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The Song That Wrote Itself

July 2024
11min read

Mrs. Howe jotted down the “Battle Hymn” in haste, but she lived to hear a nation sing it, and went to her grave to its tune


Just four days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, the 12th Massachusetts marched through the streets of Boston on their way to the Worcester and Western Railroad Station. Every one of them was a volunteer, and proud of it, and everything that was youth and eagerness and adventure was in the air that April day as they passed in review for the crowds to see and cheer. This was the great crusade, and the boys in new blue uniforms, with their glistening guns and bright bayonets, were on the march to make things right.

As this segment of the army of America’s youth stepped off on what it confidently considered the road to glory, all the ingredients of romance and chivalry went with it. Their cause was just; they had a shining new silk flag to follow, and a band as good as any regiment could boast. To cap it all, they had a song—a truly great marching song that every outfit in the Union Army would be singing before long.

Not many of these troops knew it, but this music had been composed by a southerner named William Steffe. It had started life about ten years earlier as a camp meeting hymn in Charleston, South Carolina, and Steffe called it “Say Brothers Will We Meet You Over on the Other Shore?” One way or another, the regulars of the 2nd U.S. Infantry had picked up the melody, fitted new words to it, and brought it along with them to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. That was where the 12th Massachusetts learned it, and anyone who saw them on their way to war and heard them boom out the words, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on,” could tell it was their favorite.

No one quite knew where the train would take them, but nearly everyone in Boston was out to see them get on it. Somewhere in the crowd that day was a small, attractive woman, just past forty, and the song she heard the soldiers sing was one she never forgot.

In the Boston of 1861, only a stranger would have asked who Julia Ward Howe was, but the replies would have been as varied as the points of view. Most people knew her as a staunch opponent of slavery and the wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, reformer, abolitionist, and director of Perkins Institution for the Blind.

Old friends from Park and Beacon streets had a different version. Mrs. Howe had been the wealthy Julia Ward of Bond Street, New York. Her father was Samuel Ward, head of the great banking firm of Prime, Ward & King. She was related to the Astors by a marriage of her colorful brother Sam Ward, forty-niner, Wall Street plunger, and playmate of princes. An authentic New York belle, red-haired Miss Julia Ward had descended upon Boston society several times a year to captivate young men with her operatic voice and wicked wit, and nearly everything she did both shocked and fascinated her father’s Boston friends.

Other acquaintances remembered Julia Ward Howe as a poet, whose first-published book, Passion Flowers, had set Boston on its collective ear. This was followed by a short-lived play produced in New York, which had tongues wagging all the faster. It was about a “fallen woman!”

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe looked upon his wife’s achievements with decidedly mixed feelings, perhaps because he shared her capacity for causing comment. Older Bostonians recalled the doctor as a dashing young hero who, spurred on by the example of Byron and a blighted love affair, had sailed to aid the Greeks against Turkish oppression. He never met Byron—his hero died before he arrived—but Dr. Howe bought the poet’s helmet at an auction of his effects and brought it home with him after serving six years in the Greek cause. He returned also with a well-earned Knight of St. George Cross—to be called “Chevalier” by his friends. All this was behind him when, at the age of 42, he married the 24-year-old New York heiress Julia Ward.

Dr. Howe was as handsome as the hero of a Nineteenth-Century novel, and he was endowed with a diversity of gifts. Turning his back on military adventure, he devoted himself to the teaching of blind children, and his pupil Laura Bridgman was the first blind and deaf child to learn to communicate with the world around her. All patience and gentleness with the blind, Dr. Howe nevertheless could not ride in his carriage without shouting at the coachman to drive faster.


When news of the fall of Sumter reached Boston, it was like him to write Governor Andrew: “If I can be of any use … (save that of spy), command me.” The doctor was now sixty years old and got no war horse to ride, but he was appointed to the United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross, and to this task he devoted his enormous vigor. His first assignment was in Washington, as a member of a commission to supervise the distribution of supplies for Massachusetts volunteers, whither, in November, 1861, he went with Governor Andrew, Mrs. Andrew, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, and Mrs. Howe.

As their train pulled into the capital, Julia Ward Howe caught her first glimpse of the huge army which had made Washington an armed camp. Along the roadbed she saw the faces of pickets caught for an instant in the light of their campfires, and her first impression of the city was of soldiers everywhere. “Mounted officers and orderlies galloped to and fro,” she recalled, while men marched incessantly through the dusty streets. Ambulances weaved back and forth through the traffic of hacks and private carriages, and outside her window at the Willard Hotel a billboard advertised the embalming and shipping of soldiers’ bodies to their homes.

