July 27, 2012, 2:24 PM
When the Lumbard brothers, a popular Midwest singing group, needed a song for a rally in Chicago on July 26, 1862, they turned to George Frederick Root, a prolific, if not exactly famous, local songwriter. Like the Lumbards, Root was equally rooted in the reform movements of the day and the Northern cause, churning out songs on an almost daily basis to accompany the latest news.
Born in Massachusetts, Root spent most of his life studying and teaching music. As one of Boston’s music teachers, he was drawn into the circle of the trailblazing hymnodist and publisher Lowell Mason. Mason wrote and published hymns with simple, catchy melodies and easily understandable lyrics. He believed a song that reached a large audience with a strong message was more beneficial to society than a critically lauded paragon of artistic skill – and often generated more cash. Root shared Mason’s perspective, and he took these values with him when he moved to Chicago just before the Civil War. There, he became co-owner of the Root & Cady music store and embarked on one of the most successful song writing careers of the war era.
Root had not yet earned his place alongside other giants of the music industry when the Lumbards came calling in the summer of 1862. Root had released his opening salvo, “The First Gun Is Fired!” a mere three days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The Lumbards had performed it at a rally soon thereafter, and now, preparing for a similar show, they turned to Root again. Root’s result was “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”
Root and the Lumbards knew they had a likely hit on their hands. Written in response to Abraham Lincoln’s July 2 call for 300,000 volunteers, the song perfectly balanced a likable and rousing melody with simple, patriotic lyrics.
The brothers took the stage following a strongly abolitionist speech from the Republican Representative Isaac N. Arnold. Jules G. Lumbard did most of the singing as he made his way through the first verse:
Yes, we’ll rally ’round the flag boys, we’ll rally once again
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,
We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.
Then his brother Frank joined him for the booming chorus:
The union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.
According to The Chicago Tribune, the first verse was immediately “received with the utmost enthusiasm and applause,” and the crowd’s excitement only built as the song went along. During the fourth verse, the audience took up the tune and sang along with the chorus.
The song quickly joined “John Brown’s Body” as an unofficial anthem of the Northern war effort. Sheet music for “The Battle Cry of Freedom” sold thousands of copies in 1862, and estimates for the entire war range as high as 750,000. The famed pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated it into his wartime performances and considered it a viable contender as the official national anthem. Republicans printed and revised the song for their 1864 presidential campaign. Even Confederates could not resist the tune, and published a version with secessionist lyrics.
Like most of the Civil War’s popular songs, soldiers were critical for lifting “The Battle Cry of Freedom” into the American lyrical pantheon. Root knew fighting men were the most eager consumers and distributors of music; to get his song into their hands as quickly as possible, he had his wife send it to a friend in the Army of the Potomac. He also wrote a new version, subtitled “Battle Song,” with lyrics that appealed more directly to soldiers. The Lumbards did their part too, performing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” for Grant’s army during the siege of Vicksburg. At the time, the rank-and-file were divided and demoralized due to disagreement over the Emancipation Proclamation. Root’s anthem reportedly helped them find common ground and was subsequently heard repeatedly when they captured the city months later.
The ability of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” to bridge divisions over emancipation is not surprising. The song’s definition of the Northern cause is purposely open-ended. Those looking for anti-slavery sentiments could find them, but these elements were not so pronounced as to offend those who were solely unionists. The chorus was the key, for it was there that Root described why Northerners rallied around the flag. The first line boldly endorsed a perpetual Union – “The Union forever” – followed by a strong dismissal of secession: “Down with the traitor, up with the star.” However, the battle cry Root shouted was one of “freedom.” Freedom had many meanings in the Civil War – for instance, freedom from Confederate political tyranny or the oft-perceived “slaveholders’ conspiracy” – but, in the context of Root’s political beliefs and other activities, he clearly meant to suggest some degree of abolitionism.
Many of Root’s contemporaries thought so too. Abolitionists frequently performed “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” including one group who celebrated Independence Day by singing the tune at Jefferson Davis’s recently captured plantation – afterward hanging a placard over the door declaring, “Down with the traitor, And up with the star.” African-Americans also saw the song’s anti-slavery sentiments and adopted it as one of their wartime anthems. This was especially true among black troops, who sang it as they marched through the streets of Charleston, S.C., and as they readied themselves to finally capture Richmond, Va.
The return to peace slightly diminished its popularity, but the tune returned to prominence at the end of the century at soldier reunions. In 1895, Root was honored at a “War Song Concert” in Chicago by a standing ovation led by Robert Todd Lincoln. Root died a year later and another concert was held raising funds for a monument to the old songwriter. Once again, Jules Lumbard brought the house down when he sang “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” just as he had 34 years earlier.