But Julia had long harbored outsized literary ambitions. From an early age, she wrote, “there went with me the vision of some great work or works which I myself should give to the world. I should write the novel or play of the age.” Samuel was entirely unimpressed with these aspirations; he assumed that Julia would put them aside in order to focus on her duties as wife and mother. Julia refused to do so. In 1853, she published a book of poems that she had begun to write while on her honeymoon. Although Passion Flowers came out anonymously, her authorship became common knowledge in her social circle. The poems’ intimate disclosures of Julia’s emotional tumult, including a handful of veiled verses that detailed the attempts of an overbearing husband to control his spirited wife, scandalized Samuel, who pushed for a separation. Only another pregnancy saved the marriage.
Mutual resentment and disappointment, with the occasional tender moment of domestic fulfillment, defined the couple’s relations for the next decade, though their shared commitment to the anti-slavery cause did provide the grounds for mutual respect as well. Samuel continued his attempts to thwart his wife’s efforts to establish an independent and public literary identity; Julia continued to publish. When the Civil War began, the governor of Massachusetts tasked Samuel with inspecting the sanitary conditions of the states’ troops. In November 1861, he traveled with his wife and a number of dignitaries to the nation’s capital to do so. The train ride down from Boston was an especially difficult one for Julia. As they approached Washington, Julia could look out the train window and see vivid evidence of the war, which she would soon mine for the images of the “Battle Hymn”; she was particularly struck by the sight of the campfires from the pickets set up around the city to guard the railroad line. The closer they drew to their destination, the more acute grew Julia’s sense of powerlessness. “I thought of the women of my acquaintance whose sons or husbands were fighting our great battle; the women themselves serving in the hospitals,” she later wrote. But her husband was too old to fight while her sons were not yet of military age. “I could not leave my nursery to follow the march of our armies,” she said, “neither had I the practical deftness which the preparing and packing of sanitary stores demanded. Something seemed to say to me, ‘You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give and there is nothing for you to do.’ ”
There was, of course, something for her to do. At a time when Union forces had suffered a number of significant military setbacks and the North craved confirmation that they still held the Lord’s favor, Howe would provide both soldiers and civilians with a powerful statement of the North’s righteousness. She depicted the Union military as the instrument of divine judgment and retribution; God’s truth was “marching on” and could be heard in the steady footfall of advancing Union troops. The account of the hymn’s origins bolstered these convictions. For though Howe did not specify the source of her inspiration, many Northerners assumed it was providentially delivered, a sign of God’s blessing of the Union cause itself.
Julia Ward Howe portrayed herself as a millennial witness, faithfully transcribing what her eyes had seen, but others depicted her as a medium, channeling the North’s righteous resolve. As Julia Ward Howe’s daughter declared in an essay on the song, “The soul of the vast army of the American people struggling for utterance in the greatest crisis of its existence” found expression in the “Battle Hymn.” It was “the work not of an individual, but of a nation.” Echoing that account, one mid-20th-century historian dubbed the hymn “the song that wrote itself.”
The story of Howe’s vision at the Willard Hotel, even as it bolstered her literary celebrity and provided the material for countless adulatory profiles, also encouraged the poem’s classification (in the words of one contemporary) as an “impersonal” composition, freed from the taint of literary ambition. And by cultivating the status of a prophetess, both inspired and inspiring, Howe won an opportunity for public recognition without challenging the Victorian conception of separate gendered “spheres,” which largely restricted women’s service to the domestic realm. Her great moment of national service occurred within the confines of a hotel room.
The creation story of the “Battle Hymn” fits nicely with the identify Howe had constructed. She could satisfy her ambition while claiming to serve as a mere vessel for higher powers. Indeed, Howe’s role as the author of the “Battle Hymn” shared a profound symmetry with the national ideal that the hymn encouraged: The conception of America as a chosen nation, selflessly serving divinely mandated purposes. Both Howe and America were called to greatness.
It is the “Battle Hymn’s” ability to express this sense of American mission that explains its continued prominence in times of national crisis and resolve. The song encourages us to believe still that our efforts and our militancy have been sustained for the good of some higher cause, which—as it did for Julia Ward Howe at the Willard Hotel 150 years ago—often happen to align with our fiercest ambitions and most resolute self-conceptions.