Sunday Pages: "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

The truth is marching on.

Dear Reader,

When I was in elementary school, we spent a great deal of time in music class singing patriotic songs. I’m not sure if this was to instill in us a sense of civic pride, or if it was simply easier to get the rights to the music, but every year, we’d break open the songbook and have at it.

Later, in high school, I sang baritone in a men’s vocal ensemble, and we covered all of the armed forces anthems: “Anchor’s Away,” “Caisson’s Song,” and so forth. As I result, I know the words—not just the first stanzas!—to an inordinate number of patriotic tunes, and often the harmonies, as well. I liked, and still like, almost all of these songs. But my favorite was always “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” not least because the alternative lyrics were so much fun to belt out in third grade:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school
We have tortured every teacher, we have broken every rule
We are marching to the office to hang the principal,
Our troops are marching on.

Ah, the sweet innocence of youth!

A few weeks ago, I was in my father-in-law’s pool with my two kids, my niece and my two nephews. I wondered if they were familiar with the satirical version of that song, and was shocked to discover that, not only had they not heard the parody, they didn’t know the real thing! The despotic “Pledge of Allegiance,” sure—but not the “Battle Hymn of the Republic!” Whereupon I splashed around the pool belting it out at the top of my lungs until they were all embarrassed. And even then, as I sang half in jest, something stirred in my breast. Because the “Battle Hymn” is just that: stirring.

Many of the versions I found on YouTube are beautiful but lugubrious, making it sound like a dirge. I prefer it to be played uptempo, with a relentless stomping drumbeat, and the words sung as loudly as the lungs will allow: more “battle” and less “hymn”—like a Civil War “Kashmir.”

And yeah, the lyrics—first published by Julia Ward Howe in The Atlantic, in February of 1862—are uncomfortably Christian to our twenty-first century secular sensibilities, which is likely why they don’t sing it in school anymore. (They could sing it in the South, I suppose, but they would never sing this one in the South). But if we just think of Howe’s use of “Lord” and “Christ” and “God” to be antiquated euphemisms for “Justice,” “the Universe,” and “Karma”—the last an overtly religious word no one on Twitter has a problem with—the song retains its power: a perfect blend of music and lyrics. Because “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is about the Great Reckoning, when the forces of good assemble to eradicate the bad guys once and for all. Which kinda sorta feels like what’s happening right now.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

What imagery! Boots trampling, lightning loosed, swords swinging! This is Howe saying, basically, enough is enough. The traitors have woken the Avenger, in our case the Rule of Law made flesh, and he will have no mercy. And when the villains have been eradicated, there will be wine to drink!

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

In 2020 terms, this is all of us on Twitter, in quarantine, on our phones, dutifully doing our part to discover and broadcast the truth. Over time, the light of truth is blinding.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

Contemners is an archaic term meaning a person guilty of contempt, and no word dead or alive better describes Trump, Kushner, and all of their collaborators. In 2020, happily, the Hero is not just born of woman, but more often than not is a woman: Fiona Hill, Maria Yovanovich, Sally Yates, Amy Berman Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, etc. And once again, the imagery: the steel, the heel, the crushing of the serpent—which was then the Confederacy and is now transnational organized crime.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

We are all answering the call—and we are on the right side of history.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

I never much cared for this line, rejecting it as too religious. It’s cringe, as the kids say. But all it really means is to set a higher example, and to unite with each other in common cause, to fight for what is right, and to never surrender to the darkness.

Glory, glory, Hallelujah,
Glory, glory, Hallelujah,
Glory, glory, Hallelujah,
His truth is marching on.

The truth is marching on. And shall, like us, prevail.