A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War, Richard M. Gamble, Cornell University Press, 296 pages

In an annual rite of late spring, I chide the affable minister of my wife’s Presbyterian church for the congregation’s singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the Sunday before Memorial Day—the ersatz Memorial Day created by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, that is. 

“It’s a glorification of war,” I tell her, “composed by a Unitarian who gets off on the thought of all those Southern boys with their guts shot out.”

She concedes the point, but, well, it is also a singularly stirring anthem, a rousing affirmation of the singer’s righteousness, a note stretching across a century and a half assuring us that although the United States is “the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” as Jimmy Carter says, it hasn’t all just been senseless slaughter.

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With A Fiery Gospel, Richard Gamble, our foremost historian of America’s civil religion, has gifted us with a provocative, sensitive, and deeply thoughtful book on Julia Ward Howe’s poetical expression of “romantic nationalism” and “philosophical idealism,” and the conceit that we are a nation ordained by God to wage war against that which displeases Him—as divined by the occupant of the White House. 

The “Battle Hymn” grew out of a trip to Washington in November 1861 by a coterie of Boston abolitionists which included Julia and her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe. Julia was 42, a mother of six, a depressive daughter of a wealthy Manhattan banker. Her father’s charities had included the New-York State Colonization Society, which sought to expatriate free blacks to Liberia. 

Julia’s physician-philanthropist husband Samuel was her elder by a generation, a Bostonian of means whose noble work with the blind had been lauded by Charles Dickens in his American Notes (1842). Samuel Howe was also one of the “Secret Six” who bought John Brown his rifles, though Samuel hightailed it to Canada after the failure of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. 

Coming into womanhood coincident with the flowering of New England, Julia fled what she shudderingly called the “grim dogmas” of her father’s Protestant Episcopal Church and embraced Unitarianism and poetry, producing a volume in 1854, Passion-Flowers, that her husband thought rather too ardent. It also exhibited some of her hard-shell anti-Catholicism, as when, in a poem about visiting Rome, she beholds “yonder monkling, in unmanly garb,/With sturdy limbs fed fat in idleness,/Whose hands scorn labor, as his brain hates thought.”

Ouch! As for the opinions of people of African descent she ventured in The Atlantic Monthly, we won’t go there, to use the pop-cult vernacular, lest the Julia Ward Howe plaque on the front of the Willard Hotel in D.C. gets the Kate Smith treatment. 

The visiting Bostonians lodged at the Willard, caravansary of the high and mighty in wartime Washington. Their week or so in the nation’s capital was filled with local color. They heard the Massachusetts Fourteenth Regiment’s lusty rendition of “John Brown’s Body,” the camp song in which said body moulders in the grave while his soul is marching on. They also heard William Ellery Channing preach from the pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church that their nation was engaged in a “holy war,” they watched from a distant hilltop a 45-minute skirmish near Falls Church, and in the twilight’s last gleaming they saw the heavenly glow of scattered campfires.

Back at the Willard, Julia arose in the predawn and scribbled out six stanzas on a piece of Sanitary Commission stationery. 

In Passion-Flowers she had written:

I never made a poem, dear friend—

I never sat me down, and said,

This cunning brain and patient hand

Shall fashion something to be read.

That sounds like fey self-mythicization, the poet as amanuensis to the Muses, but the “Battle Hymn” does seem to have been the product of a kind of automatic writing. 

Returned to Boston, Howe snipped the ho-hum sixth verse, which was something of an anti-climax to “let us die to make men free,” and sent her poem off to James Fields at The Atlantic Monthly. Fields bannered the front cover of the February 1862 number with Mrs. Howe’s verses, which he dubbed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune followed suit, and in short order the drumbeat of war had a worthy lyric. 

Despite Julia’s rejection of her father’s orthodoxy, the “Battle Hymn” breathes of both Old and New Testament, in particular Isaiah 63: “I have trodden the winepress alone…I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath”; and Revelation 14: “The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.”

“Militant Unitarians like… Howe may have rejected Jesus’s literal blood atonement for sin,” notes Gamble, “but they rushed to make the soldiers’ blood redemptive for the nation.” Peace, it seems, could be achieved most completely through carnage and bloodshed, cannon blast and minié ball. The dead were Christ-like martyrs to an inexorable truth.

Howe wisely recognized that simply restoring the Union was a puny goal, unworthy of the blood of a single soldier. Only “the higher aim of freedom for the slaves,” writes Gamble, could imbue the war of North and South with a righteous glow. 

Did begrimed war-weary veterans and horny-handed Ohio plowboys really march off to battle trilling, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea”?

What do you think?

