That Patriotic and Awful Song: ”Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Culture Watch

Mr. Bray is the Colwell Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.

For a while the televised sounds and sights of Friday’s service of remembrance at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London were cheering in a time of sorrow: Britain, while mourning for its many citizens dead in the attack on the World Trade Center, was also mourning in fraternity with the United States and its far greater loss. But then the surge of good feeling suddenly vanished. I heard a familiar melody and the occluded voices of hundreds in the congregation singing the first verse of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic.' No, please, anything but that, I thought: even the 'Star-Spangled Banner' (which was also played) would be better than the 'Bad Old Hymn of the Republic' as I call it with unrepenting irreverence.

For this is an evil song. Yes, evil: Julia Ward Howe’s poem, set to the tune of 'John Brown’s Body' (and there’s another one!) became the North’s anthem against the South during the Civil War. The song not only preached a military crusade against the seceded states, but justified it morally as God’s (Jesus Christ’s) apocalyptic will, revealed to the poet and her evangelical Christian ilk:

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:
11His truth is marching on.

Today, if voiced by Islam, we would plainly call this a Jihad and denounce and condemn it as uncivilized. Yet from the moment these hateful lines were first sung, when the Union Army went out to do its slaughter, and be slaughtered, the troops were authorized agents of the Lord’s work. Thenceforth, if they fell, as 7,000 would in a single hour at Cold Harbor, they fell as martyrs (and presumably were whisked to a heaven that must have looked an awful lot like Valhalla). If they in turn slew thousands, as they would during Pickett’s Charge on the third day at Gettysburg, those young Confederate soldiers they mowed down, as easily as cutting ripe wheat back home with a cradle scythe, were the Slaveocracy’s, i.e.,Satan’s minions, the quintessential Others, deserving of death and no Valhalla.

I again thought of the Londoners singing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' (did they really know the significance of the words they were mouthing?) when I read an account of a conversation between two of our country’s leading Christian evangelists, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s 700 Club show. With a nauseating predictability, both televangelists sat smugly across the desk from one another and interpreted the attack on the United States as a sign that the Christian God was displeased with the recent comportment of His covenanted nation (the United States and only the United States). And why was He put out with us? Not for the wretched excess of our materialism and conspicuous consumption; not for our democracy’s anti-democratic foreign policy; not for our amoral, oligarchic business culture, predatory at home and around the world; not for our own vast backyard full of poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement. No, these apparently weren’t bothering Him. But according to Falwell and Robertson the Lord was upset, and by those two gravest offenses against Him and against His Kingdom: homosexuality and abortion. Here were the ‘abominations’ that had provoked Tuesday’s attack on New York City and the Pentagon (perhaps the two ‘divines’ had always suspected New York but surely it came as a surprise to them that this latter place was a veritable Babylon of whoring, sodomy and wholesale abortion). Here then was the impetus for a cadre of terrorists’ flying airliners into buildings: get the ball rolling for the ‘Last Things’ (at last!). Ah, eschatology.

This socio-pathological lunacy was too much even for our president, who frowned mightily over Falwell’s and Robertson’s quaint explanation of the week’s events and warned them to postpone such glossalalia at least until the dust of the collapsed skyscrapers settled and the thousands of perished had been decently commemorated. But that didn’t stop George W. Bush from inviting Falwell to the Friday services at the National Cathedral, and of course Falwell attended. I only hope he was there to grieve, and so checked his righteousness at the door.

Why do we as the self-proclaimed freest nation so often need to be reminded that to be right is not to be righteous? The devolution of reason into a shallow, unearned moral confidence about God’s will, about ‘manifest destiny,’ about what’s best for the rest of the world is the hugest failing of contemporary United States politics and political thinking, which consistently ignore (or outrightly deny) the world’s complexity and the imperfectability of human action. In one of his several speeches following the terrorist attacks, President Bush announced that our response this time as opposed, say, to the ineffectuality of the Clinton administration’s ‘telewar’ by cruise missiles would be strong enough to"rid the world of evil." Grant him the license of rhetorical exaggeration, prompted by this horrendous occasion: still, one wants to ask, shouldn’t our president have said"this evil," the evil of these terrorists responsible for this"act of war" against the United States? Can we, the citizens of this deeply injured nation, not see that it is neither our task nor within our ability to"rid the world of evil"? To speak of the eradication of evil itself is to mouth like a litany the senescent notion of American exceptionalism; once more to set in motion the always-futile round of imposing our will on a world that doesn’t belong to us and then rationalizing our action in the name of the Christian God’s design, of a covenant, of a destiny.

