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Civil War Series

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

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Originially aired on November 04, 1994 - In part 10 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson tells the interesting story of Julia Ward Howe’s inspiration for The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

#10 – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

When the Civil War began, Julia Ward Howe was forty-two years old and a woman of unusual achievements. This intelligent and high-spirited New Yorker had known a happy life, including a marriage from which had come seven children. She was an abolitionist, woman suffragist, Unitarian minister, accomplished poet, and a friend of such notables as Emerson, Thoreau, and Longfellow. However, all of that has been largely forgotten because of a short visit Mrs. How made in the autumn of 1861 to the Union capital.

Washington, D. C., was then a sprawling, overcrowded town, with wide, unpaved avenues, scattered and unfinished government buildings, and a partially domed Capitol overlooking the beehive of wartime disorganization.

One November afternoon, Mrs. Howe and a group of friends rode into northern Virginia to view a grand parade by the Federal Army of the Potomac. As the party made its way back to Washington, it passed through groups of soldiers singing a favorite army song. The melody was a fine, swinging tune with the deep cadence of marching feet. The words, on the other hand, gave the rather macabre announcement that “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”.

A companion of Mrs. Howe, knowing of her skill in poetry, urged her that afternoon to write “some good words for that stirring tune”. She agreed to give it some thought.

Fatigued by the activities of the day, Julia Howe had an early dinner and then retired to her room in Willard’s Hotel. She went to bed and was soon sound asleep. Hours later, in the gray twilight of dawn, Mrs. Howe suddenly awakened. Words and phrases began tumbling through her mind. She bounded from bed, grabbed ben and paper and, in the semi-darkness, scribbled verses without even looking at the sheet.

She finished the poem by dawn, returned to bed, and slept peacefully for several hours. For the next couple of weeks, Mrs. Howe polished the phrases to her liking. In December, 1861, she sold the work to the Atlantic Monthly for the grand sum of five dollars. Her poem appeared in print two months later. When President Lincoln first heard the words as musical lyrics, he is supposed to have shouted: “Sing it again!”

 No other wartime document reflects so accurately Northern attitudes in the first year of the Civil War as does Julia Howe’s poem. The lines that flowed so easily from her mind onto that scrap of paper in Willard’s Hotel were unmatched for their religious and nationalist fervor. Her poem became the lyrics of the most popular song in the Union armies. It was not so much a marching melody as it was an eye-lifting hymn.

If you have not by now guessed what it was that Julia Ward Howe penned, the words will surely be familiar.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stores;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;

His truth is marching on.”

Julia Ware Howe died in 1910 at the age of ninety-one. On the hour of her funeral in Boston, bands and vocalists all over the nation performed the song she had immortalized almost fifty years earlier.

Some listeners of ultra-Southern persuasion may still resent the inspiration and emotion of the song we now call “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, like so many legacies of the Civil War, belongs to the whole nation. It is a hymn that all Americans can – and should – sing with a spirit of togetherness.