Why they sang about John Brown

How a violent revolutionary inspired the Union's great marching song – right here in Boston

A painting by Thomas Hovenden depicting John Brown going to his execution in Charlestown, Virginia in 1859. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) A painting by Thomas Hovenden depicting John Brown going to his execution in Charlestown, Virginia in 1859.
By R. Blakeslee Gilpin
August 14, 2011

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On May 12, 1861, a flag-raising ceremony was held at Fort Warren, an Army post on George’s Island in Boston Harbor. The growing ranks of the Twelfth Massachusetts surprised inductees with the first performance of a new song.

The “John Brown Song,” as the soldiers called it, borrowed the tune of a popular Methodist hymn - a melody you probably know today as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its famous chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” But in May of 1861, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn” lyrics still lay six months in the future. “John Brown’s Body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave,” the Massachusetts soldiers sang. “His soul is marching on!”

The song became a hit. Two months later, Boston newspapers reported troops singing the tune in the city. By the time the lyrics were printed by a local music publisher, the company announced that “one can hardly walk on the streets for five minutes without hearing it whistled or hummed.”

Why did John Brown, a violent abolitionist revolutionary hanged for treason in Virginia, inspire a stirring song first heard, of all places, on an island in Boston Harbor? The answer reveals something about the complexity of the North’s beliefs about why they were fighting the Civil War, and the surprisingly wide range of causes that Brown - a New Englander turned antislavery zealot - came to represent in the fractured America of the time.

By the 1850s, Boston was a stronghold for American abolitionism. Known as the “Cradle of Liberty,” it was one of the most welcoming destinations for free and fugitive blacks. When, in 1854, the Kansas territory was opened for a popular vote over slavery’s expansion, Bostonians founded the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company to send voting settlers to the territory under arms.

John Brown, a failed businessman then living in New York State, was similarly inspired by this opportunity. Originally from Connecticut, Brown had spent some formative years in Springfield, Mass, where he was heavily involved in the abolitionist cause. When Brown arrived in Kansas in 1855, the territory was in chaos. Proslavery and antislavery settlers clashed in a simmering conflict, whose outcome stood to swing the balance of votes in Washington.

In May of 1856, Brown and a small band of men carried out five brutal killings of proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kan. Meanwhile, only a few days earlier, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had been beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. To New Englanders, Brown’s action spoke volumes: Proslavery outrage was finally answered by abolitionist justice.

After fleeing federal troops, Brown headed to Boston, where he knew he would find shelter and support. In the Massachusetts Legislature, Brown delivered a speech about his role in the strife. Describing scenes of murder and mayhem, Brown took out the chains that had held his own murdered son and thumped them on a table.

Brown convinced a group of prominent citizens to become his secret backers. Among them were author and minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, physician Samuel Gridley Howe (husband to Julia Ward), transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker, the industrialist and merchant George Luther Stearns, and author Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. They agreed to support Brown in a clandestine mission: to invade Virginia under arms, forcibly liberate slaves, and begin to destroy what Brown explained was the principle crime of a guilty nation. Brown’s chosen target was a spit of land called Harpers Ferry, which housed a federal armory.

On the night of Oct. 15, 1859, Brown led an interracial liberation army of 21 men to begin the war against slavery. The raid was a sad farce. The first victim was a free black baggage handler; Brown’s imagined slave army never materialized; his men were mostly killed or captured. Brown himself was wounded, tried, and convicted of treason by the state of Virginia. The execution date was set for a month later.

As he awaited his hanging, Brown corresponded endlessly with supporters and hosted numerous visitors in his jail cell. Great thinkers wrote about the case; Ralph Waldo Emerson declared him a “Saint . . . [who] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.” Brown himself remained defiant. “I John Brown,” he wrote on the morning of his execution, “am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”

On Dec. 2, Brown was hanged. He was memorialized by countless furious Bostonians. A popular broadside captured their sentiments: “John Brown Still Lives!” The execution had not truly killed Brown, as Bay Staters from Thoreau to Emerson explained. Instead, his time in prison and noble death had unleashed the fury of Northern pens, a force far more effective than his ragtag army.

Seventeen months later, “John Brown’s Body” was born in Boston, and as Union troops marched South, they trumpeted the charge laid on them near and far. Northerners and Southerners, free and enslaved, enlisted and on the homefront, all heard the song as the war consumed the nation, and civilians took it up as well. On Union-occupied St. Helena’s Island in Beaufort, S.C., the African-American writer and teacher Charlotte Forten taught her black schoolchildren the song, which she described in a diary entry simply as “John Brown.” As she wrote, “I felt to the full the significance of that song being sung here in SC by little negro children, by those whom he - the glorious old man - died to save.”

Like so many of the nation’s important documents, however, “John Brown’s Body” retained a wondrous malleability. The most ringing line - “his soul is marching on” - allowed soldiers to interpret Brown’s intentions, and the song’s meaning, however they chose. Brown’s soul could be dedicated simply to justice and Northern victory - a straightforward military interpretation. Or it could mean union - a greater cause for the numerous soldiers who had no particular investment in ending American slavery. Finally, it was always possible to hear the lyrics as a powerful promise of racial liberation.

Julia Ward Howe would transform the song again later in 1861, obscuring Brown’s troubling legacy; 150 years later, it is her lyrics we sing. But “Battle Hymn of the Republic” derives its symbolic DNA from “John Brown’s Body.” And that Brown’s journey to immortality began in a city with such a storied commitment to liberty makes perfect sense. When those volunteers in the Twelfth Massachusetts took John Brown, the country’s only proven soldier for freedom, and set him to song, they wrote a new chapter in his story and the story of the war.

R. Blakeslee Gilpin is a fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a visiting assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. His book, “John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change,” will be published by UNC Press in November.

Abolitionist John Brown (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Abolitionist John Brown