11However sure his advisors and would-be advisors claimed they were, Abraham Lincoln never presumed to know God’s will; he was far from sure it was knowable. Insisting on the prime directive of human reason, always probing for the metaphysical core of any subject (politics, love, knowledge, religion), Lincoln thought long, hard and deep before commanding the North’s conduct of the Civil War. For Lincoln, thought was not so much the prelude to action but itself a kind of founding action, a first cause of public action, necessary to the sufficient condition of fighting the war. But this did not mean he was always able to know. Late in the summer of1862, during one of the darkest periods of the war, with a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation resting in a drawer of his desk, Lincoln set down a short private memorandum that has come to be known as Meditation on the Divine Will. Here are its first three sentences:

11 The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims 11to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and 11 one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same 11thing at the same time.

Characteristically, even when thinking of God thinking, Lincoln never allowed the repeal of the law of contradiction. And he continued his meditation with a second inference: that God may be keeping his own counsel, that is, not favoring the success of either the North or the South! Try to fathom it as he might, he remained agnostic on the will of God. What then should he do about the"great contest" that was approaching two years’ duration with two more beyond that, having every minute of his executive existence to do something?

Whatever Lincoln should have done as the Civil War president (and there are still those few who believe he did not do well), he certainly thought about it, uncertainly. When he confessed, as he said, that he had not controlled events, but they, him, he was not giving himself the credit he had earned. By the time of the Second Inaugural Address, with the South fast failing and Northern victory imminent, Lincoln could speak of"bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds," of continuing to act"[w]ith malice toward none; with charity for all." He believed we could see, at least dimly,"the right;" the"firmness" that the right accorded would allow the work to be finished. It was not,"God has granted us victory," but"I think I see some light" (and that glimmer ahead included a kinder, gentler plan of reconstruction than the one the Re-United States eventually got, and a movement toward Negro suffrage, which may have been one of the things that got Lincoln killed--a cunning and charismatic madman believed it was God’s will that he cut off the"serpent’s head").

Yet even in the Second Inaugural Lincoln was drawn toward the apocalyptic possibility of divine vengeance."Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this might scourge of war may speedily pass away." But. . . .and then come the hard biblical words that imply that the South has gotten what it deserved, annihilation, and that the God whose will he could not tell in the Meditation of 1862 has by March, 1865, proved to be on the Union side, against the slaveocracy and for the surging chorus of singers of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Some sort of mysticism was the obverse of rationality in Lincoln’s character. But he was one of our clearest and most deeply thinking of presidents, and if Abraham Lincoln was infected with this irrational virus, so uniquely and perniciously"American," what can we expect of the etiolated Party of Lincoln today? As a citizen, I ask that, before making war on any group or any state, those with military power to wield think of Lincoln, and that at least a few, including George W. Bush’s closest advisors, try to think like him.

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Glenn Williams - 9/24/2001

Dr. Libby:

I never used the words "ultraliberal" as you ascribe to me. For the record, I called the Washington Post's editorial policy "pro-Liberal Democratic Party, and HNN's political tenor "left-leaning," but I never said "ultraliberal." Thank you.


Jean Libby - 9/20/2001

I agree in half measure with Glenn Williams' criticism of the antiAmerican piece on the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Robert Bray. The complaints Bray voices of the "evil" abolitionists Julia Ward Howe and John Brown seem to be based on the military actions of Federal government under President Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War (1861-1865) in which the Union defeated the Confederacy. It is asssumed by the author that everyone believes, as he does, that abolitionists were evil, and that is the word he uses in a knee-jerk cadence that rhymes with "infidel".

I don't think the word "ultraliberal" used by Glenn Williams to associate the entire History News Network publications and discussion is appropriate, however. In the case of the Robert Bray piece on the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", the purpose of the author is to promote the Lost Cause, the Confederate States of America, the losers of the Civil War, as the "good" Americans. This is not generally associated with a politically correct definition of an "ultraliberal", and use of such a term, like "evil", intimidates discussion rather than promotes it.

