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The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Primary Source Starter

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“Battle Hymn of the Republic” song sheet, date unknown

This is another example of what we call primary source starters: quick, easy-to-use activity ideas using primary sources from the Library’s collections.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Sometimes a familiar old song can turn out to have some surprising relatives.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been around for more than 150 years, but it has a complicated family tree. It started out as a gentle religious camp meeting song in the 1850s, but within a few years, people began giving the tune their own lyrics.

One of the fiercest versions was called “John Brown’s Body” or “The John Brown Song”, after the radical abolitionist who was executed in 1859. Someone created a new set of lyrics that were full of marching, decaying bodies, and the threat of violence, and soon Union troops were singing it across the battlefields of the Civil War.

“John Brown Song” song sheet, date unknown

The patriotic lyrics that we know today were written by author Julia Ward Howe in 1861, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was very popular throughout the Civil War. But so was “John Brown’s Body.”

Teachers can have students:

  • Sing both songs.
  • Compare the two songs to identify similarities and differences.
  • Speculate about the people who created these songs, and their motivations for doing so.
  • Ask themselves:
    • Who might have sung these songs when they first became popular?
    • What might their reasons have been?
    • How does encountering “John Brown’s Body” change the way you look at “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

You can use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and teacher guides to help students analyze these primary sources in further depth.

For background information and recordings of John Brown’s Body/The Battle Hymn of the Republic visit the Patriotic Melodies feature created by the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Did you discover any interesting aspects of these two songs? Do you know any other versions of these two songs?

Comments (3)

  1. I like to come back to this melody again when I teach about the labor movement, as it is also the basis for the IWW anthem “Solidarity Forever.” Students are always quick to compare and contrast between slavery and later labor conditions and efforts to bring improvement for both.
    Surprisingly, in more than 15 years I have never had a student who knew the old schoolyard standard, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, teacher hit me with a ruler,” but they always had fun learning that one, too.

  2. The Waynesburg University TPS team believes that these are wonderful “fill-in” activities and have promoted them for use during those times when a class period is shorted due to holidays or assemblies, for use by substitutes when no lesson plans are left for them, when students finish work early, or at the end of a learning unit when it is not appropriate to dive into the next topic.

    Lots of ways to use these easy-to-implement, skill-building activities! Thanks!

  3. Students are always quick to compare and contrast between slavery and later labor conditions and efforts to bring improvement for both.

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