There was in the city an air of confidence and cheerfulness, none the less. A few days after his arrival, Dr. Howe wrote home to his twelve-year-old daughter Laura: “Your Mama is having a delightful time: for the weather is delicious: there are expeditions every day, to camps, to objects of curiosity. In the evening there are many people gathered in the salon of the Hotel and all the people who can appreciate talent and wit and conversational power are sure to be drawn to her. …”

One of the high points of their stay was an interview with the President. Mrs. Howe recorded a vivid impression of Lincoln seated on a sofa, directly below Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. While the men talked of war and politics, she occupied herself in contrasting Washington’s calm features on canvas with Lincoln’s furrowed cheek and brow. “The President was laboring at this time under a terrible pressure of doubt and anxiety,” she said. “I remember well the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep blue eyes.” They were, she thought, “the only feature of his face which could be called other than plain.”

On November 18, 1861, a picnic was planned for Mrs. Howe and the other members of Governor Andrew’s party. Supplied with a carriage and coachman and a hamper of lunch, off they went to see a review of the troops which took place “some distance from town,” as Mrs. Howe described it. Actually, it was across the Potomac in territory occupied until recently by Confederates. Carriage alter carriage filled with gentlemen in high silk hats and ladies in crinolines, drove out of town over the bridge and along the narrow road.

To everyone’s dismay, the review was interrupted by the appearance of southern skirmishers, and Mrs. Howe watched “a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat.” Her coachman wheeled the carriage around and headed for Washington at a gallop—a pace which soon became a crawl as all the other drivers attempted the same thing and troops marched back along the same road. Although she heard the bugle sound retreat, apparently Mrs. Howe was unaware of the danger, and she remembered that “to beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time, snatches of the army songs so popular at that time.” One of them was the song she had heard the 12th Massachusetts sing when the Civil War first began: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on.”

Julia Ward Howe had a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. In girlhood she had had musical training equal to that of an opera star, and as she joined in the singing the soldiers called out, “Good for you, Ma’am.”

The Reverend Mr. Clarke leaned forward to speak to her.

“Why don’t you write some good words for that stirring tune?” he asked.

“I have often wished to do so,” she replied.

That night, Julia Ward Howe went to bed at the Willard Hotel and “as usual slept soundly.” Troops marched in the streets below but she was not conscious of hearing them. “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight,” she recalled, “and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the poem began to twine themselves” in her mind.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord …” —line by line, like the measured cadence of marching feet she had heard so often, the words began to come to her. Intermingled with some of the great phrases of the Old Testament was a vision of the long blue lines, the pickets huddled around campfires, and the righteousness, the anger, and the dream which the nation’s youth had taken into battle.


“I must get up and write these verses before I forget them,” she told herself, and she “found in the dimness an old stump of a pen” and some of her husband’s writing paper with the letterhead of the Sanitary Commission on it. Later it seemed to Mrs. Howe as if the poem had come to her as a revelation from a source beyond herself. She had good reason to think so. For years she had studied and practiced the art of poetry, counting the syllables, laboring over her rhymes, working for hours on a single stanza. In this whole original manuscript she crossed out or changed only four words, and a final stanza was discarded because it spoiled the climax. With almost no conscious effort the poem sprang into being. After writing it down, she fell asleep for awhile, and when she awoke she could remember what had happened but found that she had forgotten the words. Although she felt humble in the presence of this miracle, Mrs. Howe little realized the importance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Regarding her “Battle Hymn” as a poem rather than a song, Julia Ward Howe sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in February, 1862. It was, she said, “somewhat praised,” and the editors sent her a check for four dollars.

The stories vary as to when the army began singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Probably it was taken up simultaneously by more than one regiment, largely through the efforts of Chaplain Charles Cardwell McCabe of the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. A good-looking man with a fine baritone voice and dramatic ability, McCabe read the poem in the Atlantic and was so impressed with it that he memorized the words. Marching along with the Ohioans, he taught them the “Battle Hymn” to the melody he doubtless knew already as a hymn tune.

