Oftentimes we think that the only people that can significantly contribute to a cause are those who are directly involved in the action. The truth is, we are all blessed differently, and we can all make a difference. During the Civil War, there was a woman who used her gift for poetry to issue a call to battle in the name of human freedom. Already involved in her own way in the cause of freedom, she now wanted to inspire others to do the same. Unbelievably, her simple poem became an anthem for the Union armies, and its author became a national celebrity. Her name was Julia Ward Howe. This is the story of how she composed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Julia Ward Howe had a skill for writing that she cultivated throughout her early life. As the great-grandniece of the Revolutionary War patriot Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and a descendant of several prominent Rhode Islanders, Julia developed a love of music and poetry at an early age. She even published her first collection of poems at age fourteen. As she matured into womanhood, she continued her writing and met such leading literary figures as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charles Dickens. It was Henry Longfellow who introduced her to her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician and reformer known for his work educating the blind. Julia continued to write and publish her poems despite her husband’s opposition. Over the years, the couple experienced several turbulent periods, but they united in their opposition to slavery. In 1859, the two met and helped finance John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, in what is today West Virginia. After the raid’s failure, it became evident that military conflict between the North and the South was inevitable.
As the Southern states began to secede, Julia watched as many Northerners advocated forcing the states back into the Union without interfering with slavery. After Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the entire country was aroused with hostility. Thousands of Northern citizens rushed to enlist in the Union army. They were afraid that the war would end quickly, and they wanted to teach the Southerners a lesson. Northerners everywhere rallied to the call, but not all that were willing were able to take up arms. Some were old men who would have to remain behind the lines, but the majority were women. Some women became nurses or provided medical supplies to hospitals. Others followed the armies on campaigns, and a few even secretly joined the army as “men.” Knowing she could not do any of these, Julia Ward Howe would do what she did best, and in the process, she would make a contribution more lasting than even she imagined.
As one of those too old to fight, Dr. Samuel Howe offered his medical experience to the Union army. He was selected as a member of the new sanitary commission ordered to inspect the Union camps. Julia travelled to Washington, D.C. to join him at the start of November 1861. Looking out the window of the passing train, Julia observed the growing number of soldiers and realized that she would not witness the death or the maiming of her husband or sons in battle like so many other women. Still, she wanted to do her part in the war. Arriving in Washington, she settled into her room at Willard’s Hotel, the city’s most prestigious hotel. Throughout the city was the newly created Army of the Potomac. The soldiers spent most of the time drilling, but they also spent long periods in camp. A popular pastime for many of those in camp or marching was singing. The air was often filled with familiar tunes, including “John Brown’s Body,” a song that carried religious overtones.
In addition to the soldiers’ training, the new army commander, George B. McClellan, often held grand reviews of the army. At these spectacles, Washingtonians often journeyed into the nearby countryside to watch them perform military maneuvers. It was a grand sight to see the soldiers bedecked in crisp blue uniforms with shiny new muskets and rifles in their hands. Many of the observers expected the soldiers to soon march out of Washington and head south to end the war. One day, one of those spectators was Julia Ward Howe.
On the afternoon of November 18, Julia and several companions attended a grand review of the army. Like others, she was greatly impressed by the soldiers. Returning to the city later that afternoon, she and the others with her began singing several army songs they had heard. As they sang “John Brown’s Body,” many of the soldiers marching nearby joined in with the chorus that proclaimed Brown’s “soul is marching on.” As the song ended Reverend James Freeman Clarke, one of Julia’s companions, made the observation that she should write new lyrics for such an inspiring tune. Julia responded that she had often considered writing a new version, but the lyrics had not come to her yet. The group arrived back in the capitol, and Julia returned to her room at the hotel.
She would later tell the story that she woke up the next morning around twilight. As she was waiting for dawn, words started flowing through her mind. She had soon worked her way through all of the stanzas, but she was afraid of waiting to the morning in case she forgot the words. To prevent such a loss, she immediately got up and sat down at her writing desk. She grabbed a blank sheet of paper and a pencil stub. The words flowed from her mind onto the page before her without any conscious effort. When the poem was finished, Julia returned to bed with the thought that “I like this better than most things I have written.” As often happened, she woke up later with no memory of the words, but she saw that the sheet was on the desk with each of the stanzas written down.
When she had penned a fresh copy of the poem, Julia presented the poem to the popular magazine, Atlantic Monthly. Having already published some of her earlier works, the magazine paid Julia five dollars and published it on the front page of the February 1862 edition. The poem was given the title “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was set to the well-known tune of “John Brown’s Body” and has many similarities to that song. Read and sung by people throughout the North, it reflected the attitude of many Northerners that the war, on a deeper level, was essentially a religious crusade for America’s national salvation. As the poem’s popularity spread throughout the country, it quickly became the anthem of the Union cause.
It would later be observed that the lyrics were almost a message from God himself describing his obvious favor with the Union cause. He seemed to be directly speaking through Julia’s numerous biblical references, reaffirming many Northerners’ belief in the sacredness of the struggle. Howe’s words specifically related Christ’s death for men’s sins to the soldiers’ deaths for men’s freedom. Other observers commented that the poem represented an even larger contest than just the North versus the South; rather, it represented the universal struggle of good against evil. For those in uniform, the clarion call of those words provided motivation for and a moving testimony to their sacrifice.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” brought Julia Ward Howe unbridled popularity, but it did not keep her from continuing in her work. She wrote several more poems, earned success as a lecturer, involved herself in the women’s suffrage movement, and even originated the idea for Mother’s Day. Despite such successes, nothing brought her greater fame than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After she died, a crowd gathered in San Francisco, California and sang the song she had written. Since then the song has been sung and played in countless settings — inaugurations, political conventions, funerals, memorial services, movies, and so many more. The words have been used in numerous book titles and have appeared frequently in speeches and sermons, particularly those of Dr. Martin Luther King, including the sermon delivered the night before his assassination. Quite literally, the influence of the song and its lyrics are endless. Julia Ward Howe set out to do her part for the Union cause — what she really did was to inspire a nation for all time.