July 20, 2024
It's Memorial Day for our American readers. My youngest will be playing with the town band in the parade, and I do believe this number is on the song list. This essay is adapted from my book A Song For The Season:
Henry Steele Commager called it "the one great song to come out of the Civil War, the one great song ever written in America".
Henry Steele Commager called it “the one great song to come out of the Civil War, the one great song ever written in America”.

Memorial Day in America – or, if you’re a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today – “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “Dixie”. But this one belongs in a category all its own:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…

In 1861, the United States had nothing that was recognized as a national anthem, and, given that they were now at war, it was thought they ought to find one – a song “that would inspire Americans to patriotism and military ardor”. A 13-member committee was appointed and on May 17th they invited submissions of appropriate anthems, the eventual winner to receive $500, or medal of equal value. By the end of July, they had a thousand submissions, including some from Europe, but nothing with what they felt was real feeling. It’s hard to write a patriotic song to order.

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