Chaplain McCabe, 122nd Ohio

Chaplain Charles Cardwell McCabe, 122nd Ohio V.

The Man Who Made Howe’s "Battle Hymn" Famous

For every important popular song ever written, there is someone who helps make that song famous. The names of these artists are frequently lost in the sea of facts surrounding great events. We regard them as minor players, but in the case of Chaplain McCabe, he shines out as a major player and central character in the story of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

He was born on October 11, 1836, in Athens, Ohio. In the fall of 1854 at the age of 18, he attended Ohio Wesleyan University, hoping to become a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, but he became ill and could not continue his studies. He moved to Ironton, Ohio, where he taught school and married Rebecca Peters, his life-long companion, on July 6, 1860, the year after John Brown’s failed attempt to free Virginia slaves at Harper’s Ferry.

When the Civil War came, McCabe vigorously recruited soldiers for the Union Army, and hoped that he might gain a commission as chaplain of a regiment, despite the fact that he was not ordained. During this period, he discovered a poem in the Atlantic Monthly which caught his attention. It was Mrs. Howe’s "Battle Hymn of the Republic." He was so impressed with it that he memorized it on the spot. Later at a recruiting rally in Zanesville, Ohio, he heard it sung to the tune of "John Brown’s Body." McCabe, having a beautiful baritone voice, began singing the "Battle Hymn" at every available opportunity.

In the late summer of 1862, he was promised a commission as chaplain of the 122nd Ohio Volunteers. Bishop Thomas A. Morris of the Methodist Church waived some of the requirements standing in the way of McCabe’s commission, and proclaimed him fully ordained to perform all the rites and sacraments of the church on September 7 at Zanesville. He received his commission a month later on October 8.

On June 14, 1863, the 122nd Ohio, along with other regiments under the command of Major General Robert Milroy, was trapped in Winchester, Virginia, when Lee's army moved north on a summer campaign designed to keep the Union Army away from southern farms during the crucial growing season. Milroy pulled his army out of Winchester, and in the early morning hours of June 15 at Stephenson's Depot, he managed to punch his way through a Confederate unit blocking his path to Harper's Ferry. As a non-combatant, Chaplain McCabe remained behind to take care of the wounded. Once this task was completed, the Confederates sent him and the other non-combatants--surgeons and cooks, etc.-- to Libby Prison in Richmond. While there, McCabe and his fellow prisoners learned of Lee's defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. To celebrate, they sang every national song they knew, including Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." After a few resounding choruses of "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" the guards put a stop to the singing.

In mid September, he came down with typhoid fever and was moved to the prison hospital. He survived this ordeal and was exchanged in mid October, but the blue mass pills, a compound of chalk and mercury, which the doctors fed him to control his fever left him in too debilitated a state to continue his duties as chaplain of the 122nd Ohio. He officially resigned his commission on January 8, and began working as a fund raiser for the U.S. Christian Commission, an organization which provided Bible tracts, books, and other services for the Union soldiers. "I seem doomed to raise money," McCabe complained in his journal.

A month later, McCabe attended a meeting of the U.S. Christian Commission held at the Hall of the House of Representatives, currently Statuary Hall. President Lincoln was also in attendance. The former army chaplain recounted the story of singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" on learning of Meade's victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Then he sang the "Battle Hymn" for those present. What happened next is recorded in a letter McCabe wrote to his wife early the following morning:

I made a brief address and wound up as requested, by singing the "Battle Hymn," Col. Powell singing bass. When we came to the chorus the audience rose. Oh, how they sang! I happened to strike exactly the right key and the band helped us. I kept time for them with my hand and the mighty audience sang in exact time. Some shouted out loud at the last verse, and above all the uproar Mr. Lincoln's voice was heard: "Sing it again!"

On February 20, 1864, McCabe attended a reception at the White House where he had a chance to talk to the president. Lincoln, speaking about hearing McCabe sing the "Battle Hymn" for the first time, said, "Take it all in all, the song and the singing, that was the best I ever heard."

The following year, after Lincoln's assassination, McCabe sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for some of the observances of Lincoln's death in Illinois. 

Many years later after Chaplain McCabe had become Bishop McCabe, he wrote to Julia Ward Howe, who was then in her 80's,  requesting a copy of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic" in her handwriting. In his letter, he repeated the story of how he had sung the "Battle Hymn" in Libby Prison after learning of the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. "I have sung it a thousand times since," he wrote, "and shall continue to sing it as long as I live. No hymn has ever stirred the nation's heart like 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'" She sent him a copy in 1904, apologizing for the "wavering of my aged hand." 

Bishop McCabe did not have much longer to live. He died on December 19, 1906, just nine days after delivering his lecture on his experiences in Libby Prison. He gave that last lecture in Torrington, Connecticut, the birthplace of John Brown.

Libby Prison on the Kanahwa Canal

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