Julia Ward Howe remembered years later that she had awakened around dawn in her room in Willard’s Hotel with the lyrics floating in her head. It was November 1861, and she was on her first trip to wartime Washington, with her husband and her minister.
The day before, she and thousands of others had attended a review of Union troops at Baileys Crossroads. In the traffic jam on the way back to town, she had joined in singing the new soldiers’ song, John Brown’s Body.”
Julia, then 42, had a beautiful, finely trained mezzo-soprano voice that carried over the crowd.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave
His soul is marching on.
“Good for you!” the soldiers called out.
Her minister, James Freeman Clarke, suggested that Howe, an accomplished poet, write better lyrics. She said she had thought about it but had not come up with anything.
Now, in the dim morning light of her hotel room, new words began to form.
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.
Later, looking back on the birth of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” 150 years ago this month, Julia didn’t mention her famous husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, who had funded the militant abolitionist John Brown.
She didn’t say whether Samuel was with her in the room that morning as she “sprang” from bed, grabbed a pen and scribbled the timeless verses before she could forget them.
She didn’t mention whether he was in the carriage the day before with Clarke and “several other friends.”
Indeed, if her husband was there, he might have rolled his eyes at the suggestion that his wife take on another literary endeavor.
Her writing had been one of the sources of the bitterness that had poisoned their marriage and would continue to do so until his death 15 years later, according to historians.
A dashing, bewhiskered Romantic who had just turned 60, he had fought in the Greek revolution of the 1820s, battled slavery and pioneered care for the blind in Boston.
He also worked diligently to crush his wife’s intellectual aspirations and isolate her from literary outlets for much of her life.
“I am forced to make to myself an imaginary public,” she recorded early in her marriage. “I have seen and heard only myself, talked with myself, eaten and drunk with myself . . . and condoled [grieved] with myself that I was about to be left to myself for another day. Oh cursed self. How I hate the very sight of you!”
Brilliant, ambitious and suffocated by her husband’s domination, she engaged in a stubborn domestic insurgency, defying his wishes when she could and publishing at one point an anonymous book of poems that hinted at their damaged relationship. At least one of its foolish characters seemed modeled on him.
He was enraged.
“The book . . . was a blow to him,” she wrote, after she was revealed as the author. “He has been in a very dangerous state, I think, very near insanity.”
In one of the most troubled, high-profile marriages of the time, he would badger her for divorce, and separations, and custody of some of their children, all of which she declined.
He complained about her housework. He told her he’d had affairs and, she said, made a marital civil war of long stretches of their 33-year union.
Often, the author of the battle hymn felt vanquished, and in a photograph from that period she wears an expression of one who looks lost.
“I make no opposition of will or of temper, because it would be useless,” Julia wrote her husband during one fight, according to biographer Valarie H. Ziegler. “I cannot struggle with so fierce an opponent.”
On April 23, 1865, two weeks after the close of the nation’s Civil War, she indicated in her diary that her battles continued.
“I have been married twenty two years today,” she wrote. “In the course of this time I have never known my husband to approve any act of mine. . . . Books, poems, plays, everything has been contemptible . . . in his eyes, because it was not his way of doing things.”
But he had not been able to silence her voice.
And as the nation marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War era, the intense, apocalyptic “poem” that came to her that morning in Washington has outlived the story of its author, her husband and their turbulent lives.
On June 8, 1968, as the 21-car funeral train bearing the body of assassinated U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington crept through Baltimore, a lone mourner in the crowd began slowly singing, Mine eyes have seen the glory . . .
Others in the throng of stricken bystanders picked up the lyrics and the melody:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah.
Soon, as millions watched on television, thousands of people lining the tracks were singing Julia Ward Howe’s century-old lyrics — somehow still fitting, and comforting, as an American song of grief.
Ever since 1861, when Julia sent a copy of her poem to James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, saying, “Fields! Do you want this?” the battle hymn has been a part of American culture.
Stirring, militant and reverent, it has served many purposes, said Harvard scholar John Stauffer, who is working on a book about it.
But it was first an apocalyptic call to arms.
“This is a song of vengeance, of God’s vengeance,” Stauffer said in an interview last week.
“It’s a justification for the bloodshed . . . across the nation, and justification that will lead to this new age,” he said. “And it’s also a song that tells singers and readers that they are only acting like Christ if they vanquish their enemies.”
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free.
As the war years passed, the hymn came to be embraced even in the South, said Stauffer, a professor of English and of African and African American studies. Evangelists loved it. It almost became the national anthem.
“The lyrics . . . are wonderfully abstract,” Stauffer said. “God is the main character.”
It was sung at the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 and at the Washington National Cathedral after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
And Martin Luther King Jr.’s last public address — his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination — ended with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Stauffer said the melody has been traced to a Swedish drinking song, first heard in England and brought by Methodists into their rich musical tradition. The tune was used for a religious song, “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?”
With John Brown’s doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry, and then the outbreak of the Civil War, new lyrics about the abolitionist were set to the melody and then famously printed in the New York Tribune, Stauffer said.
“Shortly after that, the song is everywhere up North,” he said.
Julia, Samuel and their entourage arrived in Washington late in the fall of 1861. In her reminiscences, published in 1899, she recalled approaching the city and seeing soldiers huddled around campfires.
It was only four months after the Union’s defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run that July, and the streets were bustling with ambulances, officers and orderlies. From her hotel room, she could see a “ghastly advertisement” for a business that embalmed and forwarded the bodies of the dead.
She recalled meeting the president. “I remember well the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep blue eyes,” she wrote.
Julia was attractive; she had auburn hair and a large inheritance from her wealthy father, scholars have said.
But constricted by her circumstances, she felt that she had little to contribute to the war. “You have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do,” she recalled thinking.
Later, she realized that she had made a powerful contribution, “a word,” as she put it, to “strengthen the hearts of those who fought.”
The exact date of her visit to the Army review is slightly confused, although the best evidence suggests that it was the occasion of Gen. George B. McClellan’s “grand review” on Nov. 20, 1861.
Writing almost four decades later, Julia did not provide a date in her reminiscences. What is believed to be the original version of the hymn simply says “Nov. 1861.”
The sources of her inspiration may have gone beyond the striking sight of tens of thousands of Union soldiers.
“She was a very strong-willed and independent woman who was not going to wilt in front of an enemy,” Stauffer said. “Whether it was her husband, or the Confederacy, or slave owners.”
“One could easily make an argument that her ability to learn how to stand up to her husband informed her radical reform sensibility,” he said.
She was also a superb literary stylist, transforming prosaic visual images into literature.
I have seen him in the watch-fires
Of a hundred circling camps.
And she had been steeped in the Old Testament brimstone of a strict Calvinist childhood. “If you read the King James Bible over and over, you can’t help but become a good writer,” Stauffer said.
Julia Ward Howe died in 1910, still best known for one poem, despite a long literary life. But Stauffer said that in the end, that did not bother her: “She was grateful that she was still one of the most famous authors, simply because of ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ ”