Julia Ward Howe
Author, Hymn Writer, Philanthropist, Reformer
May 27 is the anniversary of the birth Julia Ward Howe, author of one of the great rallying songs of the Civil War Era, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The words for this hymn first appeared in the February, 1862, issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and was considered by many as the Civil War’s battle song of the Republic.
Julia Ward Howe was born on May 27, 1819 into a prominent New York City family that had a distinguished lineage on both sides. Though she was raised in a conservative, Christian home, she rebelled against the strict religious views of her father, becoming a liberal thinker. Yet Julia maintained a firm belief in a personal, loving God and a strong faith in Christ.
Since her mother died when she was only five years old. she was raised by her father with the help of various members of her extended family. Her father saw to it that she received the best education available, attending various private girls’ schools also being tutored at home. She grew into a gracious and intelligent young woman with a strong literary bent. Due to her marked abilities, she was readily accepted into the society of such notables as Margaret Fuller, Horace Mann, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1843, Julia married the Boston Reformer, Dr. Samuel G. Howe, nearly 20 years her senior. It proved to be a rather stormy marriage. Even though Dr. Howe was involved in numerous reform movements, he was strongly opposed to married women being involved in public life. While he permitted his wife to assist him “behind the scenes” in his own work, for years she was limited in her work and her role was largely that of an impatient onlooker, especially as the troubled events of the 1850’s led her husband to become an active abolitionist.
She did, however, pursue her writing career, even against her husband’s wishes. In 1854, despite her husband’s disapproval, Julia anonymously published her first volume of poems, “Passions Flowers”. It was met with success and she continued writing and publishing volumes of poetry, several plays, and many magazine articles on various themes. This caused friction between husband and wife as Dr. Howe emphatically objected to Julia’s speaking in public and her literary career.
In the fall of 1861, after the Civil War began, Mrs. Howe accompanied her husband to Washington, D.C., where he was involved in medical service for the government. During the visit, Julia became deeply disturbed as she noted the growing angry mood of the Nation. Mrs. Howe daily watched troops marching off to war singing “John Brown’s Body”, a song about an unconventional man who had been hanged in his efforts to free the slaves. One day, one a friend suggested that she write some “decent words for that tune”. Julia agreed. That evening, after retiring to bed, the words came to Julia. She rose in the predawn hours and scrawled the verses of the poem that was to become famous as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The poem was published in the Atlantic Monthly and Mrs. Howe received a mere $5 for this literary work. But soon the song was being sung by regiments all over the north and it wasn’t long before the entire nation was united in singing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”. It is recorded that this hymn was sung as a solo at a large patriotic rally that was attended by President Abraham Lincoln. It is said that after the audience had responded with loud applause, the President, with tears in his eyes, shouted, “Sing it again!” And it was sung again and again for well over a hundred years, becoming one of our finest national hymns, finding its way into almost every American hymnal.
In the postwar years, her husband finally gave up his violent opposition to Julia’s public life and she became a leader in her own right. Mrs. Howe became involved in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, joining with Lucy Stone to form the American Woman Suffrage Association and began actively promoting a suffrage amendment. She became a frequent lecturer at conventions and legislative hearings and was founder, editor, and contributor to a weekly publication called “Woman’s Journal”. She not only fought for a woman’s right to vote, but also struggled to free women from traditional stereotypes, especially in marriage, that kept women from sharing their ideas or becoming all that God intended them to be.
By the time she reached her eighties, Julia had become a national figure, beloved by the American people. In 1908, two years before she died at the age of ninety-one, Julia Ward Howe was the first woman to be elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.