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Grapes of Wrath

What the 12 most famous words ever published in The Atlantic tell us about the spirit that inspired the Union

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Battle Hymn of the Republic
The complete text and a full-page image of Julia Ward Howe’s poem as it appeared in the February 1862 Atlantic.

On the morning of September 17, 1862, the day that would prove the bloodiest of the Civil War, Major General Ambrose Burnside ordered his Ninth Corps to attack General Robert E. Lee’s weakened right flank in the fields outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. A steep-banked creek, the Antietam, separated 12,000 Union troops from the gathered enemy, including several hundred Georgian troops—some of whom were lodged in trees, lashed to branches to help steady their aim. A three-arched stone bridge spanned the creek.

The larger set-piece battles at Antietam, which took place across acres of cornfields and woods, were diffuse, complicated, and often ambiguous in outcome. The clash at the creek was none of these. On one bank, Union soldiers. Above them, on the hill opposite, Confederate sharpshooters. Between them, a narrow bridge.

When the 11th Connecticut Regiment launched the first attack, attempting to ford the creek, its soldiers were cut down at once by the Georgians. Another Union attempt was made, a double-quick march toward the bridge. This was also a bloody failure. Finally, Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s brigade, made up of the 51st Pennsylvania and the 51st New York, rushed the bridge. The Southerners, low on ammunition, retreated. The Union troops took the bluff. Dead Confederates littered the hill and hung in the trees. The Union dead and wounded numbered in the high hundreds. (In all, the Battle of Antietam would leave 23,000 Americans dead, wounded, or missing.)

The open fields around Burnside’s Bridge are today lovely and tranquil: stone fences, birds in the trees, sloping hills, a slow-moving creek. Stand on the far side of the bridge looking up at the facing bluff, and the question will force itself on you: How did the 11th Connecticut gird themselves to ford the creek? How did Ferrero’s men impel themselves to march into the Georgian fire? Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis wrote in his after-action report, “They started on their mission of death full of enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm! What could account for this?

Whiskey, for one thing. Ferrero promised his men unlimited whiskey, should they take the bridge. Never underestimate whiskey. And never underestimate comradeship, either. The army was organized geographically; a man served with his townspeople. Tales of cowardice would follow a man home. But there is something else, too, that moved these men.

The most famous 12 words ever published in the pages of The Atlantic belong to Julia Ward Howe: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The rest of the eternal first stanza of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” promises vengeance against the enemies of freedom: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Vengeance is effective motivation. But a different source of motivation is also found in the lesser-known fifth stanza: the draw of transfiguring martyrdom. As Christ died “to make men holy,” Howe wrote, “let us die to make men free.”

These lines came to mind when I read a description of the men who were slaughtered in Antietam Creek in the first fusillade: “A crowd of earnest young Connecticut boys.”

Apocalyptic abolitionists in the style of Julia Ward Howe were not represented in great numbers in the Union army. But the Massachusetts officer corps, and much of New England, was deeply abolitionist. Could the cause of freedom have been what pushed these men forward? This had been, of course, Howe’s mission in writing her hymn: to propel the Union soldier to his Christ-like destiny.

Howe wrote the “Battle Hymn” in a single gray morning in the Willard Hotel, in Washington, D.C., and she sold it for $4 to The Atlantic, which published it on the first page of its February 1862 issue. For soldiers, another anthem, “John Brown’s Body,” the tune of which was appropriated for Howe’s marching song, was always more popular; it promises revenge and redemption of a more profane sort, envisioning Jefferson Davis hanging from a sour-apple tree. But the “Battle Hymn” has become immortal, in part because so many different Americans, from Billy Graham to Martin Luther King Jr., have adopted it. The lyrics not only stir the blood, but encapsulate the messianic notion that America is perfectible, and that the American idea can in turn perfect the world.

After the war ended, many soldiers wrote that they had fought for justice. In the moment of battle, of course, more-mundane motivations may have had greater salience. But the “Battle Hymn” expresses the noblest aspirations of the Union. The bravery of the men who crossed Burnside’s Bridge that day suggests that Julia Ward Howe understood something profound about the nature of their cause.

Read Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”