Music played a significant role in the War Between the States. The South had a battle song, “Dixie,” so the North wanted its own as well. In 1862, a year into the war, Julia Ward Howe came up with new lyrics to a melody that was already familiar, “John Brown’s Body.” Ironically, her husband, Dr. Samuel Howe, was a financial supporter of the raid at Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown was captured and hung for treason. Both he and his wife were staunch abolitionists.
Mrs. Howe was inspired to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after visiting Washington D.C. and witnessing Union soldiers’ campfires flickering on the outskirts of town. At the time, the song was considered inspirational in its religious references. Mrs. Howe, a member of the Unitarian Church, is said to be more of an atheist in her own person beliefs. The strong sentiment and symbolic overtones in the lyrics she wrote are indicative of the hatred she apparently felt for Southerners in general; not just toward Confederates.
This song is commonly sung in churches and at patriotic events today. However, the problem arises when one considers the lyrics. They will find that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is hate-filled rhetoric consisting of derogatory implications. It is no wonder that people realize the negative aspects and refuse to sing the anthem. It is interesting to note that the song is performed frequently at Southern churches within the Bible Belt. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” is one example of a symbolic reference - vintage representing the blood of Southern people. When a song becomes controversial, it is generally avoided, and many in the South feel this sentiment. Just as African-Americans have for centuries fought to acquire respect and equality, it seems only fair that any song deemed offensive by any group such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” should be discontinued as well.