(U.S. Marines attack John Brown’s encampment at the Harper’s Ferry armory in West Virginia, 1859.)
John Brown (1800-1859) was a radical abolitionist who believed that armed revolt was the only way to end slavery in the United States. He led a raid on the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, with the intention of commandeering weapons to lead a slave rebellion, but the raid was put down by the U.S. Marines, and later that year Brown was hanged for treason.
Soon afterwards, the members of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of Massachusetts fitted their own words to the folk hymn “Say, Brothers,” and turned it into “John Brown’s Body.”
The new lyrics went:
- John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3×)
- His soul’s marching on!
In 1861, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe, who had funded John Brown’s efforts, wrote new lyrics to the tune:
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.
Howe’s lyrics are a paraphrase of an apocalyptic passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 63:
3 I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.
(Portrait of Julia Ward Howe painted by John Elliott, 1925.)
The song became known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and was the most famous Union marching song of the Civil War.
Here, a Georgia-based choir called the Sons of Lafayette, at least some of whose members are no doubt the descendants of Confederate soldiers, sing it with the men of the glee club of Morehouse College, the famous historically black college in Atlanta.
And this gave me chills: