by Prof. R.P. Oliver
In "'Populism' and 'Elitism'" (p. 25, n. 27), I commented briefly on the morbid envy, malice, and blood-lust that inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the words of "one of the most terrible songs ever sung," the perennially popular "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, I hope, owes its popularity to the stirring music she filched when she set her words to it. Mrs. Peggy Smith, who wrote the introductions to both the first and the new editions of my "Conspiracy or Degeneracy?", has sent me a photocopy of a column written by the last of our honest journalists, her friend, the late John J. Synon, and published in many of the newspapers that subscribed to his column. Unfortunately, she has lost her notation of the date on which it was published, but internal evidence indicates some time in 1971. This column, which tells the simple truth about the song and the "hate-filled harridan" who wrote the words, should never be forgotten. It is reprinted below.
"Whenever I hear a Southern voice or a Southern band giving vent to that despicable Battle Hymn of the Republic I wince. And then I wonder. I wonder if the renderers are plain stupid or if they are maliciously anti-South. "That song is the most venomous ever written. The heart of it, if you will listen to its words, expresses the determination of its author to destroy Southern people. And yet, today, Southern bands – public-school bands, mostly – are to be heard thumping away at the malign thing. I heard it twice, last January, during George Wallace's inaugural parade. "Recall its phrases: "... (W)e will trample out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored"..."let us die to make men free"..."as we go marching on". "Those "grapes of wrath" are you, my friend, if you are a Southern person, you are the one to be trampled.
Let me tell you the story. Julia Ward Howe, the biddy who wrote those lyrics, was a queer admixture of sex, piety, poetry, reform, and busybody. As such, she was the quintessence of a Victorian breed of cat indigenous to the North during the middle years of the Nineteenth Century. Such as she were known as Abolitionists and they were responsible for more "trampling" than any sect in this nation's history. The war of Northern Aggression began in April of '61. Some seven months later this roving eyed woman was to be found in Washington, whisking in and whisking out of this soldier's tent and that: At age 42, Julia Ward had come down from her Boston home to "minister" to "the boys." Between "ministrations," she holed up at the Williard hotel and there – there or in some tent or another, the evidence is not clear – one November night, that first year of the war, she put her feelings to paper. The thought behind her words has been marching ever since.
The composition, itself, is strictly second-rate-stuff – as, indeed, was Julia – and had there been only words, it is likely once her "poem" was published, that would have been the end of it. But there was the music, too, and that was different. It is a stirring martial melody. And so, piggy-back, stirring music has kept alive Julia Ward Howe's words of hate. Oddly enough, nobody knows who wrote the tune. Like the Ministering Angel, herself, the music has a clouded history. So far as I can learn, it was first known as a Methodist hymn, Brother Will You Meet us? Later, as Hallelujah. Sumter had been fired on the preceding April. Perhaps a month after that, in May, at a flag-raising ceremony at Fort Warren near Boston, the old hymn was sung to different words. The new lyrics honored a recently-departed victim of a straight-shooting Confederate. As a patriotic, war-time tune, it caught on. That version became known as John Brown's Body (not the John Brown of Harper's Ferry infamy). Months later, somebody replaced John Brown with Julia's "poem" and there we have it. I offer the true significance behind today's use of the song is to be seen in the fact that it is not sung under its original words or title but as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Such is the legacy of a hate-filled harridan; her spleen goes marching on.
None of this information is obscure. I am as confident as I can be the recent resurgence of the tune was an inspired resurgence. And I am equally confident those creepy little vixens in our Southern public schools who teach it to their students do so with malice aforethought. Believe me, we've got a passel of weevils working our corn meal. So, next time you hear the repulsive thing, ask whoever is in charge if they know its significance. When they deny such knowledge, tell them the story I have told you and watch their "surprised" reaction. Suggest they try Dixie. Observe their reaction then.