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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"Glory, Glory, Hallelujah"

One would naturally think that our official state song, "On, Wisconsin!," was inspired by residents of the Badger state. But the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Who'd have known. Here's how it happened.

Lincoln Inspects the Troops

Early in the Civil War, the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry was stationed outside Washington, D.C., to protect the nation's capital. On Nov. 20, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln held a review of the troops, believed to be the largest such gathering in America up to that time. He brought many dignitaries to witness the historic event, including abolitionist minister James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888) and Clarke's friend, anti-slavery activist Julia Ward Howe (1817-1910).

When they left the parade ground at the end of the day, the Sixth Wisconsin was in the front. As they marched, according to regimental historian Rufus Dawes, "our leading singer, Sergeant John Ticknor, as he was wont to do on such occasions, led out with his strong, clear, and beautiful tenor voice, -- 'Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree.' The whole regiment joined the grand chorus, 'Glory, Glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.' We often sang this John Brown song. To our visitor [Mrs. Howe] appeared the 'Glory of the coming of the Lord' in our 'burnished rows of steel'..."

The Song Arrives Before Dawn

Mrs. Howe later wrote that when they heard Wisconsin troops singing the song, "Mr. Clarke said, 'Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?' ...I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses out almost without looking at the paper [and]... having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, 'I like this better than most things that I have written.'"

An Immediate Hit

Her contemporaries and posterity both agreed. Howe's volumes of sentimental Victorian verse are all but forgotten now, but "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord..." and its subsequent lines have been memorized -- and parodied -- by millions of American school children for the last 150 years. The complete lyrics and a photo of her are here.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was printed a few months later in the Atlantic Monthly and soon swept the northern states. Julia Ward Howe became a celebrity. The Sixth Wisconsin left Washington a few months later, and was involved in many major battles, including Gettysburg, where lead singer John Ticknor was killed.

Learn much more about Wisconsin in the Civil War at our new digital collection created for the war's sesquicentennial.

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 30, 2011
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