John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and in 1859, with a small band of dedicated men, raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry to gain weapons and supplies to help the effort. Thirty-six hours after the raid began, most of the men were wounded or killed, and John Brown was captured. Abolitionist Brown was brought to trial, tried and convicted of treason, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.
A popular Methodist camp meeting song of the time, written by Wiliam Steffe, began with the words:
Say brothers, will you meet us? (3X) On Canaan’s happy shore?
Glory, glory hallelujah! (3X) For ever, evermore!
After the Harpers Ferry incident, many considered John Brown a martyr, and added new verses:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, (3X) His soul is marching on!
During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” was a very popular marching song with Union Army. The Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment, in particular, spread the song’s fame on their march to the South. At Antietam, the regiment lost 224 of 334 men, the highest percentage casualty rate of any Union regiment in the battle.
Julia Ward Howe and her husband, both of whom were active abolitionists, observed a skirmish between Confederate and Union troops near Washington, D.C, and heard the troops go into battle singing “John Brown’s Body.” Later that evening, November 18, 1861, a pastor friend encouraged Ward to write a poem more appropriate to the war effort, to be used with the stirring tune. Her words began “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The Atlantic Monthly paid her four dollars for her poem, and published it in February, 1862, when it became the song we know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was popular through the remainder of the Civil War, has encouraged American soldiers and civil-rights activists, and continues to inspire us today.