On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to speak in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. "I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land," King announced. "And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man." And then he closed in his lyrical voice: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." The next day he lay dying on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, struck in the cheek by an assassin's bullet.
The last line that King ever spoke in public came from a song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. It was a fitting finale to the life of a great American because the story of the "Battle Hymn" is the story of the United States. The song, now approaching its 150th anniversary, is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem. We have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. The "Battle Hymn" has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
But most of all, the "Battle Hymn" is a warrior's cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. Based on ideas from my new book, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can see how the nation's experience is intimately connected to this crusader's cry.
The story began with a campfire spiritual in the 1850s called "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" Even in these pre-Internet days, the catchy tune went viral and mutated into the song "John Brown's Body." Was this about the famous anti-slavery terrorist, John Brown, who attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, hoping to spark a slave rebellion, before being captured and hanged?
Well, yes and no.
"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave," refers to the latter-day Spartacus. But "His soul goes marching on," in the form of a diminutive Scotsman in the Union army, who happened to share the same name.
By November 1861, the early enthusiasm of the Civil War had faded into a grim appreciation of the magnitude of the struggle. The poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe joined a party inspecting the condition of Union troops near Washington D.C. To overcome the tedium of the carriage ride back to the city, Howe and her colleagues sang army songs, including "John Brown's Body."
One member of the party, Reverend James Clarke, liked the melody but found the lyrics to be distinctly un-elevated. The published version ran "We'll hang old Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree," but the marching men sometimes preferred, "We'll feed Jeff Davis sour apples 'til he gets the diarhee." Might Howe, the Reverend wondered, craft something more fitting?
The next day, Howe awoke to the gray light of early morning. As she lay in bed, lines of poetry formed themselves in her mind. When the last verse was arranged, she rose and scribbled down the words with an old stump of a pen while barely looking at the paper. She fell back asleep, feeling that "something of importance had happened to me." The editor of the Atlantic Monthly, James T. Fields, paid Howe five dollars to publish the poem, and gave it a title: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
You can listen here to a 1908 recording of the song from "The Edison Phonograph Monthly," featuring "Miss Stevenson, Mr. Stanley and Mixed Quartette."
It would prove to be one of the most influential publications in the history of the Atlantic Monthly. The "Battle Hymn" has inspired generations of activists. Women's rights campaigners adopted their own version in 1890: "Battle Hymn of the Suffragists" which went: "They come from every nation, women fair and strong and brave." Union organizers embraced the tune in 1915 under the title "Solidarity Forever." Some of the original lyrics are so radical they're often edited out. "Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,/ Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?" Here is Pete Seeger singing "Solidarity Forever," and skipping the more inflammatory language of class struggle.
During grave crises, Americans instinctively clasp the "Battle Hymn." The song is bound up with the triptych of assassinations in the 1960s: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. After JFK died in 1963, Judy Garland sang the "Battle Hymn" on her CBS show as a tribute to her personal friend.
According to Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, Judy looked into the camera and said, "This is for you, Jack," but CBS edited it out as too political. Still, everyone knew what the song was about. The performance was so vivid and vulnerable that the audience rose to offer a standing ovation. Judy Garland was not in Kansas any more.
In April 1968, King quoted the "Battle Hymn," and seemed to know that his life was almost over. Two months later, on June 8, the Requiem Mass for Bobby Kennedy ended with the same song, performed by Andy Williams. The "Battle Hymn" is the closer: it's the music that concludes great American lives.