The quest for a national anthem: Civil War edition

The Star Spangled Banner became the legal national anthem of the United States in 1931, the first time any song received that designation. That doesn’t mean no one perceived a need for a national anthem any earlier. In the early days of the Civil War, people attending rallies on the northern side sang two other songs besides The Star Spangled Banner: Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia.

My Country ‘Tis of Thee dates from 1831, but apparently it was not as popular as the others.The other three were all good, emotional rallying cries, but more and more people were beginning to think that the nation, torn as it was, needed an official song. Could any of existing songs fulfill that function? Or would it be necessary to find a totally new song?

Something called the National Hymn Committee formed in New York for the purpose of finding a new song suitable for a national anthem. These men comprised politicians, lawyers, business leaders, and scholars living in New York City. After some deliberation they decided to announce a national contest. The title of the final report, written by the chairman Richard Grant White offers sufficient indication of their success:  National Hymns: How They Are Written and How They Are Not Written.  Another member of the committee, George Templeton Strong, kept a diary which has long served as an important primary source for events in his life time.

About the formation of the committee, White wrote,

Less fortunate as we are than British subjects and French citizens, in having no national hymn, the history of theirs is not very encouraging to an attempt to. obtain one deliberately. But in that need of one which was felt just after the breaking out of our great pro-slavery insurrection, a number of gentlemen were requested to act as a committee to offer a prize for the words and music of a hymn which, in their judgment, might be to us something like what the British and French hymns are to those nations.

It has been said that this committee was self-appointed; but that was not the case. The notion of thus calling for a national hymn, I know did not even originate with any member of the committee, but with an intelligent gentleman whose warm patriotic feeling led him to be active in the matter. At first it was proposed to place the matter in the hands of three gentlemen, one from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, respectively ; but the inconvenience of this plan soon became apparent, and the New York committee was appointed.

All who were asked heartily consented to serve; but not one of them expressed any confidence in the success of the undertaking. Yet as there was a great desire expressed for the hymn on all sides, and as the occasion was propitious for its production, they willingly said Yes, instead of No.

They felt much like the Bowery boy who, being cut short in a hard life by sore disease, which quickly brought him to death’s door, was informed by his physician that medicine could do nothing for him. “What’s my chances, doctor?” ” Not worth speaking of.” “One in twenty?” “Oh, no.” “In thirty?” “No.” “Fifty?” “I think not.” “A hundred?” “Well, perhaps there may be one in a hundred.” ” I say, then, doctor,” pulling him close down, and whispering with feeble earnestness in his ear, “jess you go in like h— on that one chance.” The doctor ” went in,” and the patient recovered. The chance that there was, the members of the committee did not feel at liberty to refuse. [paragraph divisions added]

The committee quickly dismissed the three already well-know songs. They considered Yankee Doodle childish, Hail Columbia pretentious, and The Star Spangled Banner so hard to sing that it was almost useless. Not only that, but The Star Spangled Banner expressed the sort of nationalism that had been strong before the divisive issue of slavery entered  American political discourse. Much of what was left of the nation wanted to move on. Thus the contest, which received 1,275 entries–or as Strong wrote, “four or five huge bales of patriotic  hymnology.”

With the assistance of a choir and organist, the committee went to work evaluating the submissions. They simply discarded most of them. Contributors made up an interesting cross section of American society, representing a whole range of education and experience from the well-educated to those who could barely write, from the well-traveled to people who knew little beyond the community where they were  born. Some knew a little music, some a lot, and perhaps some none at all. One notable name sticks out. Julia Ward Howe submitted a poem, but she hadn’t yet written the one that made her famous, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The committee winnowed down all of those submissions to a handful that are perhaps best described as not entirely unacceptable. Unable to chose one to propose as a national anthem, the committee announced that while some of them might deserve public acclaim, none of them was suitable for a national hymn. White included the texts of all the surviving poems–good and bad–in his book.

So the nation was spared a national anthem produced by a committee. As the war progressed, numerous patriotic songs took the nation by storm. They were the winners in a commercial sense, as truly popular music.  Some of them, including The Battle Cry of Freedom, remain well known to this day–popular music strong enough to transcend its own time. Not a one of them, to my knowledge, has ever been considered a serious contender for national anthem.

Today, lots of people regret the choice of “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, and for the same reason why the National Hymn Committee rejected it. It’s practically unsingable. I wouldn’t mind having some other song chosen as national anthem, but I hope no one gets the bright idea of holding a contest to write one!

The Star-Spangled Bummer / Albin J. Kowalewski
National Hymns: How They Are Written and How They Are Not Written / Richard Grant White

Picture: from the Library of Congress collection. Several publishers issued collections or series with similar covers. This edition of God Save Our Country’s Flag, by J. S. Porter, was issued by S. Brainard of Cleveland in 1861.

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