“John Brown’s Body” becoming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Managing expectations of a nation during a civil war

November 27, 2011

Our textbooks and curriculum guides too often fail to make clear the links between the bloody conflicts in the Kansas Territory and the Civil War, between the conflicts engaged in by men like John Brown in Kansas, and later at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and the conflicts of the Civil War.

We might make the history more vivid and clear with the use of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an epic war song based closely on a folk tune favored by Union troops of the time, conscripted specifically because of that affinity by Howe to serve the greater action of repurposing the war from merely saving the Union to freeing people from bondage.  It’s a study in propaganda earlier than we usually think of it.

Prof. R. Blakeslee Gilpin’s essay explaining those links, and exposing the substantial and usually hidden role Julia Ward Howe’s husband played in Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, appears in the New York Times’s coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  As identified at the NYT website, Gilpin is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina, and the author of a book on the issue, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change.

Early lyric sheet for "Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, Library of Congress via New York Times

An early lyric sheet for "Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, Library of Congress via New York Times

Most of my students claim not to know the song, “John Brown’s Body,” and an astonishing number of the students say they don’t know “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  It’s a chance to bore them — or instruct them, if the planets and stars align — using a bit of music (a teacher should be able to find a copy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of the “The Battle Hymn” with little difficulty; it appears in the hymnals of most Protestant sects, so you can get a copy of the lyrics; you’ll have to do a search to find a good copy of  “John Brown’s Body,” though; I’ve not found one I like to use in class).

It might be a short lesson, an adjunct to a lesson, or a project for a student with some choir training.

Gilpin wrote:

Even if Howe’s song spoke to a different understanding of the war, her efforts to transform “John Brown’s Body” into a national patriotic text meant that, much like Brown’s afterlife, people would end up using and abusing “Battle Hymn” as they saw fit. What Howe observed in that Union camp outside of Washington in 1861 was just the beginning of a war of clashing agendas and endlessly obscured meanings. To be sure, those north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line knew that the developing war was being fought over slavery – its brutal realities, its political volatility and especially its uncertain future – but even in its opening months, commentary about the war was already cloaked in the bland language of preserving the Union or defending states’ rights. Assessing the war itself, Howe later wrote that “its cruel fangs fastened upon the very heart of Boston and took from us our best and bravest.”

For Howe and generations of Americans, the cruelty of war demanded a providential overseer. Despite her urge to celebrate noble-hearted men like Brown, “Battle Hymn” helped to take responsibility for the Civil War out of the brutal and clumsy hands of ordinary mortals. To be sure, Brown his death would help to make his nation holy and especially to make all men free, but his radical extremism was frightening to most Americans. Soon enough, the Civil War would be transformed by songs like Howe’s into a conflict of necessity and destiny – a providential trial by fire. That narrative, of a harrowing but essential national adolescence, would eventually be at the expense of those Brown had died for, and whose fate the war was being fought to settle.

More links and a couple of original documents can be found at the NYT site — I would encourage all U.S. history teachers to subscribe to the paper’s coverage of the sesquicentennial of the war.

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