Wednesday, July 1, 2020
July 1, 2020: Patriotism’s Contested Histories: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
[Later this year, my next book, Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, will be published in Rowman & Littlefield’s American Ways series. So this year’s July 4th series, I wanted to highlight a few of the contested histories of American patriotism that project includes. Leading up to a special weekend post on the book itself!]
On three patriotic layers to Julia Ward Howe’s influential Civil War anthem.
1) Inspirations: As is pretty well-known, Howe composed “Battle Hymn” (initially published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862) by setting new lyrics to an existing tune: the music to “John Brown’s Body,” a Civil War marching song that may in turn have been based on William Steffe’s “Say, Brothers/Canaan’s Happy Shore” (although there were and remain other potential sources for “John Brown’s Body” as well, including ironically enough the minstrel show songwriter Thomas Brigham Bishop). Whatever the precise history of that evolving tune, its role in Howe’s creation reflects her desire to link her new patriotic anthem to both the history of abolitionism (and violence in service of that goal) and the unfolding war. And her most immediate inspiration made those links even clearer: it was after Howe and her husband, the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, visited President Abraham Lincoln in the White House in November 1861 that she came up with the idea to compose a song of support for Lincoln and the Union cause.
2) Themes: One of the most interesting things about “Battle Hymn” is also the reason why I define it (in my book’s Civil War chapter) as a unique example of celebratory patriotism: that its original lyrics do not explicitly mention America at all, focusing largely on religious references, such as the famous opening line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Those are interwoven with images of war that are both symbolic (“His terrible swift sword”) and specific (“the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps”). Yet the title links both war (Battle) and religion (Hymn) to that American Republic, and in so doing turns the entire song into a celebration of an idealized, blessed nation. Because of that multi-layered link, the song’s most repeated phrase, “His truth is marching on,” while certainly and centrally referring to God, likewise describes the progress of Lincoln and the American cause in the Civil War. Indeed, Howe envisions that national cause as nothing less than a holy text, as illustrated by the third verse’s striking opening line, “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.”
3) Recruiting: Howe’s battle anthem wasn’t just inspired by those rows of steel, however—it also helped inspire more of them. In 1863, for example, the Philadelphia-based Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments re-published the “Battle Hymn” as a broadside, seeing it as nothing short of a case for the enlistment and service of men in those newly forming regiments. In my World War I chapter (on which more tomorrow) I write about the most famous patriotic recruiting image in American history, the James Montgomery Flagg “I Want You” Uncle Sam poster. But given the vital importance of the Civil War African American regiments, it’s fair to say that no recruitment effort was ever more crucial than that one—and Howe’s patriotic anthem played a role in that pivotal Civil War and American turning point.
Next patriotic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other moments or stories of patriotism you’d highlight?