Review: The Battle Hymn of the Republic
John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis. The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. 392 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-983743-4.
This “biography” of the patriotic anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” highlights landmark periods and movements in U.S. history from the post-Civil War period until the near present. Stauffer and Soskis use the Battle Hymn as their medium to tell a long, winding tale of American politics both liberal and conservative, race relations both harmonious and abrasive, and religious history both high-minded and acerbic.
The authors open with a “family history” of the Battle Hymn, contrasting it to its “siblings”—“Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” “John Brown’s Body,” and “Solidarity Forever”—the other songs set to the same tune at the time. The different messages of these anthems highlight how the Battle Hymn most closely articulated the type of reconciliation the North and South thought necessary and possible in the post-Civil War period.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic is far more than a musicological treatise. Relying primarily on literary analysis, Stauffer and Soskis use the Hymn to frame topics since the Civil War era in new ways. For example, the chapter on African American’s fondness for the Battle Hymn emphasizes W.E.B Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles for “truth to march on.” The chapter on evangelicalism focuses on Billy Graham and his millennialist outlook on American society. Graham connected strongly with the opening line of the tune: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Having expounded on the Hymn’s musical history and explored a wide variety of political, cultural, and religious tensions, the authors describe the thread that ties the chapters together. So many different groups over so many different periods felt a resonance with the Battle Hymn, they argue, because of its articulation of American civil religion. The Hymn gives voice to a distinctly Christian message that is synonymous with American might and endurance. As a powerful example, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. rallied his troops at D-Day by leading them in the Battle Hymn. One soldier remarked on the sobering effect of singing, “As God died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” For Stauffer and Soskis, this anecdote illuminates the American longing for a type of messianic American hope for the future, giving religious meaning to the political realities of the nation-state.
Given this strong conclusion, the book feels almost split in two. One half serves as a musicological historical treatment and the other a poignant political and religious historical commentary. While combining the two might seem a bit jarring, the work as a whole is remarkable in its poignancy and thoughtfulness. Those interested in all things political, religious, patriotic, and even musical will find excellent material and useful insight in Stauffer and Soskis’s work.