Arts and Leisure

The Battle Behind The Battle Hymn of the Republic

The Battle Hymn of the Republic gave Julia Ward Howe something she wanted that her husband didn’t want her to have: Fame.

Julia Ward Howe by John Elliott

Julia Ward Howe

She was a bit of a diva, the pretty, pampered daughter of wealthy New Yorkers. Julia Ward was the fourth of seven children born to Samuel Ward III and Julia Rush Cutler on May 27, 1819. She was smart, well educated and ambitious.

Visiting Boston in 1841, she met the dashing Samuel Gridley Howe, 18 years her senior. His nickname was “Chevalier,” or “Chev,” as he had followed Lord Byron to Greece to fight for Greek independence. He then became a physician, worked for Polish relief, took part in the July Revolution in Paris and founded the Perkins School for the Blind in South Boston.

Samuel Gridley Howe

They married in 1843. After a European honeymoon, Samuel expected Julia to devote herself to him, to their children and to their home. She did not. Already a published author by the time they married, she wanted to continue to write.

The two fought bitterly during their marriage over her desire to have a life outside the home.  Having six children only made her more eager to have a public life. They separated in 1852, but then reconciled.

In 1861, Samuel Gridley Howe served as a director of the Sanitary Commission. It cared for the war wounded and tried to prevent disease in Union camps. In November of that year, he and Julia visited federal troops in Washington, D.C.  They traveled with Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew and their pastor, James Freeman Clarke.

John Brown’s Body

One day in Washington a review of the troops was planned for Julia, her pastor and their friends Mr. and Mrs. Edwin P. Whipple. But the review was canceled before they arrived, because a skirmish with the enemy broke out. On their return to the hotel, marching regiments delayed their carriage. To relieve the tedium of the slow carriage ride, they began to sing John Brown’s Body. The marching soldiers shouted, “Good for you!” and took up the chorus.

Clarke said to Julia, “Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” She said she’d been thinking about it.

Julia Ward Howe went to bed that night at the Willard Hotel. Suddenly she awoke in the early dawn with the words running through her head. She grabbed a pencil and Sanitary Commission stationery, wrote the lyrics and then went back to sleep.

Libby Prison, 1865

Libby Prison, 1865

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was published anonymously in The Atlantic on Feb. 1, 1862. The publisher, James T. Fields, suggested the title, and Julia had made some changes. She was paid $5.

Overnight Success

She had no idea of its instant success, according to the biography written by her daughters, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1.

It was sung, chanted, recited, and used in exhortation and prayer on the eve of battle.’ It was printed in newspapers, in army hymn-books, on broadsides; it was the word of the hour, and the Union armies marched to its swing.”

Chaplain McCabe, the fighting chaplain of the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, memorized the lyrics the first time he read them before getting up from his chair. He was later incarcerated in the Confederacy’s notorious Libby Prison with hundreds of northern soldiers. When the prisoners got word of the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, McCabe led them in the Battle Hymn. Wrote Howe’s daughters:

“Every voice took up the chorus, and Libby Prison rang with the shout of ‘Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!’”

McCabe later told that story in Washington, and ended by singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic once again:

Julia Ward howe at 90

Julia Ward howe at 90

“The effect was magical: people shouted, wept and sang, all together; and when the song was ended, above the tumult of applause was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, exclaiming, while the tears rolled down his cheeks, —

“Sing it again!”

Julia Ward Howe, Besieged

Julia Ward Howe was then besieged by requests for autographed copies of the Battle Hymn of the Republic until her death. The song put her in the public eye, and she took full advantage of it. She then published a literary magazine and accounts of her travels to Europe. By 1868, Samuel Gridley Howe no longer opposed her public appearances.

She became a pacifist and a suffragist, continuing to write and lecturing and touring widely. Then when he died in 1876, she was further freed to lead a public — and famous — life.

Julia Ward Howe died on Oct. 17, 1910, at her home, Oak Glen, in Portsmouth, R.I. At her memorial service 4,000 people sang Battle Hymn of the Republic. Her daughters’ biography of her won the Pulitzer Prize in 1915.

This story last updated in 2022. 


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