Julia Ward Howe and her husband Samuel pitched in to help the Sanitary Commission at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. As a result of their volunteer work, President Lincoln invited them with some others to Washington. While on that trip, the Howes visited a Union Army camp in Virginia and heard soldiers sing "John Brown's Body," a song which celebrated the man who had attacked a Southern arsenal in hope of triggering a rebellion against slavery. One line reads, "John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in his grave."
James Freeman Clarke, a clergyman traveling with the Howe's party, knew that Julia was a published poet. He urged her to write some decent words to the tune. By the next day, November 19, 1861, Julia Ward Howe had written her famous lines, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She later described how the words came to her:
I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, "I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!" So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.
Next February, Atlantic Monthly printed Mrs. Howe's poem and paid her $4 for it. The entire nation was inspired by the words when they appeared, and the song became literally the battle hymn of the American republic during the dark days of the Civil War. When the song was sung at a rally attended by President Lincoln, he cried out with tears in his eyes, "Sing it again!"
After the war, Julia Howe remained active in reform causes as President of the American Woman Suffrage Association and the American Branch of the Women's International Peace Association. In 1907 she became the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and, we regret to say, preached in Unitarian churches.
When Julia Ward Howe died in 1910, four thousand people attended her funeral at Boston's Symphony Hall. It was a moving moment when those four thousand voices rang out with her song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible, swift sword
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
- The Civil War. Christian History, Issue #33.
- "Howe, Julia Ward." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958 - 1964.
- Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
- Whiting, Lilian. Women Who Have Enobled Life. American Sunday School Union, 1915. Source of the image.
Last updated April, 2007.