Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 5. Civil War Songs; Dixie; The Battle Hymn of the Republic

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVI. Patriotic Songs and Hymns

§ 5. Civil War Songs; Dixie; The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In the meanwhile general consent was being given to a song and to a hymn which are more and more popular with the lapse of time. These are Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The original Dixie was composed on forty-eight hours’s notice by Dan D. Emmett in September, 1859. He was then under contract with Bryant’s Minstrels, New York, as musician and composer of “negro melodies and plantation walk-arounds.” On a bleak northern Sunday he composed this “rush order” around the showman’s autumnal and winter saying, “I wish I was in Dixie.” The rollicking measure scored a natural success with every audience, and the sentiment reinforced its appeal in the South. Sung late in 1860 and early in 1861 at New Orleans, it made an especially sensational “hit” and soon all the Confederate states rang with it. On 30 April of that year The Natchez Courier printed Albert B. Pike’s “Southrons, hear your country call you,” a stirring lyric itself, but only a temporary substitute for the Emmett words, “I wish I was in de land ob cotton,” the first stanza of which is known everywhere in America. Fanny J. Crosby’s attempt to regain the tune for the North with her “On ye patriots to the battle” was wholly unsuccessful; the other Southern variants died away; Pike’s version is now a literary memory; but Emmett’s original words and music still bring people to their feet as no other song in America does. They stand in deference to the tradition of The Star Spangled Banner, but they rise to Dixie itself.

The melody for The Battle Hymn of the Republic has had quite the most varied career in the history of American patriotic song. It came into being as a Southern camp-meeting song early enough to have been included in Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Collection of 1852. With the organization of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry in 1861 two Maine men in the second battalion introduced to camp “Say brothers, will you meet us, On Canaan’s happy shore?” To this melody the glee club of the unit evolved a set of verses half applied to one of their own members, a Scotch John Brown. When these words became the characteristic song of the regiment, the officers tried in vain to have the words applied to Ellsworth, the first Northern commissioned officer who had fallen in the War. Inevitably many new versions were composed on John Brown of Ossawatomie—by H. H. Brownell, Edna Dean Proctor, Charles Sprague Hall, and anonymous writers; and from these developed variants beyond recall. The hymn had become a war ballad of widest popularity; but the ballad was to be rehabilitated as a hymn again. This occurred when Julia Ward Howe, one of a party to visit the Army of the Potomac in December, 1861, was urged by James Freeman Clarke to dignify the chant with adequate words. Her attempt was christened by James T. Fields and appeared in the Atlantic, February, 1862, as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The marked differences between these three lyrics show how vital is the relation between words and music. The colourless, seven-syllabled, thrice-repeated line, “Say brothers, will you meet us,” is plaintive, if not dreary, in effect. The eleven syllables of “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” with their stronger vocal quality and their sinister suggestiveness, have a primitive folk-quality and a martial vigour. The iambic heptameters of “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” rise to the elevation of a religious processional.