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This Day in History: The origins of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

On or around this day in 1861, Julia Ward Howe is inspired to write the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Did you know that this much-loved patriotic song has its roots in the Civil War years?


Julia was the daughter of a Wall Street broker and a poet. She was well-educated and was able to speak fluently in several languages. Like her mother, she loved to write. She also became very interested in the abolitionist and suffragette causes.


Unfortunately, her husband did not entirely share her views.

Samuel Howe was progressive in many ways, but he wasn’t too keen on expanding women’s rights. He thought Julia’s place was in the home, performing domestic duties. Interesting, since he proceeded to lose her inheritance by making bad investments.


One has to wonder if she could have managed her own inheritance a bit better?


After a while, Julia got tired of being stifled. She had never really given up writing, but now she published some of her poems anonymously. Samuel wasn’t too happy about that! The matter apparently became so contentious that the two were on the brink of divorce. Samuel especially disliked the fact that Julia’s poems so often seemed to reflect the personal conflicts within their own marriage.


In fact, people figured out that Julia had written the poems. Oops.


Events swung in Julia’s favor in 1861. Julia and Samuel had decided to attend a review of Union trips, along with their minister, James Freeman Clarke. The Union soldiers were singing a tune about the abolitionist John Brown, who had been killed before the Civil War. The lyrics included such lines as: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on!”


Clarke wasn’t too impressed. He suggested to Julia that she try to write more inspirational lyrics for the same melody. Julia proceeded to do exactly that.   She later remembered that she “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.’”


Perhaps you will recognize the lyrics that she wrote that morning.

“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 hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.”

Julia’s hymn supported the Union army and challenged the Confederate cause. One historian notes that she “identifies the Army of the Potomac with the divine armies that would crush the forces of evil and inaugurate the millennium. . . .”  


In February 1862, Julia’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. The song was a hit and Julia’s fame spread quickly. In the years that followed, she traveled widely, lecturing and writing more than ever. She was President of a few associations, and she later became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Julia’s song began as a morale-booster for Union troops. Today, it has grown beyond that to such an extent that most people do not remember its beginnings.


Primary Sources:

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