The Story of Julia Ward Howe and the Union Army’s Semi-official Song
By Rebecca Price Janney, Apr 27 2018 01:23PM
She had been a prolific writer of prose and poetry, married to one of the 19th century’s most accomplished men. However, she didn’t reach prominence until she wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Here’s how the song came about:
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Julia Ward Howe immersed herself into the Union cause. She organized many of Boston’s churchwomen into various groups, this one for rolling bandages, that one for making jams and jellies for the soldiers. She wrote plays for her daughters to perform at fundraisers.
Her husband, the illustrious Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, asked Julia to accompany him to Washington, D.C. to meet President Lincoln, and she readily agreed. Meeting the Chief Executive, however, proved not to be the trip’s highlight for her. As she attended a review of the troops, a minor skirmish between Union and Confederate forces interrupted the parade. The scuffle ended rather placidly, but a terrible traffic jam resulted.
To pass the time, Julia sang to the servicemen, who especially enjoyed her rendition of “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave.” A lady friend said afterward, “Julia, that tune is so pretty, but the words are so base. Why don’t you write better ones to it?” Julia said she’d see what she could do.
That night in her hotel room, Julia awakened with the new words in her heart. As she often did at home while getting a night-time inspiration, she groped for a pencil and piece of paper on her night stand. In the darkness she scribbled the words, line after line.
When she awakened in the morning, Julia wondered whether she had dreamed the experience, yet on her table were the words to the “John Brown’s Body” tune. Back in Boston she carefully wrote them out, then sent them to Atlantic Monthly magazine. The editors entitled the piece “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” running the song on the front page of the February 1862 edition. Battle Hymn quickly became a national sensation. When President Lincoln first heard the song performed, he is said to have wept, then requested, “Sing that prayer again.”
There are five verses, which can be found on the Library of Congress website. I’d love to know if you have a favorite: https://loc.gov/item/ihas.200000003