Origins of Famous Songs: Battle Hymn of the Republic

About the origin of the famous song Battle Hymn of the Republic, the fight song of the Union in the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe writes the anthem.


Julia Ward Howe 1861

Who has not felt a thrill at hearing those famous words: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . ." and "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!"

On November 20, 1861, Julia Ward Howe and a party of friends were among some 25,000 spectators at a mammoth military review held at Bailey's Cross Roads outside of Washington. Here, President Lincoln, with members of his Cabinet and Gen. George B. McClellan, reviewed between 50,000 and 70,000 troops mobilizing to fight the Civil War. Afterwards, riding back to Washington, Mrs. Howe heard many soldiers singing the song "John Brown', Body" with its stirring march rhythm.

This melody, composed for a Sunday-school song in the South by William Steffe, had become popular with a singing group of "Tigers," members of a battalion of Massachusetts infantry. After the Harpers Ferry raid, led by John Brown in an attempt to free slaves, and the subsequent execution of Brown, one of the soldiers made up the "John Brown's Body" words. It was partly a joke because a fellow soldier was named John Brown. The song quickly spread through the Union Army.

Hearing the soldiers singing, Dr. James Freeman Clarke, a Unitarian minister, suggested to Mrs. Howe that she write some "more appropriate" words. That night she awoke, got up, and wrote the famous verses. Years later, a plaque was mounted in the Old Willard Hotel commemorating this event.

In the February, 1862, issue of the Atlantic. Monthly, the verses were published anonymously, and it is said that the editor, J. T. Fields, gave them their title. Mrs. Howe was paid $5.

The song rapidly gained popularity. When President Lincoln attended the 2nd anniversary meeting of the Christian Commission in Washington in 1864, he heard Charles C. McCabe, known as the Singing Chaplain, tell of his experience in a Confederate prison during the war. He told of teaching fellow prisoners the new song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and then he and a comrade began to sing it, with the audience joining in the chorus. At the close, President Lincoln called out, "Sing it again!" which they did.

A few days later McCabe attended a reception at the White House. The President recognized him and complimented him on the song. This Singing Chaplain--who eventually became a Methodist bishop--continued to perform Mrs. Howe's song, and thus helped it become known all over the land.

Julia Ward Howe was widely known and respected in her own lifetime as a writer, lecturer, and worker for the emancipation of the slaves, and she was elected as the 1st woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. However, she is remembered today chiefly because she wrote these stirring words which have been called "not merely a song for the times but a hymn for the ages."

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