Battle Hymn of the Republic

Today I want to talk about three unusual individuals:
The first – In 1852, a young musician and song leader from Richmond, Virginia, traveled to Georgia to lead the singing in a camp meeting. His name was William Steffe. When he arrived at the camp meeting, Steffe found they had no song books. The director of the meeting explained, “The folks who sing can’t read, and the folks who read can’t sing, so why bother with song books.” A more usual method for singing was to line out a hymn. The leader would read a line, and the people would then sing that line, and then the leader would read another. Young Steffe decided to write some songs that would be easy to remember and sing and teach them to the people. One of his songs ran like this: “Say, Brother, will you meet me on Canaan’s happy shore.” This line was repeated. Then he added a chorus with these words: “glory, glory, Hallelujah.” This song became very popular.
The second – In 1819, a baby girl was born in New York City. Her name was Julia Ward. At the age of 24, she married Dr. Samuel Howe of Boston, where they lived until the Civil War began. Dr. Howe volunteered for medical service in the Union Army and was assigned to a military hospital in Washington, D.C. while Mrs. Howe remained in Boston.
The third – A rabid abolitionist, a man who in his own words said that, “he had sworn eternal enmity against the evils of slavery” was a man named John Brown. He made an unsuccessful effort to free the slaves by armed rebellion. He and his small band captured the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to secure arms to furnish the slaves. John Brown was captured and hanged for the crime of treason, but many people in the North considered John Brown a hero and a martyr to the cause of freedom.
Eighteen months after John Brown’s raid, the War Between the States erupted and Washington became an armed camp. One of the favorite marching songs of the Union soldiers was “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave; his soul is marching on.” Where did they get their marching song? It was William Steffe’s camp meeting song with new words. Even the southern soldiers used this tune as a marching song, but their words were different. They sang, “We will hang Abe Lincoln on a sour apple tree as we go marching on.”
Now where does Julia Ward Howe fit into this vignette? Mrs. Howe came down to Washington soon after the war started. Dr. Howe rented a horse and carriage and they drove over into Virginia to watch a review of Union troops.
On this trip, they saw companies of soldiers marching and drilling and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The tune stuck in her mind. That night in her room at the Willard Hotel, Mrs. Howe could not sleep. From her window she could see the campfires of a hundred circling camps and hear the trumpets that shall never sound retreat. She picked up a piece of paper and dashed off five verses to match the old camp meeting tune of William Steffe.
Now here is an unusual circumstance surrounding this great song. Julia Ward Howe sent her poem to The Atlantic Monthly, and it was published immediately. The editor sent Mrs. Howe the magnificent sum of four dollars for her efforts. This was all the monetary reward she ever received.
So three very diverse and unlikely persons contributed to the greatest patriotic religious song ever written in this country. Out of the most tragic of all our wars came this thrilling and inspiring hymn we call “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the marching song of One Nation Under God.

Post a Comment


  1. Very good lesson. Thank you. =D The only thing, though, is that the song "John Brown's Body" isn't about the Hero of Harper's Ferry. It's about a Scotsman in a Boston Army unit who had the same name, but who also had some issues with punctuality - whenever he showed up late, he was teased about being dead (the reason he was late). "His soul is marching on" (etc.) was a jab at the unfortunate sargeant.