At the conclusion of Friday's service of prayer and remembrance at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the congregation (which included President George W. Bush and former Presidents Clinton, Carter, and Ford) joined voices to sing Julia Ward Howe's defiant anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." For many, the singing of this hymn, which enjoins the American "hero" to "crush the serpent with his heel," and to "die to make men free" signals America's willingness to retaliate against the recent terrorist assault.
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has buoyed Americans in conflict since it first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in February, 1862, during the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe, the wife of a prominent Boston abolitionist, had visited a Union Army camp in Virginia where she heard soldiers singing a tribute to the abolitionist John Brown (who had been hanged in 1859 for leading an attempted slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry). A clergyman at the camp, aware that Howe occasionally wrote poetry, suggested that she craft new verses more appropriate to the Civil War effort, to be set to the same rousing tune.
As Howe later explained it, the verses came to her in a single night:
I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.
Soon afterwards, she submitted the poem to The Atlantic Monthly, which accepted it and paid her a fee of four dollars. After the verses appeared on the first page of the February, 1862, issue, they quickly caught on as the rallying anthem of the Union troops, and were sung frequently throughout the rest of the Civil War. Howe's words later inspired American soldiers during World War II, and civil-rights activists during the sixties. Now it seems, as the United States girds itself for what President Bush has referred to as "the first war of the twenty-first century," Americans are once again drawing encouragement from Howe's resolute words.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
by Julia Ward Howe
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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires 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:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
See an image of the February, 1862 Atlantic, containing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."