'The Battle Hymn of the Republic': America's Song of Itself

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The song achieved its greatest resonance in wartime. During the Civil War, the "Battle Hymn" became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches. It would endure as America's wartime anthem long after the guns fell silent in 1865.

In the 1898 Spanish-American War, the "Battle Hymn" gained new lyrics: "Let us furl again Old Glory in the name of Liberty." During World War I, the song again reverberated around the nation: "We have heard the cry of anguish from the victims of the Hun."

At the memorial service for 9/11 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the choir struck up the familiar tune, and five American presidents sang along. They were just a few miles from the spot where, 140 years before, Julia Ward Howe sang about an American terrorist.

 

 

"Battle Hymn" is not just a thread woven into the national fabric. And it's not just a consecrated text that we reach for in times of trauma. It's also a mirror on the United States. The words of the "Battle Hymn" capture something deep in the American experience of war. For 150 years, Americans have seen military campaigns as a righteous quest to smite tyrants and spread freedom. The "Battle Hymn" is our way of war; the "Battle Hymn" is how we fight.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

In the "Battle Hymn," there is no separation of church and state. The United States is a divine vessel propelled on the rough seas by the breath of God. Indeed, the nation's wars have often been imbued with providential fire. Americans on both sides of the Civil War came to see the struggle as a holy war, with Christ and his armies arrayed against the Beast. One Pennsylvanian soldier wrote: "every day I have a more religious feeling, that this war is a crusade for the good of mankind."

Half a century later, in World War I, Woodrow Wilson saw the United States as an apostle destined to shepherd the less enlightened nations. Faith in a divinely inspired quest helped draw a president who was profoundly opposed to armaments and killing into the European apocalypse. Reverend Randolph McKim preached: "It is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting...This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history—the holiest."

In 2003, President George Bush explicitly cast the Iraq War as the chosen people's quest for redemption. "God told me to strike at Al Qaeda and I struck them," the president reportedly told the Palestinian prime minister: "and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did."

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

Howe's lyrics also capture the American view of war as a mission to protect and spread liberty. During the Civil War, many northerners concluded that global freedom was endangered by a rapacious slave power. One private from Massachusetts wrote home to his wife: "I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend." For Woodrow Wilson, World War I was a quest to propagate America's ideals of democracy and self-determination. "I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty."

George W. Bush felt chosen to show the same way to the nations of the Middle East. The toppling of Saddam would allow Iraqis to walk in the paths of liberty. "I believe the United States is the beacon for freedom in the world."

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel

The American crusader sows the seeds of liberty with one hand, and carries an avenging sword in the other. The "Battle Hymn" is imbued with Old Testament wrath—aptly enough because Americans have often fought for vengeance. As a Unionist from East Tennessee wrote during the Civil War: "[We] will have an eye for eye and toth for toth." Abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized that the desire to emancipate the slaves was fueled by hatred of the South: "Liberty came to the freedmen...not in mercy but in wrath."

In 1941, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor provoked national fury. There was an unmistakable sense of payback as the serpent was crushed with atomic firepower. President Truman described the delivery of the bomb in August 1945: "We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare."

After 9/11, Bush's rhetoric was imbued with the hymn's language of the righteous avenger. The president spoke about evil in 30 percent of his speeches from 9/11 to 2003. He was not alone. Darryl Worley in "Have You Forgotten?" sang the lines: "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight/ After 9/11, man, I'd have to say that's right."

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat

Fighting to the tune of the "Battle Hymn" has cultivated a uniquely American way of war. Inspired by religious zeal, idealism, and wrath, Americans have adopted an uncompromising view of battle. Conflict must end with the destruction of the adversary, and the overthrow of the enemy regime.

Over time, for example, the Civil War evolved into a monumental struggle to emancipate the slaves and transform the South. Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union Quartermaster General, wrote to his son: "No peace in compromise with the South is possible for our industrious educated democratic people. Death or victory is the...necessity of our cause and I do not less doubt the ultimate victory though God for our sins leads us to it through seas of blood."

Only one day after Pearl Harbor, when tapping sounds could still be heard from U.S. sailors trapped in sunken ships, FDR promised Congress that Americans would fight "in their righteous might" for "absolute victory." The objective of unconditional surrender won the backing of around three-quarters of the American public.

Again, after 9/11, there was no question of parleying with the terrorists or Saddam Hussein. Bush claimed that America's "enemies will not be stopped by negotiation, or concessions, or appeals to reason. In this war, there is only one option, and that is victory."

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

The words of the "Battle Hymn" have echoed down the decades, reinforcing our view of conflict as a righteous struggle—a holy war for a democratic peace. America's "truth is marching on" from Richmond, Virginia, to Baghdad.

The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The "Battle Hymn" epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It's a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the "Battle Hymn" have helped to liberate millions.

But there is a dark side to the "Battle Hymn" and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America's war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.

And what happens after we crush the serpent with our heel? Smiting tyrants in Afghanistan and Iraq didn't end the war. Instead, we were left trying to put the pieces back together.

The "Battle Hymn" is America. Its words are carved into the narrative arc of the American story. Nowhere is this truer than in wartime. The heat of idealism and wrath forges how we fight, inspiring our better angels, and condoning our gravest acts.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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