Why you should care
Because you’ve heard this song before, but it’s never been the same twice.
It started as a tune hummed around campfires and in church pews — like all classics, an earworm that found its voice and never looked back. Hundreds of years later, you’ll probably find it lodged in your brain when you see the chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah …
Best known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the song has had many names, lyrics and singers. And it’s developed a curious habit of showing up at the biggest turning points in American history. Perhaps the secret to its success is that it’s a political chameleon, having been roared out by racists and anti-war protesters alike and often flipping allegiances on a dime. The anthem’s origins, though, are humbler than you might think.
The song’s ability to criticize, prophesize and stir up national discussions is uncanny.
While the tune existed as a simple hymn in the early 1800s, it came together during the Civil War as a song called “John Brown’s Body” — not as a political statement, but as an inside joke. Soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia put words to the popular tune about their buddy Sgt. John Brown, who bore the same name as the infamous abolitionist executed before the war. John Brown of Massachusetts couldn’t catch a break. His friends sang it wryly as they marched to battle for the Union: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave / His soul is marching on!”
But as the Massachusetts soldiers passed through Union towns and camps, “John Brown’s Body” went viral — and took on new, political connotations. The song, historian Christian McWhirter explains, helped solidify what the Union was fighting for. Regardless of how “John Brown’s Body” came into being, he tells OZY, the majority of Northerners — and their Confederate counterparts — “heard the song as a memorial to the most radical white abolitionist in American history.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, not all Northerners were convinced that slavery was wrong. But by celebrating John Brown, who had led armed attacks against white slaveholders, enthusiasm for the idea took off. It became a way of “spreading abolitionism within the Union ranks and among the Northern populace,” says McWhirter. The words “His soul is marching on” suddenly took on a new, defiant meaning.
It’s no surprise, then, that the song became the unofficial anthem of the Civil War. Poet Julia Ward Howe, after hearing soldiers along the East Coast sing “John Brown’s Body,” put pen to paper, dashing down new lines. The result? “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which Northern soldiers sang through the bloodiest days of the Civil War. McWhirter says it is “no accident” that such a defiantly anti-slavery song inspired Howe’s composition.
But the trick with the song is that, as seen in the transformation of “John Brown’s Body” from funny ditty to national inspiration, it’s ever changing. The simple, repetitive chorus can support just about anything:
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
Combine these options with the song’s loaded reputation as an anthem for justice, and you’ve got a powerful formula for political expression. Mark Twain took advantage of this in 1900, when aggressive turn-of-the-century American imperialism inspired him to pen “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated.” Criticizing U.S. violence in the Philippines, he declared:
Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.
Twain was neither the first nor the last to turn the Civil War’s “Battle Hymn” on its head. The song’s ability to criticize, prophesize and stir up national discussions is uncanny. The tune has been both conservative, played at the funerals of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, and radical, bringing the workers’ movement to life with “Solidarity Forever.” American paratroopers sang a version in the lead-up to D-Day, with ghoulish lyrics to fit the experience of dropping out of the sky: “Gory, gory, what a hell of a way to die!” British soccer fans adopted the chorus from the 1960s onward to cheer on their teams. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered Howe’s words during his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, just a day before his death in April 1968: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” And during Vietnam, an anonymous military staffer used it to give voice to the frustrating reality of a very different war:
Mine eyes have seen the story of the winning of the war;
It is published every afternoon, a little after four;
They put it on the briefing sheets and then they tell us more;
And the truth goes sliding by!
The song has had millions whistling its tune for generations. And whether its words of the moment speak truth or lies, “John Brown’s Body” has done more than its fair share of narrating American history.