I am just back from an exciting weekend in Gettysburg, attending the Lincoln Forum. It is a great event, which I commend to anyone interested in Lincoln or the Civil War. Let me mention some of the high points.
John Stauffer spoke about the the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I thought I knew about the Battle Hymn: that it was based on a Union marching song, John Brown’s Body, that the new words were by Julia Ward Howe, who wrote them in a Washington hotel room by the early dawn light. Battle Hymn of the Republic is, after all, what I sang to my children to put them to sleep at night.
Well, I did not know anything.
I did not know that, before John Brown’s Body, there was another song: Say Brother, Will You Meet Us? That this was a southern song, about meeting at the river for baptism. That is was sung by, among others, southern blacks.
I did not know that Say Brother was adapted by a Massachusetts regiment that had, among its members, one John Brown. That John Brown’s Body was sung by Massachusetts regiments as they assembled in Boston, as they marched through New York, that it was by the summer of 1861 one of the most popular northern marching tunes.
I did not know that the lyrics of the first verse of Battle Hymn are taken from Revelation chapter 14. That Revelation was one of the most popular books of the Bible at that time, so that even a Unitarian like Julia Ward Howe had internalized it.
I did not know how, after the war, even though southerners hated all things northern, they adopted Battle Hymn of the Republic. That the University of Georgia has adopted it as its fight song. game. That the Battle Hymn of the Republic was also adapted by the Wobblies, as Solidarity Forever. That Theodore Roosevelt loved the hymn so much that he nearly made it our national anthem.
As the standing ovation died down, I rushed out to buy the book, to get him to sign it. (A bookstore is conveniently on the hotel premises all weekend) Stauffer was as pleasant in person as he was on the lecture stand, a great guy.
James McPherson spoke about Gettysburg. James McPherson is not only the author of the best single book on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, he is in some sense the reason that I am a Civil War historian.
While I was in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, I noticed the following sentence in Battle Cry of Freedom. “Civil war prisons and the prisoner exchange question badly need a modern historian.” Perhaps, I thought, I could be that historian. I bought and read a copy of William Hesseltine’s 1930 book: Civil War Prisons. I started puzzling about why and how Americans had such definite ideas about how prisoners of war. And then, I think, I got busy with legal work; and when I returned to history it was to the Constitutional era and Morris and Jay.
McPherson’s talk at the Lincoln Forum was great; he started by quoting Faulkner, about how for every southern boy it is from time to time July 3, 1863, and Pickett has not yet charged and failed, and everything can be done over, and end differently. And then he talked about some of the ways in which the battle of Gettysburg could have ended differently including, especially, if Meade had brought himself to attack the retreating Confederates at Williamsport. Like many of the talks this past weekend, his made me want to go to the Library; to read more about some of the issues he raised, such as the suggestion that Meade was hindered after Gettysburg by lack of supplies. That might be a problem that might be laid to my man Stanton.
My own talk was a little terrifying, facing up to so many Lincoln scholars and experts. I spoke about the relationship between Lincoln and Seward, especially but not only why Seward failed to get the nomination and how they worked together during the war. I gather that the Lincoln Forum takes some of the talks and turns them into edited volumes, and I am hoping my talk will merit that form of publication.
Meeting and hearing from authors was great; but it was also great to meet and talk with serious readers. How encouraging, as I work away on Stanton, to know that there are people out there, eager to read the book, eager to know whether Stanton really said “now he belongs to the angels” a minute after Lincoln’s death.
Enough: back to work on Stanton.