How the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Changed America—and the life of the Woman who Wrote it 150 Years…

What really happened.
Nov. 17 2011 1:24 PM

A Fiery Gospel

How the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” changed America—and the life of the woman who wrote it 150 years ago.

Julia Ward Howe, half-length portrait, seated, facing left.
Julia Ward Howe wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic,"the leading anthem of the Union cause

On Nov. 18, 1861, Julia Ward Howe, a prominent Boston poet, attended a review of Union troops outside Washington, D.C. As her carriage made its way back to the city, inching along roads clogged with marching soldiers, Howe and her companions began singing some of the popular songs of the day, among them “John Brown’s Body,” an earthy Union marching tune. Together, the troops and the civilian spectators belted out the song’s rousing chorus: “Glory, glory hallelujah, his soul is marching on!” One of Howe’s traveling companions suggested that she write some more elevated lyrics for the tune. She replied that she had often thought of doing so, but that the words had not yet come to her.


That night, as she slept at the Willard Hotel, the city’s most distinguished accommodation, the words finally came. As Howe later recalled, “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ ” She jumped out of bed, found an old stump of a pen nearby, and scrawled the verses on the back of a piece of stationery. Falling back to sleep with a drowsy sense of satisfaction, she thought to herself, “I like this better than most things that I have written.”

When she awoke in the morning, she could not recall the words that had come to her just hours before. But there, on a sheet of paper next to her bed, she found six stanzas waiting in a neat, if uneven, hand. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” the poem began, and as it unspooled on the page, it continued to clothe the Union military campaign with biblical, and specifically apocalyptic, imagery and import. In perhaps its most famous lines, it compared the sacrifices of Northern soldiers on the battlefield, borne for the sake of preserving the Union and abolishing slavery, to the crucifixion of Christ: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” With only minimal changes—most notably, the jettisoning of an awkward final stanza—the poem appeared much as it would when published in the Atlantic Monthly two-and-a-half months later as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


The “Battle Hymn” soon became the leading anthem of the Union cause and would emerge as one of the most enduring works of art of the Civil War years. Meanwhile, the tale of the poem’s composition—one of the great creation stories in American letters—became nearly as famous as the poem itself; it became, in a sense, an inextricable part of the poem. The millennial meanings attached to the hymn, with its portrayal of Union forces—God’s “terrible swift sword”—as apocalyptic agents, and the account of the hymn’s origins fed off each other. Together, they encouraged a sense of providential national identity deeply seductive to American audiences—then and now.

Advertisement

Julia Ward Howe would tell the story of that early dawn vision at the Willard on hundreds of occasions in the decades that followed, though in some respects it was an unremarkable occurrence for her. Throughout her life, Howe frequently experienced what she termed “vivid thought and mind pictures,” and she grew adept at corralling them into verse. Frequently, she experienced these visions while in bed, perhaps the only place where—as the mother of six children—she could snatch a moment of quiet reflection. She had grown used to scribbling notes in barely sufficient light, so as not to wake the baby invariably sleeping beside her. And she knew that she had to review the composition once she arose to be able to interpret the scrawl; many promising poems had been lost to the indecipherability of her jottings. What happened that night at the Willard Hotel had happened on countless other nights in her Boston bedroom, with the important difference that what she scribbled that night endured.


Still, even if sudden nocturnal inspirations had long been incorporated into Howe’s domestic routine, no one did more to promote the story of the hymn’s composition than Howe herself. She clearly appreciated the ways in which the story would appeal to the Northern public at a time of national crisis. She also likely recognized the ways in which an account of that early dawn visitation would help resolve the personal crisis that had been roiling her domestic life for decades. The story of that night proved invaluable in Howe’s lifelong effort to reconcile the constraints that defined her existence as a wife and mother with the ambitions and responsibilities that inspired her as poet and seer.

In 1843, Julia Ward, the daughter of a prosperous New York banker, married Samuel Gridley Howe. It would prove to be one of the great unhappy couplings in the annals of American matrimony. Eighteen years Julia’s senior, Howe was a leading reformer; as a young doctor, he had earned his humanitarian bona fides by offering his services to the Greeks in their revolutionary struggle against the Turks, and on his return to the United States, by opening up an institution for the enlightened treatment and education of the blind. Though progressive in many arenas, Howe held conservative views regarding a woman’s role in marriage. And though he loved Julia deeply, he demanded absolute submission to his authority. He assumed that her only responsibility was to her husband and their children.