Lyricist Julia Ward Howe borrowed the music from the marching song "John Brown's Body" (in turn borrowed from the hymn "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us") for this patriotic American Civil War song that has become a favorite in the US on Memorial Day. Using biblical imagery, Howe likens the battlefield to God's judgment of the wicked as he levels vineyards with his wrath (Jeremiah 25:30-31, Revelations 14:19) and unleashes lightning with his "terrible swift sword" (Isaiah 27:1). Only the righteous will emerge unscathed.
It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in the February 1862 issue.
Howe, an abolitionist from Boston, first heard "John Brown's Body" during a public review of General McClellan's Army of the Potomac in Virginia, where the Reverend James Freeman Clarke encouraged her to write new lyrics that would bolster the Union Army. The words came to her suddenly in the middle of the night.
She recalled in Reminiscences, 1819-1899: "I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper."
The lyrics in verse three, "Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel," are a reference to Genesis 3:15. After Eve is tricked by the serpent and she and Adam fall from grace, God promises that the son of woman (Jesus) will have the final victory against Satan. He tells the serpent: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."
Howe is saying that even though the troops will have losses and will be battered, they will ultimately have victory.
Verse four declares "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat," referencing 1 Cor 15:52, where St. Paul writes, "For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised," and the coming judgment in 2 Cor 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad."
Verse five reminds the soldiers that Jesus "died to make men holy, let us die to make men free" (as referenced in the Gospels) as they may have to sacrifice their own lives for the freedom of others.
The line, "So the world shall be His footstool" from the closing verse is taken from Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:35; and Acts 7:49.
Judy Garland performed this on her variety series, The Judy Garland Show, to honor John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963.
Andy Williams was a close friend of Robert Kennedy's and performed this at his funeral. His version would peak at #33 on the Hot 100 in 1968.
In 1960, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir soared to #13 on the Hot 100 with a rendition that also earned them a Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus.
The Beach Boys recorded this in 1974, with lead vocals by Mike Love, during the Caribou Ranch sessions for an unreleased album.
This was performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama's second Presidential Inauguration Ceremony on January 21, 2013.
The line, "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," inspired the title of John Steinbeck's classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.