The “Word of the Hour”: From the “John Brown Song” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
I. Julia Ward Howe and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
As many readers know, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) during the U.S. Civil War. A self-taught philosopher and poet, Julia was somewhat unhappily married to the much older physician and activist, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-76), one of Brown’s so-called “Secret Six” supporters. It seems that despite his bent toward liberation causes, Howe was not so keen on seeing his wife liberated beyond the necessities of motherhood and housekeeping, and consistently thwarted and opposed her efforts to cultivate a professional and public role for herself as an author. This did not prevent Julia, especially during a marital separation, from pursuing her writing and studies; yet it seems that she was never able to fully realize a sense of her own capabilities and vocation until her renowned husband’s death.
According to Richards and Elliott, Ward Howe’s first biographers,1 the story of the writing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” begins in the fall of 1861, when she went to Washington, D.C. with her husband, also in the company of Governor and Mrs. Andrew of Massachusetts, and the Rev. James Freeman Clarke. Her biographers say that after observing a military review, this entourage found themselves surrounded amidst a long stream of marching men in blue uniform. With their carriage at a stand still they decided to sing aloud to pass the time. But when they sang, “John Brown's body lies a-moulding in the grave, His soul is marching on!” this brought a reaction from the soldiers, some of whom shouted “Good for you!” to Julia Ward Howe and her companions. At this point, the story continues, Clarke turned to her and said, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?" Interestingly, Ward Howe excitedly responded that she had “often wished to do so.” [This complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]