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

The anthem, first published in The Atlantic Monthly 150 years ago, mirrors how the country feels about war

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.

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.