In Robert Ferguson's analysis, John Brown
roused visions in the American psyche of both cultural fulfillment and purification. These visions in turn competed with nightmares of armed invasion and racial warfare in simultaneous and compelled narratives that made Brown both hero and villain. None of these narratives had much to do with the facts of Harper's Ferry. The narratives conflated political, religious, legal, and racial perceptions in formulaic patterns that, in turn, exaggerated every possibility--and especially exaggerated the character of Brown. This strategy of exaggeration transfigured Brown from lifelong bungler, bankrupt, narrow extremist, murderer, and border fugitive into a cultural icon.
Such was the staying power of the romantic narrative of John Brown's life that the true origin of the famous song about him has been lost. It was actually written as a joke on a Union soldier who happened to share Brown's name.
"Lost entirely is the low humor and comic incongruity, hero against anti-hero, that gave birth to the jingle," writes Ferguson. "[This John Brown] would, in fact, die pathetically rather than in pathos, drowning by accident while crossing the Rappahannock River with his regiment on June 6, 1862."
Meanwhile in December 1861, Julia Ward Howe took history by the hands: she grabbed hold of this undignified ditty and turned it into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."