The migration of an abolitionist, pro-North Civil War hymn to a football team in the Deep South inevitably strikes some observers as odd.
Christian McWhirter, a historian from Canada who wrote “Battle Hymns,” a book about Civil War songs, said that when he first heard the Georgia version at a football game, “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
The tune’s journey demonstrates its power to stir feelings of righteousness, no matter the substance of its words. And at a time when how to commemorate the Civil War is a divisive question, the melody’s beloved status among Georgia fans suggests that the culture wars are not always a full-time struggle.
“Associating it with the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ was not really something we did,” said Harvey H. Jackson III, a historian of the South at Jacksonville State University who earned his Ph.D at Georgia. “It was a college football fight song.”
Georgia football fans are not alone in co-opting the melody. The pro-labor chant “Solidarity Forever” is perhaps the most widely known adaptation. In northern England, certain fans sing “Glory, Glory Man United” for their favorite soccer team. In college sports there is “Glory, Glory Colorado,” as well as the less-used “Glory, Glory to Ole Auburn.”
The melody originated in the early 1800s with a hymn, “Grace Reviving the Soul,” according to the book “Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On.” Its lyrics went, “Say brothers will you meet us,” three times, and then, “On Canaan’s happy shore.”
Credit Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
In the spring of 1861, the soldiers of a Boston-based Union regiment pinned the tune to the lyrics: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave/His soul is marching on.” It was an ode to the man who was hanged for raiding the Harpers Ferry Armory in protest of slavery not two years earlier.
Julia Ward Howe, a well-to-do Northern abolitionist and poet, heard the tune that autumn while observing Union troops in Virginia. She decided to prettify the lyrics, which had expanded to include such lines as, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.”
She wrote five verses — beginning with the famous “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” — and submitted them to The Atlantic Monthly. The poetry editor published them in the February 1862 issue under the title “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The lyrics became extremely popular — Abraham Lincoln praised them — and remained widely known after the war had ended.
“Glory, Glory” emerged at a time when football was just cropping up in the region, said Bruce Schueneman, an author of an anthology of college fight songs. The first game in the Deep South was played in 1892 between Georgia and Auburn (which might explain why they both have versions of the song). There is a published reference to its being played at the 1906 baseball season opener versus Clemson.
“There’s no way you would use that melody in the late 19th or early 20th century without knowing it’s the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” McWhirter said.
A likely explanation for a Southern school’s adoption of a Northern song, historians say, was that it was a time of patriotism, particularly around the Spanish-American War.
Besides, it is really, really catchy.
“They graft these new lyrics onto it because it’s easy to do it,” McWhirter said. “That’s why this melody has always been popular.”
The song was not the only thing Southern football acolytes adopted. Football itself derived from the North, said Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn, and was seen as a pastime of the East Coast elite that Southerners would do well to copy.
“They did what almost anybody does when they’re tiptoeing into something new to them, but familiar elsewhere: borrowing the rules from the North, the number of players, the idea of mottos and school names and colors,” Flynt said.
But as the 20th century played out, the melody encountered more turbulence in the South. In 1937, the Daughters of the Confederacy called for its lyrics to be rewritten. At football games, said McWhirter, the melody, whether as a school fight song or as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was frequently balanced with “Dixie,” which was increasingly used as a racially tinged tribute to the Old South. At the University of Mississippi, “His truth is marching on” would sometimes be changed to “The South shall rise again.”
When the band director Roger Dancz elected to remove the word “Dixie” from the Redcoat Marching Band’s name in the 1971 season, he was hanged in effigy, said Mark Maxwell, the Georgia athletics archivist. A cartoon in the band yearbook joked that “redcoat,” “marching” and “band” were also offensive words that would need to be removed. (“Redcoat” is not a British Army reference, as the satirists suggested, but a punning dig at the rival Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.)
These days, “Glory, Glory” has been embraced comprehensively. Since 1987, home games have incorporated an elaborate tradition in which a trumpet soloist in the stands begins to play a down-tempo version, which the band calls “Slow Glory,” followed by a recorded inspirational speech about Georgia from the play-by-play announcer Larry Munson, who died in 2011.
Video by BullittMcQueen
For lifelong Georgia fans, it is simply their fight song. On Monday night in Atlanta, it will represent nothing more than the Bulldogs’ aspirations to defeat the Crimson Tide and claim the national championship.
“This is a melody that predates the Civil War to begin with,” Bawcum said. “The war’s been over a long time, and the U.S. won.”