Compiling articles about people of everyday character, Julia Ward Howe earned her place throughout her life. Born in New York, on May 27, 1819, Mrs. Howe is most well-known for writing the most famous patriotic anthem of the Civil War.
She recounts in her Reminiscences, “how many times I have been called upon to rehearse the circumstances under which I wrote the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’” [Rem.]
“Dear me,” said Mrs. Howe, as she rose to her feet after being introduced to an audience in a most flattering way by an enthusiastic presiding officer; “it is lucky my name was mentioned, for I never should have recognized myself from that description.” [Defiance]
Mrs. Howe’s humor, vision, and thoughtfulness are well captured in the books she authored, and the articles written about her.
There is much more to the life of Julia Ward Howe than a singular achievement. In The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, Elaine Showalter paints a more complete picture. “Howe was certainly eminent, unselfish, and patriotic. She had six children, learned six languages, published six books; she was a prominent figure in the churches and intellectual societies of Boston; she joined ardently with her husband in the abolitionist struggle.” [Civil Wars, xii.]
Mrs. Howe’s life achievements cannot be captured in a boring rendering of an elderly lady stationed well within nineteenth century society. There is so much more to her story, which began as she spent her childhood as “a young damsel of olden time, shut up within an enchanted castle. And I must say that my dear father, with all is noble generosity and overweening affection, sometimes appeared to me as my jailer.” [Howe]
Mrs. Howe’s marital life seems to have mirrored some aspects of how she’d felt about her father’s role as jailer. For Mrs. Howe, married life was less perfect. Her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician and teacher of blind persons, who was eighteen years her elder and like his bride found slavery repulsive. Together, the couple edited the abolitionist newspaper Commonwealth. She and her husband, however, clashed over her suffragist activities. [Commonwealth]
It was during that period of her life that Mrs. Howe anonymously published her book of confessional poems written about the strife going on within their home. “Her husband took control of her large fortune and lost most of it. Throughout most of their marriage, famous and beloved though Julia became, his expectations dominated hers. She had to exercise her power obliquely with the soft feminine weapons of tears, self-sacrifice, unselfishness, domesticity, and maternity.”[Civil Wars, xiii.]
The following excerpt is taken from her poem, Salutatory:
I have sung to lowly hearts
Of their own music, only deeper;
I have flung through the dusty road
Shining seeds for the unknown reaper. (Howe, 1854)
Writer, lecturer, abolitionist and suffragist, Julia Ward Howe not only authored the Civil War anthem Battle Hymn of the Republic, but after the death of her husband in 1876, she also co-founded the American Woman Suffrage Association with Lucy Stone.
She is an inspiration and her efforts deserve recognition beyond a single song.
“One night recently I experienced a sudden awakening,” Mrs. Howe is quoted as saying at age eighty-six. “I had a vision of a new era which is to dawn for mankind and in which men and women are battling equally, unitedly, for the uplifting of the race from evil. I saw men and women of every clime working like bees to unwrap the evils of society and to discover the whole web of vice and misery, and to apply the remedies and also to find the Influences that should best counteract evil and its attending suffering. There seemed to be a new, a wondrous, ever-permeating light, the glory of which I cannot attempt to put in human words—the light of new-born hope and sympathy blazing. The source of this light was human endeavor—immortal purpose of countless thousands of men and women, who were equally doing their part in the world. I saw the men and the women, standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, a common, lofty and indomitable purpose lighting every face with glory not of this earth. All were advancing with one end in view, one foe to trample, one everlasting good to gain. And then I saw the victory. All the evil was gone from the earth. Misery was blotted out. Mankind was emancipated and read to march forward in a new era of human understanding, all-encompassing sympathy and ever-present help. The era of perfect love, of peace passing understanding.” [Examiner]
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to speak in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. “I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” King announced. “And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” And then he closed in his lyrical voice: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he lay dying on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, struck in the cheek by an assassin’s bullet.
The last line that King ever spoke in public came from a song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. It was a fitting finale to the life of a great American because the story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. [Atlantic.]
[Julia Ward Howe (1854). Salutatory. In J. W. Howe, Passion-flowers (p. 2). Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from link]
[Julia Ward Howe, Reminiscences, 1819-1899 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1899), 273. Hereafter abbreviated as Rem.]
[Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe a Biography, (Simon and Schuster, 2016), xii. Hereafter abbreviated as Civil Wars.]
[Laure E. Richards, ed., Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe. 2 vols. (Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1906), I:17. Here after abbreviated as Howe.]
[Examiner American. (1908, July 19). A Beautiful Soul – A Beautiful Vision. Chicago Sunday Examiner – Editorial Section, p. 1. Here after abbreviated as Examiner.]
[Defiance Express, Defiance, Ohio. (1905, June 28). Nearing Life’s End. Defiance Express, 12, p. 3. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from link Here after abbreviated as Defiance.]
[https://bostoncommonwealth.omeka.net/ Here after abbreviated as Commonwealth.]
[https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/11/the-battle-hymn-of-the-republic-americas-song-of-itself/66070/ Here after abbreviated as Atlantic.]