November 18, 2011

150 years of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Julia Ward Howe and her husband Samuel Gridley Howe were invited to the Washington D.C. area to observe the troops during the early months of the American Civil War. There, she heard troops singing the tune "John Brown's Body" and her friend, the minister James Freeman Clarke, suggested she write new words for the old tune.

In the early morning hours of November 18, 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote those new words. As she recalled later, she was having difficulty sleeping when "the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain." She let the words come over her until "the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts" before she finally got up and wrote it all down. It soon became one of the most popular tunes at military camps throughout the remainder of the war. The poem was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862 as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

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 hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
                                                   His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
                                                   His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
                                                   Since God is marching on."

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
                                                   Our God is marching on.

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.

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