lyrics were common among young soldiers, the tune was worthy of lyrics that were much more uplifting, challenging her to provide it.

Mrs. Howe says, in her autobiography, that she accepted the challenge, looking for Heavenly guidance to assist her. She reported that she went to bed that night and was able to sleep, even though the excitement of the day was weighing heavily on her mind. Nevertheless, as soon as dawn just started to break, she was disturbed from her slumber by the words that would eventually immortalize her. At first, she simply had lain in her bed and let the lyrics "arrange themselves" in her mind until all verses were set. Then, lest she forget what her brain had conjured, she quickly got up and located writing implements and, without hardly looking at the page, scribbled all the words to the song we now know as the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Surprisingly, once her task was complete, she returned to her bed and slumber, knowing in her heart that something very important had just occurred. It was November, 1861 (Silber, p. 10).

The "Battle Hymn" was virtually given to the world in 1862 in the February issue of the Atlantic Monthly, printed as a poem (Davidson, p. 90). I say "given" because Mrs. Howe's "take" for this literary masterpiece was an entire five dollars (Silber, p. 10). The song now appears in hymnals as well as collections of popular and/or folk songs; it seems to transcend genres. Some find the song that talks of going forth to battle to be an odd addition to the hymn books in churches (Jones), but others find her verses about Christ's Second Coming to be inspirational. Allegedly, John Brown had told Dr. Howe that he saw himself as a savior to the slaves, as Christ was to all mankind; and Dr. Howe saw that correlation in the lives of both, who died for those they were trying to save (Silber, p. 10). Quite likely, it was that living metaphor that contributed to Mrs. Howe's perception as she changed the words in the song previously sung about her friend, the abolitionist.

But the song that combined the themes of war and peace, religion and survival, did not end with its publication. As is often the case when a song "goes public," it is subject to something folklorists and musicians call "the folk process." Mrs. Howe's anthem experienced some metamorphosis as people subjected it to their own interpretations, biases, and talents. These will be the subject of next month's look at the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."


Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War (ed. by John Leekley). New York: Promontory Press, 1998.

Davidson, Karen Lynn. Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988. "Marseillaise." Accessed 30 December 2009, from

Hill, Lois (ed). Poems and Songs of the Civil War. New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

Jones, Michael Dan. "What it Really Means." Confederate American Pride. Accessed 4 January 2010, from

McNeil, Keith, & McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.

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.

Wikipedia. "William Steffe." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 December 2009, from

Wright, Mike. What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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