From A Song For The Season, by Mark Steyn -
Memorial Day in America – or, if you’re a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today – “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “Dixie”. But this one belongs in a category all its own:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…
In 1861, the United States had nothing that was recognized as a national anthem, and, given that they were now at war, it was thought they ought to find one – a song “that would inspire Americans to patriotism and military ardor”. A 13-member committee was appointed and on May 17th they invited submissions of appropriate anthems, the eventual winner to receive $500, or medal of equal value. By the end of July, they had a thousand submissions, including some from Europe, but nothing with what they felt was real feeling. It’s hard to write a patriotic song to order.
At the time, Dr Samuel Howe was working with the Sanitary Commission of the Department of War, and one fall day he and Mrs Howe were taken to a camp a few miles from Washington for a review of General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. That day, for the first time in her life, Julia Ward Howe heard soldiers singing:
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave…
Ah, yes. The famous song about the famous abolitionist hanged in 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia before a crowd including Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth.
Well, no, not exactly. “By a strange quirk of history,” wrote Irwin Silber, the great musicologist of Civil War folk songs, “‘John Brown’s Body’ was not composed originally about the fiery Abolitionist at all. The namesake for the song, it turns out, was Sergeant John Brown, a Scotsman, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia.” This group enlisted with the Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment and formed a glee club at Fort Warren in Boston. Brown was second tenor, and the subject of a lot of good-natured joshing, including a song about him mould’ring in his grave, which at that time had just one verse, plus chorus:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah…
They called it “The John Brown Song”. On July 18th 1861, at a regimental march past the Old State House in Boston, the boys sang the song and the crowd assumed, reasonably enough, that it was inspired by the life of John Brown the Kansas abolitionist, not John Brown the Scots tenor...as far as I know, this is the only song about a real person in which posterity has mistaken it for a song about a completely different person: “John Brown’s Body” is about some other fellow’s body, not John Brown the somebody but John Brown the comparative nobody. Later on, various other verses were written about the famous John Brown and the original John Brown found his comrades’ musical tribute to him gradually annexed by the other guy.
Sergeant Brown died during a Union retreat: when the enlistment of Colonel Webster’s Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment expired in July 1864, only 85 of more than a thousand men were left to return home to New England....Huge crowds in Boston greeted the survivors with cries to sing “John Brown’s Body” but, as one report commented, “the brave heroes marched silently to their barracks and the ‘Websters’ passed into history.”
When the lads from the Boston Light Infantry cooked up their John Brown song, they used an old Methodist camp-meeting tune, “Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” So where did that come from? Well, back in the 1850s, a Sunday school composer, William Steffe of Richmond, Virginia, was asked to go and lead the singing at a Georgia camp meeting. When he got there, he found there were no song books and so improvised some words to one of those tunes that – like most of the others in those pre-copyright days – was just sorta floating in the ether. Steffe’s lyric, like the original John Brown song, had one verse – “Say, brothers, will you meet us?” – and one chorus: “Glory, glory, hallelujah…”
And somehow this combination – an improvised camp-meeting chorus with an in-joke verse about a Boston Scotsman – became the most popular marching song of the Union forces, the one bellowed out as Sherman’s men marched through Georgia in 1864...But, whatever the tune’s origin, when Julia Ward Howe heard the song for the first time that fall day, “John Brown’s Body” was already famous. She loved the martial vigor of the music, but knew the words were “inadequate for a lasting hymn”. So her minister, Dr Clark, suggested she write some new ones. And early the following morning at her Washington hotel she rose before dawn and on a piece of Sanitary Commission paper wrote the words we sing today, casting the war as a conflict in which one side has the advantage of God’s “terrible swift sword”:
I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps…
She finished the words and went back to bed. It was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. They didn’t credit Mrs. Howe and they paid her only four dollars.
Julia Ward Howe came from a distinguished lineage. Her forebear Richard Ward was Royal Governor of the British colony of Rhode Island and his son Samuel Ward was Governor of the American State of Rhode Island. Her husband, like his friend, the poet Lord Byron, had played an important role in helping the Greeks win independence from the Turks. Mrs Howe herself wrote many poems, Broadway plays and newspaper columns. But “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” is her greatest achievement. Henry Steele Commager called it “the one great song to come out of the Civil War, the one great song ever written in America”.
Whether or not that’s true, most of us understand it has a depth and a power beyond most formal national songs. When John F Kennedy was assassinated, Judy Garland insisted on singing it on her TV show – the producers weren’t happy about it, and one sneered that nobody would give a damn about Kennedy in a month’s time. But it’s an extraordinary performance. Little more than a year later, it was played at the state funeral of Winston Churchill at St Paul’s Cathedral. Among those singing it was the Queen. She sang it again in public, again at St Paul’s, for the second time in her life at the service of remembrance in London three days after September 11th 2001. That day, she also broke with precedent and for the first time sang another country’s national anthem – “The Star-Spangled Banner”. But it was Julia Ward Howe’s words that echoed most powerfully that morning as they have done since she wrote them in her bedroom in Washington 140 years earlier:
As He died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on.