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Books & Manuscripts

Discover the Fascinating History Behind an Enduring Patriotic and Spiritual Hymn

In November 1861 Julia Ward Howe accompanied her husband, Dr Samuel Gridley Howe, to Washington and the surrounding countryside in order to see first-hand the condition of Massachusetts's troops guarding the nation’s capitol – an experience that inspired the social activist to adapt the popular Union tune “John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” Her version titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – an autograph transcription of which is on offer in the 17 January Fine Printed and Manuscript Americana auction – would go on to become the best-known song of the Civil War, arousing fervour as it was sung by the Union armies marching into battle. The song’s legacy, however, extends far beyond the 19th century. Howe’s triumphant lyrics have been woven into the fabric of American history and identity, and become one of the defining political and spiritual hymns of our time.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” draws upon America’s rich oral hymn tradition of camp meetings, utilizing a well-known melody, variants of which were popular in both the northern and southern United States. Howe’s verses were meant to obliquely address the union’s motivations for fighting the Civil War – the abolition of slavery – using religious language describing the final judgment (“He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat). This strategy served to expand the abolitionist cause to encompass nothing less than the salvation of the soul of the United States. 

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MOURNERS GATHERED AT RFK's FUNERAL TRAIN. PHOTO BY BILL EPPRIDGE/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES.

The verses that address equality and liberty would be taken up again a century later by the Civil Rights Movement, and Howe’s work enjoyed a period of renewed political and cultural relevance. Orson Wells said of the song, “I don’t think there’s any argument that it’s the greatest song ever to come out of America,” while Judy Garland performed a stirring rendition as a tribute to the recently slain John F. Kennedy on The Judy Garland Show. According to Garland's daughter, the singer looked into the camera and said, "This is for you, Jack," but CBS deemed it too political, and it was struck from the broadcast. When JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, crowds of mourners gathered around his funeral train, and burst into tearful renditions of “The Battle Hymn.”

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DR MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DELIVERING HIS FINAL SERMON WHICH QUOTED “THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC.” BETTMANN/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted excerpts in several of his sermons and speeches, including his "Our God is Marching On (How Long, Not Long)" speech from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol on 25 March 1965, and in his final sermon "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on 3 April 1968, where Dr King closed by stating: “… I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

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