|The tune was written, around 1855, by South Carolinian
William Steffe. The lyrics at that time were alternately
called "Canaan's Happy Shore" or "Brothers,
Will You Meet Me?" and the song was sung as a
campfire spiritual. The tune spread across the United
States, taking on many sets of new lyrics.
A man from Vermont named Thomas Bishop
joined the Massachusetts Infantry before the outbreak
of war and wrote a popular set of lyrics, circa 1860,
titled "John Brown's Body" which became
one of his unit's walking songs. According to writer
Irwin Silber (who has written a book about Civil War
folksongs), the song was not about John Brown, the
famed abolitionist, but a Scotsman of the same name
who was a member of the 12th Massachusetts Regiment.
An article by writer Mark Steyn explains that the
men of John Brown's unit had made up a song poking
fun at him, and sang it widely.
Bishop's battalion was dispatched to
Washington, D.C. early in the Civil War, and Julia
Ward Howe heard this song during a public review of
the troops in Washington. As with many others, she
assumed it was about John Brown the abolitionist.
Her companion at the review, the Reverend James Clarke,
suggested to Howe that she write new words for the
fighting men's song, and the current version of "Battle
Hymn of the Republic" was born.
Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the
Republic" was first published on the front page
of The Atlantic Monthly of February 1862. The sixth
verse written by Howe, which is less commonly sung,
was not published at that time. The song was also
published as a broadside in 1863 by the Supervisory
Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia.
Julia Ward Howe was the wife of Samuel
Gridley Howe, the famed scholar in education of the
blind. Samuel and Julia were also active leaders in
anti-slavery politics and strong supporters of the
Union. Julia was visiting a Union camp when she heard
the soldiers singing "John Brown's Body"
and was inspired to write the words to "The Battle
Hymn of the Republic".