They much preferred the ruder lyric to “John Brown’s Body” and may have resented the swiping of that tune for Howe’s poem. As Gamble writes, “Some veterans and others old enough to remember the war insisted that soldiers would never have steeled themselves for battle and faced death singing Howe’s mystical vision of grapes, altars, and lilies.”

The colorful Italo-English journalist George Augustus Sala wrote Julia’s brother in 1864 to praise the hymn’s “Thor-Hammer lines” but added, “I think the doctrine it strives to inculcate, exceedingly mischievous; and I do believe that could Christ come across the sea to the Shenandoah Valley, He would weep tears of blood at the aspect of a conflict which seems to be carried on more by the Devils of the Pit than by human beings.”

After the war, Julia lectured widely, always willing to recite her now famous lines. The work had a universal quality, never mentioning “a battlefield or general or politician by name,” and now it was time to start trampling out vintages in other climes.

The Howes endorsed President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempted annexation of Santo Domingo circa 1870. At century’s end, Julia, by then a widow, welcomed the Spanish-American War as a sign that the United States had passed “from the Old Testament of our own liberties, to the New Testament of liberty for all the world.” Howe told an audience in Brooklyn in September 1900 that “our flag” goes “nowhere except on errands of justice and mercy.” Meanwhile, across the globe, the lives of 200,000 Filipinos were being erased by freedom’s messengers.

The “Battle Hymn” was the rallying cry of choice for the early 20th-century imperialists. Theodore Roosevelt, predictably, plumped for it as the official national anthem, saying that it was his “favorite short poem,” though when Congress did get around to designating an anthem—and why does a free people even need one?—it chose a less tuneful war song. (One Shakespearean scholar, objecting to TR’s anthem campaign, asked, “What soldier going into battle would remark, ‘Prepare my soul to meet him—Be jubilant, my feet’?”) 

The British sang it as their lads were fed into the meat-grinder in 1914, and American hawks screeched what Rudyard Kipling termed its “terrible slow swing” over the next three years, as they urged their countrymen to join the fight. Julia’s soul had gone marching on in 1910, but her daughter Maud Howe Elliott kept the faith. 

“Who hears that trumpet call and does not leap to answer it is no patriot,” scolded Maud. Her mother doubtless would have rejoiced when the House of Representatives voted for war on Good Friday, 1917. As He died to make men holy we would die to make men free. Or free (sic). Even Catholics and Jews, whose children had, at times, refused to sing the “Battle Hymn” in public schools, lent their voices. Postwar, daughter Maud suggested that it become the “International Anthem of the League of Nations.”

The “Battle Hymn” became a Cold War standard, sung by Billy Graham, Anita Bryant, and, in the surprise pop hit of 1959, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Johnny Cash recorded a doleful version, and Judy Garland belted it out on television three weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Civil rights marchers adopted the tune, though as Gamble observes, “singing it at nonviolence rallies was a bit peculiar given its blood-bathed language.” In his Memphis sermon on the eve of his murder, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Not every American struck the harp and joined the chorus. Princeton Seminary professor and Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen said that such “a fiery war song…has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy objected to the hymn being taught to young southrons. Edmund Wilson, in his masterwork Patriotic Gore (1962), noted that Howe makes Christ “merely peripheral” to the action, way off among the lilies “in a setting that is effeminate as well as remote.” Love thine enemies? Nah: Howe’s “military God” demands that we crush them like serpents.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet-farmer and by all odds the wisest man of our age, says that the hymn “has a splendid tune, but the words are perfectly insane…It renders our ordeal of civil war into a truly terrifying simplemindedness, in which we can still identify Christ with military power and conflate ‘the American way of life’ with the will of God.”

“The dead,” writes Berry, “are conscripted again into abstraction by political leaders and governments, and this is a great moral ugliness.”

The subversively peaceful Civil War film Copperhead (2013), which Ron Maxwell directed from a novella by Harold Frederic (adapted by yours truly), features a fanatical abolitionist—who is dead right on the central moral question of his time but dead wrong on pretty much everything else—singing “The Battle Hymn” as his daughter weeps for her missing beau, a Union private. For what is the life of a single man, an unlettered rural man at that, when a terrible swift sword is cleansing the nation with its mighty swoops and slashes? 

Today, the God stuff embedded in Julia Ward Howe’s anthem is awkward, but its thrust remains consistent with elite opinion. We Americans are still on the “right side of history” and thus our military-industrial complex has the right, even duty, to wipe out recalcitrant wrong-siders. The “Battle Hymn,” concludes Richard Gamble, “enables Americans to forget their history in the midst of the act of supposedly remembering who they are.”

But it sure is a rousing number, isn’t it?

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.