There was an interesting article by David Brion Davis in the New York Times Week in Review, August 26, 2001, entitled "Free At Last: The Enduring Legacy of the South's Civil War Victory" in which the Pulitzer-prize winning historian Davis states that "Though the South lost the battles, for more than a century it attained its goal: that the role of slavery in America's history be thoroughly diminished, even somehow removed as a cause of the war." Robert Bray's association of nationalist militarism and patriotism with the singing of "The Battle Hyman of the Republic" in response to the terrorist attacks on America with the "evil" abolitionists and the legal winners of the Civil War is transparent. In this I greatly agree with the analysis of Glenn Williams, historian of the National Park Service.

Although Robert Bray lauds the commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, he does not make a correlation of the secession of the Confederacy with Lincoln's election on the platform of nonextension of slavery. This "revolution" of later seceding Confederate states was planned as early as 1856, specifically to be done if the Republican candidate for president, John C. Fremont, had won that election. (Letter from Governor Henry Alexander Wise to his cousin Henry Augustus Wise at the U. S. Navy bureau in Washington D.C., October 17, 1856, Wise Collection, Library of Congress.)"Revolution" is the word used by Governor Wise. Representatives from South Carolina had also planned and threatened secession in early 1856, as noted in his speech "The Crime Against Kansas" by Massachsetts Senator Charles Sumner in May of that year. This revolution to overturn the government formed by a legitimate national presidential election did occur in 1860 with the secession of the first states even before Lincoln was inaugurated, and it was concluded with a terrorist attack that killed the president and severely wounded several members of his cabinet in 1865, after the military surrender of the armies of the Confederacy under Robert E. Lee.

Thank you for providing this forum for expression of views. My credentials are as an intinerant U.S. History instructor at two community colleges in northern California--and I thank Prof. James Williams of De Anza College in suggesting to all the teachers in his department that we check out History News Net--, and as an editor of primary source documentary studies on John Brown, the most relevant being forthcoming in 2002 with co-editor Karl Gridley of Lawrence, Kansas: "John Brown the Abolitionist; Fifty Documents of John Brown's Ideas, Words, and Images" (Rowman and Littlefield, publishers).

Jean Libby
Palo Alto, California

Glenn Williams - 9/20/2001

I entered the field of public history as a second career after retiring from 21 years of active military service, and a few years exploring other employment paths. I hold a History BA that was awarded in 1975, worked at museums and historic sites as a high school and college student, and had volunteered at museums and historic sites in my off-duty time while in the service. I even had a few history-related assignments like teaching military history to ROTC cadets at a private liberal arts college.

I was not prepared for what I found when I returned to graduate school to earn my historian's credentials with an MA in History, and as I prepare to start working toward a Ph.D. I do not know whether it is part of being an academic historian or not, but I find most of my colleagues in academe know nothing of the military in general, or military history aside from the simplistic recognition that there were a few wars and who won them (if they know that); and that they care not for it, yet profess their "credentials" as historians at times like we see now.

Also, too many historians seem to be looking for ways of blaming America whenever they get a chance, or to unjustly criticize our traditions, and/or to just espouse liberal political agenda. I am sorry to say that HNN seems to offer yet another extension for this perception.

The piece on the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is more of the same. Robert Bray doesn't want us to sing this patriotic anthem because it makes us "sound like terrorists." The soldiers and sailors of the U.S. armed forces sang "Battle Hymn" on the march, aboard ship, and in camp. There is a world of difference between military members and terrorists! He also says it is "too self righteous." He has made the ultimate non-historian mistake of judging a 19th century concept by 21st century standards. He is probably one of those who wants to make the singing of the lyrics, or even the public playing of "Dixie" illegal as well, because it is "racist." Yes, "Battle Hymn" is the expression of the Union's moral cause for fighting the Civil War, "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." The same may be said of the South's best-known tune, "Dixie." It is not a song of promoting the system of slavery, but of the defense of home. In fact, "Thar's buckwheat cakes and 'Injin' batter," but no mention or allusion to slaves or slavery. Instead of attacking or finding fault with them, we should be commemorating and memorializing the positive of what both of these (and other) songs from our national past represent in American culture - the willingness to fight and die for freedom in the world, and the defense of homeland. Which, by the way, is also the reason for "Infinite Justice."

I am one historian whose blood boils when I read what many of my colleagues write in the HNN. I can read the same kind of stuff in the Washington Post, where the op-ed sections as well as what passes for "journalism" reflects a pro-Liberal or Democratic Party slant. I find HNN more aimed at advancing a left leaning political position than serious discussion of historiography, scholarship, or historical analysis of current issues and events.


Glenn Williams
Historian, National Park Service