Six months into the Civil War, things were not going well for the Union (the north). Their army lacked effective leadership, comprehensive training, and many of the engagements took place in Confederate territory, allowing the advantage of familiar terrain. Virtually everyone had presumed the conflict would last 90 days; the terror, destruction and carnage that followed was difficult to fathom.
While in D.C. in November 1861 with her husband, Julia Ward Howe overheard the tune “John Brown’s Body,” the self-chosen theme song of regiments in the area, and entertained the idea of re-writing the lyrics. Later that night, she awoke from a sound sleep with the words in her head that would become the anthem of the Union Army, and subsequently the Union. Even today “the Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a familiar tune, although contemporary understanding is only the first verse, and little on its meaning.
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.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
Julia and her husband were abolitionists; Samuel Howe actually took part in financing John Brown’s futile raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The “glory” and “trampling” and “truth” that Julia was witnessing was the army of the Union cause. Although the north wouldn’t declare that the war was about freeing slaves until almost three years later, abolitionists were firmly hopeful that this conflict would be the end of the south’s “peculiar institution.”
With the conviction of most U.S. citizens at the time—passionately cleaving to the Lord, seeking divine influence in every aspect of life—it was easy for abolitionists to believe that the Union army would be the acting arm of the Creator. And truth, like progress, and like an army, constantly marches on.
The second verse alludes more to the literature of the age—which was principally the Bible, but also included letters to and from soldiers and newspapers. It gave illustration to the atmosphere of nights spent in the camps, reading correspondence and scripture by firelight—and symbolism to the new day that abolitionists believed would rise.
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.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His day is marching on.
The third and fourth verses speak to the retribution the Lord will seek upon the wicked, common themes in many religions, particularly the more “fire and brimstone” brand of Christianity. Conversely it calls upon the passion of the righteous to “swiftly” answer the call of the divine.
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.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! 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.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Our god is marching on.
Allegedly, most early performances of the song exclude the final verse, a clear connection to the abolitionist cause. With its impactful positioning of freedom as Christ-like, it’s easy to see how the still racially-segregated society could have suppressed it; after all, many supporters of the Union cause were against emancipation, even after President Lincoln acknowledged its role in the preservation of the nation in 1863.
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.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! While God is marching on.
In this way, the lyrics alone are a powerful depiction of a pivotal moment in American history, and the piece stands as media that assisted in shaping the post-war narrative–one that catapulted the sacrifice of the people who died in war as being for something full of grand purpose. As the fates of sons and husbands, brothers and fathers, neighbors and friends were reported line by line, it was a small comfort to believe their loved ones, who had died alone and in agony miles from home, had done so while serving a divine purpose. For communities that lost their entire population of young men to battlefield slaughter, it was necessary to believe their “last full measure of devotion” was for something of the utmost, glorious importance.