John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, But his soul goes marching on.
Chorus: Glory, glory hallelujah, Glory, glory hallelujah, Glory, glory hallelujah, His soul goes marching on.
He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, His soul goes marching on. (Chorus)
John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back, John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back, John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back, His soul goes marching on. (Chorus)
John Brown died that the slaves might be free, John Brown died that the slaves might be free, John Brown died that the slaves might be free, But his soul goes marching on. (Chorus)
The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down, The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down, The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down, On the grave of old John Brown. (Chorus)
1861 Marching Song “John Brown’s Body”, originally sung by a Massachusetts Regiment
So who was John Brown? (And why would Union soldiers want to sing about a rotting body and marching soul?) We’ve got answers.
John Brown was a soldier in a Massachusetts Volunteer Unit. (See next section). Okay…but most people thought of “Martyr John Brown of Harper’s Ferry” when they heard the song in 1861.
That John Brown was a radical abolitionist. Abolition was/is an important cause, but John Brown did not have the best ideas for bringing freedom to the enslaved. Advocating violence and believing God gave him directions through dreams, Brown resorted to a brutal form of “domestic terrorism” in an attempt to bring about emancipation.
During the 1850’s, the Kansas-Nebraska Act instituted a type of popular sovereignty in the territories, declaring that the residents of the territories would be allowed to decide if the new states would be slave or free states. The result was a rush to settle the territories, marauders, and violence. “Bloody Kansas” was not an exaggeration. In this period, John Brown and some of his sons beat and killed some slavery supporters.
In 1859, Brown decided that he would launch an insurrection, freeing slaves in Northern Virginia, arming them, and encouraging the freedmen to slaughter their former masters. In October, Brown and his sons and other partisans arrived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) and attempted to seize weapons from the U.S. Arsenal. Caught and eventually besieged, Brown’s sons were killed, and he was captured. (Ironically, the first person killed by the Brown Raiders was an African American man who spotted the group in the night shadows.)
John Brown was given a civil trial, found guilty of treason and instigating insurrection, and hanged on December 2, 1859.
Abolition had been a cause in the North for a while, but John Brown’s hanging gave the abolitionists a hero. They proclaimed that Brown was willing to die to free the slaves, and made him a martyr.
Evolution of a Song
There was an old song sung by the Methodists called “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” It was a rousing tune.
Apparently, some members of the Massachusetts’s Volunteer Militia knew the tune, but thought it would be funny to write new lyrics. One fellow in their unit was named John Brown (after-all, that is a rather common name) so they wrote the original collection of verses to tease/annoy their comrade. They thought it was the greatest joke that everyone supposed they were singing about the radical abolitionist.
Eventually, other units learned the song, firmly believing it was about “Martyr” John Brown of Harper’s Ferry. In this context, it became a sort of abolitionist song, implying that John Brown had died but his desire and fight for freedom lived/marched on.
In the autumn of 1861, Julia Ward Howe would hear soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body.” She liked the tune, but felt that the lyrics were too macabre. Mrs. Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the song which has survived through decades of American History.
While it is true that most Northern men enlisted in 1861 “to preserve the Union,” some were abolitionists, hoping that slavery might end through the war. Official steps toward ending slavery weren’t taken until 1862, but it is important to note the musical and written influences of the abolitionists even in the opening days of the conflict.
Whether we agree or disagree with John Brown’s violence, it is important to acknowledge that his attempts did ignite the imagination of northern abolitionists. They transformed him into a martyr figure and used him example to promote emancipation.
The Civil War would bring freedom to millions of slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) enforced by the arrive of Union troops throughout the South and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom for all Americans.
P.S. I feel bad for Soldier John Brown of Massachusetts. I wonder if he was an abolitionist and if he minded his comrades’ jokes.