But it was back in the South again that the song came into its own. Captured at Winchester, McCabe was sent to Libby Prison along with hundreds of other northern troops herded together in a great bare room. One night their jailers told them the rumor of a great Confederate victory, a complete disaster for the North. Wondering where, and how, and why, the Union prisoners sat dejected on the floor, talking quietly, if at all. Suddenly a Negro who brought food to the men leaned over and whispered to one of the groups. The rumor was a lie, he said: there had been a great victory, but the North had won it, at a place called Gettysburg. Like wildfire the news flashed through the prison. Men jumped to their feet, cheering, crying, embracing one another hysterically, and in the center of the room Chaplain McCabe stood up and with his great voice began to sing: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” As he came to the chorus, every voice joined in, and the walls of Libby prison echoed to the thankful words of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” as few other men could have sung them.

When McCabe was exchanged some time later, broken in health, he set about raising money for the Christian Commission. Someone told Mrs. Howe of a large meeting in Washington, attended by the President, where McCabe told of his wartime experiences. When he spoke of that night in Libby Prison he raised his voice once again in the “Battle Hymn.” “The effect was magical, people shouted, wept, and sang together … and above the applause was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, exclaiming while the tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘Sing it again!’ ”

Julia Ward Howe was now becoming a famous woman, although, immersed in war work in Boston, she scarcely realized that people all over the country knew her name. Making an entry in his journal, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I honor the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. … She was born in New York City. I could well wish she were a native of New England. We have no such poetess in New England.”

After the war, Mrs. Howe became interested in the plight of war widows and fatherless girls in need of a livelihood, turned her energies to the struggle for higher education and the opening of professions to women, and became an influential leader in the woman’s suffrage movement. She continued to write, turning out travel books, essays, and poetry, but no poem she wrote ever again reached the heights of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and her books seem hardly readable today. In her long life—she was born in 1819 and died in 1910—Mrs. Howe never served a cause that was small or personal, and she was, in her last years, one of America’s most admired and best-loved women.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was always sung for her when she appeared at public gatherings, becoming, in a very real sense, her theme song. No audience was likely to forget the sound of that music, the soaring words which captured the deepest emotions of the nation, and the sight of the handsome white-haired woman who had given it to them.

One of the great moments for Julia Ward Howe came on Memorial Day in 1899, at the dedication of a Civil War Memorial in Boston. There was drama in the choice of Major General Joseph Wheeler’s carriage, in which she rode. Wheeler had fought on the Confederate side as a topnotch cavalry leader. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, General Wheeler offered his services to McKinley and was appointed a major general in charge of volunteers. He saw active service in Cuba and the Philippines and he was, in 1899, a national hero symbolizing the reunited nation.

In her diary, Mrs. Howe mentioned only that General Wheeler’s daughters rode with her— “very pleasing girls, one very pretty, the other interesting”—but the real story of the greatest ovation she ever received was written by a hard-boiled reporter who had come up from Philadelphia to cover the event. The clipping was pasted into her journal, headed “Philadelphia Press”: “… It was away over any similar celebration I ever saw,” wrote the newsman, who called his piece “Boston Warmed Up.”

“There was nothing mushy or hackneyed about it. It was the real thing. I never imagined possible such genuine sweeping emotion as was awakened by the singing of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ I always knew it to be the greatest thing of its kind ever written, but it never had a fair chance before. It’s the one poem—for it’s a poem—that can make me cry. I’m a blatant fool every time I hear it.

“If Boston’s cold, that song thawed it and heated it to a wild volcano on Tuesday. There was the packed, still house. Myron W. Whitney started to sing. First he bowed to the box and then we first recognized Mrs. Howe seated by the Misses Wheeler. You should have heard the yell! When Vic [Queen Victoria of England] celebrated her eightieth birthday a few days before, she got no ovation equal to that given this octogenarian. You could see the splendid white head trembling; then her voice joined in as Whitney sang: ‘In the glory of the lilies Christ was born across the sea’ and by the time he reached the words, ‘As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ the whole vast audience was on its feet sobbing and singing at the top of its thousands of lungs. If volunteers were really needed for the Philippines McKinley could have had us all right there.”

When Julia Ward Howe died, eleven years later, the song that played the 12th Massachusetts off to war, which she had made into a mighty battle hymn for all Americans, North and South, was sung at her funeral by the blind children from Perkins Institution. Chaplain McCabe and all the others are gone now, too, but the inspiring music with its majestic words still brings back their million marching feet and the red haze of flame and agony in which they died to make men free.

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