Meet the American who wrote 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'

She penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in November 1861, during a wartime tour of Washington, D.C., as Americans realized with gloom that the seven-month-old Civil War would be longer, darker and deadlier than anticipated. 

Howe’s masterpiece has been called America’s fight song. Its lyrics inspired the United States to spiritual resolve and sacrifice. 

The words tell the biblically heroic story of Union soldiers marching to their death in the name of Christ to vanquish slavery: 

As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
His truth is marching on

FDR’S POWERFUL PRAYER UNITED AMERICANS ON D-DAY

The lyrics are often altered in modern performances to “let us live to make men free.” Yet some 360,000 federal soldiers, according to the American Battlefield Trust, answered the call to martyrdom in the name of human liberty. Their sacrifice freed 4 million Americans from bondage. Hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers died in the conflict, too.

The “glory, glory hallelujah” chorus of “The Battle Hymn” is today one of the most familiar refrains in world music. 

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which includes some of the most inspirational words ever written. 

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which includes some of the most inspirational words ever written.  (Bettmann Archive)

But many people have forgotten the rest of the tune and its impassioned Christian call to arms — even willfully erased it in certain circles of the American political spectrum. Many recent accounts of the song gloss over its foundations.

Howe’s imagery is unmistakable, though; the song was deeply informed by her literary Christian upbringing. 

Flickering campfires in “The Battle Hymn” are the light of the Lord; encampments are altars where soldiers pray “in the evening dews and damp”; glimmering bayonets formed for battle reflect the “fiery Gospel.” Slavery is an Old Testament serpent to be crushed beneath the heel of Jesus Christ.

The song was deeply informed by Howe’s literary Christian upbringing.

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