Poetry Friday: Another voice from the Civil War

English: Portrait drawing of poet, anti-slavel...

Julia Ward Howe: abolitionist, suffragette, poet, and the woman who gave the war its anthem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most famous poems associated with the Civil War—and a poem whose words are almost certainly familiar to any American—is not usually thought of as a poem today.  I found it an interesting exercise, actually, to stop and consider these familiar words as poetry, and perhaps you will too.  In late 1861, a young woman named Julia Ward Howe watched a Union regiment march off to war, singing a marching song called “John Brown’s Body“.  A friend suggested she could write new lyrics to the song’s rhythm, and so she did, producing a work that was first published as a poem in the Atlantic Monthly, and swiftly passed into the national songbook as the words perhaps most immediately associated with the conflict.  Here, in its full original six stanzas (at least two of which are rarely, if ever, sung), is Julia Ward Howe’s “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.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

I’m hoping the poem strikes you as it struck me—a strange mixture of the very familiar and the very strange. Some of the strangeness surely arises from the sixth verse (with which I was not previously familiar), but I think it’s also because I’ve sung this often enough (complete, of course, with the hymn’s added “glory hallelujahs”) that to consider the work as a poem takes my brain off a path well-worn.  There’s something compelling about Howe’s vision—an apocalyptic (and yet hopeful) reverie in which God’s omnipotent power for good flashes again and again in military metaphor.  It must have been very stirring, especially to the element in the North that saw the war as a battle for righteousness—for the freeing of the slaves and the bringing to account of those who enslaved.  It is, of course, oversimplifying the conflict by casting it in these melodramatic terms.  But that doesn’t diminish its rhetorical power for me, or its significance as a call to the fray.

I am struck by Howe’s sacrificial language—although most hymnals today would print the line thus, “as he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free”, Howe is much more direct.  The soldiers are called to die for a cause as great as their God.  There is a sense of forboding in the hymn that taps into America’s perpetual fascination with millennial thinking—a judgment is at hand, God’s eye is on all humanity, each man’s dealings will be weighed and must not be found wanting.  If I dwell on it, it does quickly become a bit troubling—there’s something a bit too martial about the poem, and the fusing of the terrible violence of war with the belief in the cause’s righteousness makes me wonder how easy it might have been for some soldiers to be blinded to their own misdeeds.  A man in the army of freedom might not judge himself as harshly for acts of cruelty and injustice against whomever he thought the enemy to be.  It’s tough—on the one hand I believe, like Julia, that the North’s victory really was a victory for truth and freedom.  But on the other hand I know that the banner of “truth and freedom” makes too convenient a cover for human frailty.

One last thing about this poem—its relentless optimism really reaches me.  I love the turns of phrase she spins off—“the trumpet that shall never call retreat” and “the glory of the morning on the wave”, and maybe most importantly, the opening declaration that this glory is so at hand that it gleams in her eyes.  Having done some research (and slowly working on an article I’ll be submitting for publication) on the early abolitionist movement in the United States, I know that America’s abolitionists had waited a century for the country to, at long last, break the shackles and step into the true meaning of the foundational statements made in the Declaration of Independence.  I can only imagine how bright the mornings seemed to Julia Howe and her abolitionist friends, as the country leaned forward to take that step.  There is much that is brutal about the Civil War, much that troubles and disturbs.  But catching the sunny optimism of the abolitionists in this poem is a good reminder of the great truth that was forged in the war’s crucible.  The freedom won in that conflict was, of course, only the first of many steps for American equality.  We have come a long way since 1865, and have a bit farther to go yet.  But the destination seems a bit closer (and the road a bit easier to walk) when I let myself get swept up in Howe’s conviction about the forward march of freedom.  Whatever I think of the artistry of the poem, its conviction is powerful.

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2 comments on “Poetry Friday: Another voice from the Civil War

  1. Donna says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I am not much of a poetry fan, but I am a huge Civil War buff. I have loved this song/poem for so long and it really moves me to think of it in relation to the Civil War. I was family with all but the last stanza which is so beautiful. I’ll have to go pop in one of my CW music CDs.

  2. […] of historical detail in that image.  Little asides, like the fact that Julia Ward Howe (recently featured on this blog) was a friend of the family, or the interconnectedness of certain families in the history of […]

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