On July 4, 1863, Chaplain Charles McCabe and his unit, the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, were sitting in the dank Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. There were rumors that a great battle had just been fought in a town called Gettysburg about 200 miles north. Prison officials told them the Union had been defeated. They despaired.
Then a man who worked at the prison whispered to one of the men, “No, that was wrong.” The Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, was a great Union victory, he said. Many now believe it was the turning point of the war. The men cheered and wept, and McCabe led them in the jubilant ballad:
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
Hhe has loosed his fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.
They say the prison walls quivered when 500 voices rang out the chorus, “Glory Glory Hallelujah; His truth is marching on.”
This July Fourth holiday, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written more than 160 years ago in the early years of the Civil War, will be played by bands, marched to in parades, and, as it appears in 500 hymnals, will be sung in churches across the country.
Written in 1861 by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, the “Battle Hymn” became a marching anthem for the Grand Army of the Republic. Its powerful apocalyptic vision of a reckoning God, sheathed with lightning and a sword of justice, captured the sentiment of a Union fighting for freedom for all people.
The song’s message has resonated throughout history with soldiers and evangelists, patriots and presidents. It has formed a significant part of the United State’s cultural history and its civil religion, harnessing people’s awe for God for political purposes.
For decades, listeners of evangelist Billy Graham’s weekly radio program heard “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during “The Hour of Decision.” Graham’s love of the song helped him reconcile his background as a Southerner, whose Rebel grandfather lost an eye and a leg fighting at Gettysburg, with his love for the nation.
It is one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire of The U.S. Army Band and U.S. troops just home from Iraq boisterously sang the “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” chorus with Whitney Houston as she ended her “Welcome Home, Heroes” concert in 1991.
The hymn spoke deeply to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he marched for justice. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, he told Memphis crowds:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
“And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! For ‘mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’
The melody was rooted in an old Methodist hymn, “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” sung in camp meetings throughout the rural South in the early 1800s. Blacks and whites, slave and free, were welcome at the outdoor meetings where traveling preachers preached fire and brimstone and emotions ran high.
First published in an 1807 Virginia hymnbook by Methodist circuit-rider Stith Mead, the hymn was sung as a call-and-response form often found in black spirituals.
Call: O brothers will you meet me
On Canaan’s happy shore?
Answer: By the grace of God I’ll meet you
On Canaan’s happy shore.
Early in the war, Union soldiers made the song their own, writing about abolitionist John Brown, who was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859 as a traitor for attempting to start a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. The 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia, known as the “Tiger Battalion,” claimed authorship of the new lyrics to the song, “John Brown’s Body,” according to an 1890 article by George Kimball in New England Magazine.
A soldier in the battalion, John Brown, was teased about his name. “That’s not John Brown,” a soldier would say, “John Brown is dead.” Added another, “He’s in the grave!” The song, to the tune later shared by the Battle Hymn,” goes: “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave / but his soul goes marching on.”
The song marched right into American folk music that is still sung today. Pete Seeger recorded it on “American Favorite Ballads” by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1959.
Ward Howe and her husband Samuel heard the song while they were touring a Union camp in November 1861, as part of the Sanitation Commission—a precursor to the Red Cross—addressing the rampant disease that killed more soldiers than did guns. As the soldiers vigorously sang “John Brown’s Body,” the pastor traveling with them challenged Howe to write better words for the catchy tune.
Before dawn the next day, the words were scrawled on a sheet of paper at her bedside. She had awoken very early and written the words that had come to mind. She went back to sleep, feeling “something of importance had happened.” The poem was published in February 1862 in the Atlantic, earning her $5.
The words leans heavily on prophetic biblical texts from Revelation and from the prophets. A broadsheet of the song was used to recruit black soldiers. The captain of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment changed the words to a song Sojourner Truth sang:
Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent
The prison doors have opened and out the prisoners went
To join the sable army of African descent
As we go marching on!
Howe’s daughter recalled how Chaplain McCabe, released from Libby Prison in 1864 with typhoid fever, sang the “Battle Hymn” at a meeting at the Capitol attended by President Abraham Lincoln. As the song ended, Julia’s daughter wrote: “People sprang to their feet, wept and shouted and above all the tumult was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, crying while the tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘Sing it again!’”
Hundreds of McCabe’s fellow prisoners at the Richmond prison were forced to enter Andersonville Prison when it opened in February 1864. The notorious death camp saw nearly 13,000 Union soldiers die of starvation, exposure, and disease in the 14 months it was open.
A Confederate soldier returning home stopped at the prison, climbed up the sentry walk, and looked over the prison walls into the bowels of the camp. “I cannot tell the horror of that scene,” he wrote in an account published in the Weekly Commonwealth of Topeka, Kansas, in September 1885.
It was almost sundown of a hot autumn day. The wretchedness depicted in the faces of that squalid, unprotected multitude was unspeakable. I could hear the winds in the pines beyond, but they had neither breath nor shade. The stench even where I stood was sickening. I only dimly imagined the horrors of their fate. As I turned away, the notes of song arose from the squalid mass. I paused and listened—listened to the very end…and the words went with me, and have never left my memory.
‘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
His truth is marching on.’
The prisoners at Andersonville knew their fate was sealed, their shed blood part of the terrible cost to end legalized slavery in the United States.
Christine Weerts, author of “Heroes of Faith: Rosa J. Young,” is a researcher with the Alabama Black Lutheran Heritage Association. She won a commendation from the Concordia Historical Institute in 2020 for her historical writing on race. A freelance writer, she has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA).