The tune was written around 1855 by William Steffe. The lyrics at that time were
alternately called “Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Brothers, Will You Meet Me?” and the
song was sung as a campfire spiritual. The tune spread across the United States, taking on
many sets of new lyrics.
Thomas Bishop, from Vermont, joined the Massachusetts Infantry before the outbreak of
war and wrote a popular set of lyrics, circa 1860, titled “John Brown‘s Body” which
became one of his unit’s walking songs. According to writer Irwin Silber (who has written
a book about Civil War folk songs), the original lyrics were not about John Brown, the
famed abolitionist, but a Scotsman of the same name who was a member of the 12th
Massachusetts Regiment. An article by writer Mark Steyn maintains that the men of John
Brown’s unit had made up a song poking fun at him, and sang it widely.
Bishop’s battalion was dispatched to Washington, D.C. early in the Civil War, and Julia
Ward Howe heard this song during a public review of the troops in Washington. What
ever the accuracy of Silber’s and Steyn’s accounts, the lyrics heard by Howe were about
John Brown the abolitionist. Her companion at the review, the Reverend James Clarke,
suggested to Howe that she write new words for the fighting men’s song. Staying at the
Willard Hotel in Washington on the night of November 18, 1861, Howe awoke with the
words of the song in her mind and in near darkness wrote the verses to the “Battle Hymn
of the Republic”. Of the writing of the lyrics, Howe remembers, “I went to bed that night
as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the
morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem
began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to
myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget
them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old
stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses
almost without looking at the paper.”
Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was first published on the front page of The
Atlantic Monthly of February 1862. The sixth verse written by Howe, which is less
commonly sung, was not published at that time. The song was also published as a
broadside in 1863 by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in
Philadelphia. In Howe’s lyrics, the words of the verse are packed into a longer line,
contrasted with the chorus’s short refrain.
Julia Ward Howe was the wife of Samuel Gridley Howe, the famed scholar in education
of the blind. Samuel and Julia were also active leaders in anti-slavery politics and strong
supporters of the Union.
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.