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Writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic

Julia Ward Howe: Beyond the Battle Hymn of the Republic


Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe - about 1865

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As a result of their volunteer work with the Sanitary Commission, in November of 1861 Samuel and Julia Howe were invited to Washington by President Lincoln. The Howes visited a Union Army camp in Virginia across the Potomac. There, they heard the men singing the song which had been sung by both North and South, one in admiration of John Brown, one in celebration of his death: "John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in his grave."

A clergyman in the party, James Freeman Clarke, who knew of Julia's published poems, urged her to write a new song for the war effort to replace "John Brown's Body." She described the events later:

"I replied that I had often wished to do so.... In spite of the excitement of the day I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me."

The result was a poem, published first in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, and called "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The poem was quickly put to the tune that had been used for "John Brown's Body" -- the original tune was written by a Southerner for religious revivals -- and became the best known Civil War song of the North.

Julia Ward Howe's religious conviction shows in the way that Old and New Testament Biblical images are used to urge that people implement, in this life and this world, the principles that they adhere to. "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." Turning from the idea that the war was revenge for the death of a martyr, Howe hoped that the song would keep the war focused on the principle of the ending of slavery.

Today, that's what Howe is most remembered for: as the author of the song, still loved by many Americans. Her early poems are forgotten -- her other social commitments forgotten. She became a much-loved American institution after that song was published -- but even in her own lifetime, all her other pursuits paled besides her accomplishment of one piece of poetry for which she was paid $5 by the editor of Atlantic Monthly.

Next: Mother's Day and Peace

Julia Ward Howe Biography

Julia Ward Howe Writings

More About Julia Ward Howe

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