Julia Ward Howe - "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Julia Ward Howe-penned the words for the

Julia Howe (1819-1910) was feeling discouraged when she visited the city of Washington, D.C. during November of 1861.  America was at war with herself, and many of Julia's friends had husbands and sons fighting in the "great battle."

Her own sons were still young, so Julia had no worry of them dying in the war.  Her husband, beyond the age of service, was also safe from combat.  Yet ... Julia's emotions were overflowing for the many families whose children were not safe and whose breadwinners were not secure.

Wanting to do something for the war effort, Julia thought she had nothing to give.  As she recalls, in her Reminiscences, 1819-1899:

Something seemed to say to me, "You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help any one; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.  (Julia Howe, Reminiscences, pages 273-74.)

Then ... an idea came to her in the most unlikely of ways:

We were invited, one day, to attend a review of troops at some distance from the town.  While we were engaged in watching the maneuvers, a sudden movement of the enemy necessitated immediate action...We returned to the city very slowly, of necessity, for the troops nearly filled the road...To beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time snatches of the army songs so popular at that time, concluding, I think, with

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground;
   His soul is marching on."

One of the people in the carriage, with Julia, was her pastor, Rev. James Freeman Clarke.  He told her:

Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?

That night - November 18, 1861 - Julia was a guest at the Willard Hotel, in Washington, D.C.  She awoke, in the early morning, with an idea in her head.  She tells the story of how she penned one of America's most favorite patriotic songs:

I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. 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.' So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.

Was she satisfied with her words?

I was always obliged to decipher my scrawl before another night should intervene, as it was only legible while the matter was fresh in my mind.  At this time, having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, "I like this better than most things that I have written."

So did everyone else.  Soon thereafter - on the 1st of February, 1862 - Julia Howe published her poem in the "Atlantic Monthly."  Before long, men were singing it to celebrate hard-fought victories.

A Union supporter, through and through, Julia Howe was happy that her song was resonating with people:

In view of its success, one of my good friends said, "Mrs. Howe ought to die now, for she has done the best that she will ever do."  I was not of this opinion, feeling myself still "full of days' works..."  (Quoted passages, above, from Reminiscences, 1819-1899, by Julia Ward Howe, pages 273-276.)

She did, indeed, have more days and more "works" ahead of her.  Beyond writing "Battle Hymn," Julia Ward Howe wrote "Mother's Day Proclamation," in 1870.  As such, she was one of the early proponents of celebrating mothers in America.

The University of Pennsylvania maintains a facsimile of Mrs. Howe's first draft of the poem.

The music for the song was written several years before Howe's lyrics - around 1856 - by an American called William Steffe.  It has been performed countless times, and in various styles, by such notable performers as:

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 21, 2020

Media Credits

Image of Julia Ward Howe, from 1861, online courtesy U.S. National Archives.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Julia Ward Howe - "Battle Hymn of the Republic"" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Feb 20, 2020.
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