One hundred fifty-five years ago, the Atlantic Monthly published on its front cover the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which not only is one of this nation’s most well-known patriot songs, but also, arguably, its most spiritual.
The melody was borrowed from a Civil War marching song, which paid tribute to the abolitionist John Brown, and which was popular with Union soldiers.
The song’s lyrics – “poor old John Brown is dead, his body lies mouldering in the grave” – were inoffensive to soldiers marching into battle, but deemed too coarse to be sung by the general public.
So it was, providentially, that the poetess Julia Ward Howe found herself in 1862 on Upton Hill in Northern Virginia, headquarters of Union Army command, where she attended a public review of Union Army troops.
The review was cut short by a skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers, so she climbed aboard a waiting carriage, accompanied by the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, in route to nearby Washington, D.C., where she was staying at the Willard Hotel.
As the carriage bearing the Howe and the Rev. Clark passed by a detachment of Union troops, they heard the men singing the words to “John Brown’s Body.” Rev. Clark suggested that the poetess Howe write new lyrics for the marching song, memorializing what she experienced on Upton’s Hill.
According to Howe’s first-hand account, when she returned to her lodgings at the Willard Hotel, she went to sleep.
“I awoke,” she remembered, “in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep and forget them.’
So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of my bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”
Howe went back to bed and fell asleep. When she awoke, she said, she felt “something of importance had happened to me.”
That’s what it means to be divinely inspired. It is when the Holy Spirit uses those whom God has chosen – like the poetess Howe – to impart a message to His redeemed during a particularly momentous time in history.
Howe’s lyrics for the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” were penned against the backdrop of the Civil War, the deadliest military conflict in U.S. history, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” wrote Howe. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.”
The poetess concluded: “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.”
The lyrics of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” reportedly moved President Abraham Lincoln to tears when a soloist sung it at a large public rally he attended. “Sing it again!,” the nation’s 16th president shouted.