Book Review Thursday: The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On

BattleHymnOfTheRepublicWhen I saw the title of this book I thought it sounded interesting, and I was not disappointed, although a little overwhelmed with the history covered in this John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis work.  Stauffer also co-authored another book reviewed here.

If you think this is just a book about how a popular and distinctly American hymn was written, then you are underestimating the breadth of the research and accompanying history.  The hymn was a rallying point for the Union troops during the Civil War, and would come to be used again and again in the ensuing decades when the nation faced times of crisis and peril.

The most recent example of the hymn being used to rally the country was the attacks carried out on September 11, 2001.  The song struck just the right chord when it was sung at the memorial service held at Washington’s National Cathedral three days after the attacks.  But as the authors point out in the book’s preface:

It conjures up and confirms some of our most profound conceptions of national identity and purpose.  And yet ever since it was first published in the February 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, the song has also exposed the fragility of those ideals.  For if it has celebrated the sense of mission and national exceptionalism that have bound Americans together in times of trial, it has also highlighted, and even deepened, the fractures running through those ideas.

Indeed, the song was written at a “supreme moment of disunity” – perhaps implying those fighting for the Union were the “good guys” and the Confederates, “as diabolical serpents to be crushed underfoot.”  But, the song didn’t just arise out of the conflict between the slave and free states – its roots went back several decades, traced to revivalist camp meetings in the early nineteenth century.  More recently, the song was linked to the tune of the popular song, John Brown’s Body, and the authors believe that Julia Ward Howe composed her poem “in an effort to provide more elevated lyrics for the ‘John Brown’s Body’ tune.”

So, don’t expect a short, concise history – get ready for a detailed and fascinating read which covers a lot more ground than would be expected.  At one point, Congress considered making The Battle Hymn of the Republic the nation’s anthem.  The tune, sung with different lyrics, would become a rallying cry for progressives and socialists in the early twentieth century as well.

The book is almost four hundred pages in length, which includes an extensive bibliography and notes section.  It’s obvious the authors have taken great pains to research their subject and relate it to various aspects of American history – to me this alone makes it all the more interesting.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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