In the early days of the War, the song "John Brown's Body" was wildly popular. Although in its original incarnation it had nothing to do with the notorious abolitionist leader hanged at Harpers's Ferry on December 2, 1859, it became inextricably identified with him and acquired new verses that were sung by Federal troops and Union sympathizers alike. The tune was borrowed from an old Methodist hymn, "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?," by William Steffe.
In November of 1861, Julia Ward Howe was touring Union army camps in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., with her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a member of President Lincoln's Military Sanitary Commission. With them was Reverend James Freeman Clarke. During the course of their visit, the group began to sing some of the currently popular war songs, among them "John Brown's Body." In one of those rare flashes of inspiration that leave their mark on the history of a nation, Reverend Clarke was moved to suggest that Mrs. Howe pen new lyrics to the familiar tune. She replied that she had often thought of doing exactly that. The following morning, as Mrs. Howe later described it, she "awoke...in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, 'I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately.'"
Mrs. Howe's lyrics first appeared on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862. Editor James T. Fields, who paid her $5 for the piece, is credited with having given the song the name by which it is known today.
Modern hymnals occasionally add a sixth verse:
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,Although this final verse was written at the same time as the first (and more familiar) five, it was not published in the original Atlantic Monthly version.
He is wisdom to the mighty, he is succour to the brave,
So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of Time his slave,
Our God is marching on.