October 15, 2020 Organ Notes

Julia Ward Howe, and Battle Hymn of the Republic, Part 1

I never could be good when I was not happy. –Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), the woman who would write Battle Hymn of the Republic, knew a great deal about unhappiness. She was born in New York City to a wealthy family. Upon marrying Samuel Howe in 1843, she moved to Boston, where she bore and raised six children. The marriage was deeply unhappy. Divorce, under Massachusetts law, would have granted custody to Samuel Howe as father, the same man who had threatened to place their fifth, then unborn, child for adoption.  She averted divorce only by submission to her husband in ways that she found abhorrent.

But one aspect of Boston life that gave Julia Ward Howe happiness was music. Howe was an accomplished pianist and singer. She participated in the Handel and Haydn Society chorus. The repertoire she sang was grounded in sacred oratorios and hymns.

In 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic, one of the most famous hymns in American music. During a visit to Washington D.C. she heard a fighting man’s song of the Union troops, “John Brown’s Body.” The song glorified the abolitionist John Brown. Two years earlier, Brown had hoped to spark a slave revolt by leading a violent raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He had been executed for treason. Reviled by Southerners, he was heroized by many Northerners, including Julia Ward Howe’s husband, Samuel Howe. The money for Brown’s private army and munitions had been partially provided by Samuel Howe, who had narrowly avoided arrest and imprisonment.

After hearing “John Brown’s Body,” the tune stayed in her mind. But Julia Ward Howe went to bed troubled by the lyrics. The song was distinctly un-elevated, including lines such as, “We’ll feed Jeff Davis sour apples ’til he gets the diarhee.” The next morning, she awoke early, formed new lines of poetry in her mind, and then scribbled down the words. Her lyrics include allusions to Old and New Testament apocalyptic writings. They link the judgment of the wicked at the end of time to the American Civil War.

In early 1862, Julia Ward Howe sold the song to the Atlantic Monthly for five dollars. It is the most influential piece of writing ever published in the long history of the magazine. The song immediately went viral. During the Civil War, Battle Hymn of the Republic became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches.

It has etched itself into American culture, its lyrics ever adaptable to express righteous crusades and searing conflicts. It is the song that the country reached for in the 1898 Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. It is the song that women’s rights campaigners adopted in 1890 as their anthem: “Battle Hymn of the Suffragists;” and that union organizers took in 1915 as their refrain: “Solidarity Forever.”

The final stanza of Howe’s hymn begins: “He has sounded forth the trumpet, Which shall never call retreat.” Julia Ward Howe lived for forty-eight years after the publication of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Like the God she invoked, she never called retreat.

Our story about Julia Ward Howe, her hymn, and its organ performances continues in Part 2.