The Glory of the Coming of the Lord



Dominic Tierney lays out the history of "one of the most influential publications in the history of the Atlantic Monthly."


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."

A pox upon me for forgetting to mention that "The Battle Hymn" was first published here. I've been thinking a lot lately about how the song's themes reverberate through African-American history. Tierney offers perhaps the greatest invocation of Howe's words after the jump.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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