Julia Ward Howe and her Ever-Changing Battle Hymn

Last weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations included many musical tributes to the United States and its history. One of the most familiar of these is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a popular and honored patriotic song, but one that has had a long and contentious history. Most Americans will recognize these lyrics:

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 has loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

Glory, Glory halleluhja
Glory, Glory halleluhja
Glory, Glory halleluhja
His truth is marching on

The author of these lyrics, the version that we usually hear at concerts, in schools and other public occasions, was Julia Ward Howe, one of the most notable poets of the 19th century. She was also an activist for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Her inspiration to write these verses came during a visit to Washington DC in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. From her hotel window she heard Union soldiers singing a popular wartime song:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on
.

John Brown, of course, was the insurrectionist who had attacked federal property at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 hoping to lead a revolution that would end slavery. He failed in his mission and was executed, but he remained a hero to abolitionists and to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote her new lyrics to make the song a more unifying and uplifting tribute to justice and freedom for the entire country to sing. Her version appeared in the Atlantic magazine and made her famous.  

Howe’s lyrics for the song are the ones are still the most famous ones, but her version is only one of many variations. In 1915, half a century after the Civil War had ended, and five years after Julia Ward Howe’s death, a different set of lyrics were written for the familiar tune by Ralph Chaplin, a labor activist.  His song was composed for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. It soon became an anthem for a number of labor unions under the title “Solidarity Forever”.

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

We don’t know what Julia Howe thought of radical labor unions like the IWW, but she probably would have enjoyed knowing that the tune she made famous has indeed gone marching on.

AN UNUSUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU THIS MONTH:

One of the women who inspired Julia Ward Howe in her career was Margaret Fuller, the most famous female journalist and author in early 19th century America. The ebook version of my biography Margaret Fuller an Uncommon Woman is now on a special summer sale at Smashwords.com. The price is right—it is free! Just click on the website and order your copy. The sale ends on July 31. (If you prefer a print version of the book, you can find it at Amazon.com)

5 thoughts on “Julia Ward Howe and her Ever-Changing Battle Hymn

  1. Adele: at the risk of trivializing an interesting post, I offer you this version from my misspent youth:

    Glory, Glory halleluhja
    Teacher hit me with a ruler.
    I bumped her on the beanie with a rotten tangernini
    [… and I’ve forgotten the last line… thankfully]

    Nowadays, I imagine, the enlightened child sings “I bumped them…”

    • Thanks for the new version of the song. I’ll bet there are dozens of versions swirling around in people’s memories. Someone should collect all of them. School children are pretty inventive!

  2. Fantastic post! I had no idea that “Battle Hymn” also became a labor anthem. I’m glad it did! Thanks for another terrific essay AND for the heads up about your Margaret Fuller book. A wonderful opportunity!

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