Songs of War

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"Songs of War," 1861. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was written as an abolitionist poem, became very popular during the Civil War. After visiting a Union army camp near Washington, DC, in 1861, she was inspired by soldiers singing lyrics to a camp song that originated as a parody of John Brown, a soldier at Boston's Fort Warren and John Brown, the abolitionist.  Howe's poem, which easily fit the same tune, was first published in Atlantic Monthly in February 1862.

Attesting to the song’s popularity during the war is a woodcut print created by Winslow Homer for Harpers Weekly. Entitled, Songs of War, the image displays a variety of wartime songs, but it is dominated by a vignette depicting a multitude of soldiers marching to war and singing the chorus "Glory Hallelujah." Religious fervor was common in 19th century discourse.  As the country divided, the rhetoric reflected the passion on both sides. The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a strong example of the juxtaposition of militancy and religion. Although a seeming departure from the pacifist Protestant reform spirit of the 1830s and 1840s, clergy on both sides exhorted troops to show no mercy on their enemy as they sought justice.