The 6th Wisconsin Infantry and the Writing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic

By the fall of 1861, the song John Brown’s Body (also known as The John Brown Song) had become a popular marching song with Union Army soldiers. When Julia Ward Howe–poet, abolitionist, and social activist–paid a visit to a Union Army troop review and camps near Washington D.C.  in November 1861, she was inspired to write new  words to the song.  Published as a poem in the February 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, The Battle Hymn of the Republic became perhaps the most popular patriotic song of the war on the northern side. In his book Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Captain Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote about the role his regiment played in Howe’s writing of the song.  Julia Ward Howe also recalled the circumstances of writing the song in her memoir Reminiscences 1819-1899.

Howe and her husband Samuel Gridley Howe were invited to a large troop review at Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax County, Virginia . “While we were engaged in watching the maneuvers, a sudden movement of the enemy necessitated immediate action” Howe recalled. “The review was discontinued, and we saw a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat.”  Dawes, the soldier who saw action in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, was a little less dramatic in his recollection.  “The troops were dismissed in the midst of the review, owing to some reported movement of the enemy” .

The regiments that were not involved in pursuit of Confederates marched back to their camps near Arlington, Virginia. “With our column rode a lady visitor” Dawes recalled. Howe remembered returning to Washington “very slowly, of necessity, for the troops nearly filled the road”.

“As we marched,” Dawes wrote “the ‘evening dews and damps’ gathered, and our leading singer, Sergeant John Tickner, as he was wont to do on such occasions, led out with his strong, clear and beautiful tenor voice, ‘Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree’.  The whole regiment joined the grand chorus, ‘Glory, glory hallelujah, as we go marching on.”

Among the traveling party with Howe was her minister, who said “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” Howe replied that she would like to, but hadn’t thought of the right words yet. As the travelers and soldiers of the 6th Wisconsin approached the camps, “to our visitor appeared the ‘Glory of the coming of the Lord,’  in our ‘burnished rows of steel’ and  in the ‘hundred circling camps’ on Arlington, which was before her” Dawes recalled.

Very early the next morning, Howe awoke and “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 versus down'”. She wrote all the versus and returned to bed thinking “I like this better than most things I have written”.

Dawes:  “Julia Ward Howe, our visitor, has said that the singing of the John Brown song by the soldiers on that march, and the scenes of that day and evening inspired her to the composition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. We at least helped to swell the chorus.”

The 6th Wisconsin Infantry would go on to see a great deal of action as part of the Iron Brigade.  John Tickner, the soldier with the ‘clear and beautiful tenor voice’ was killed July 1st, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Here’s a nice rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic from YouTube:

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.

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
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

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

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

Sources:

  • Reminiscences 1819-1899 By Julia Ward Howe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1900
  • Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes. Marietta, Ohio: E.R. Alderman & Sons, 1890.
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