A Fiery Gospel
How the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” changed America—and the life of the woman who wrote it 150 years ago.
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.
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.
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.
Benjamin Soskis is co-writing a history of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with John Stauffer.