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Morton: Remembering author of great American patriotic hymn

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On this day (May 27) in 1819, abolitionist, women’s rights activist, author, poet, playwright, lecturer and songwriter Julia Ward Howe was born in New York City into the family of stockbroker Samuel Ward Jr. and poet Julia Rush.

Educated first by private tutors at home and then, as a teenager, at an exclusive girls’ school, the well-educated Julia Ward became, in 1843, Mrs. Howe as the wife of the well-known, highly respected medical doctor, philanthropist, education reformer, and teacher of the blind Samuel Gridley Howe.

Eighteen years older than his 26-year-old bride, Dr. Howe expected his wife to be a stay-at-home home-maker, where she would support him in his various humanitarian and educational endeavors rather than pursuing possible literary and philanthropic careers of her own.

After a yearlong trip to Europe, the couple moved to Boston, where they both became involved, as editors of the Abolitionist newspaper Boston Commonwealth, in the anti-slavery movement. Although she always supported her husband in his sundry activities, Julia soon launched, against her husband’s often-stated wishes, into her own literary career – first as a novelist with the writing of “The Hermaphrodite” in the 1840s, and then as a poet, publishing, in 1854, a volume of poems, “Passion Flowers,” which was followed in 1857 with “Words for the Hour,” in 1860 “A Trip to Cuba,” and then as an essayist and playwright.

Her deeply felt differences with her husband regarding the “proper” role of married women in “polite Boston” society often led to talk of legal separation and even divorce. However, the couple remained married for some 34 years until Samuel’s death in 1876.

Although Julia Ward Howe had notable post-Civil War careers as a suffrage activist, author (primarily of children’s books), renowned lecturer (especially in Unitarian churches), world traveler, and peace advocate, she is best remembered as the author of the lyrics of the still-popular “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was first published in the February 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly. While visiting an army camp in Washington, D.C., in November 1861, Julia frequently heard soldiers singing with a great deal of gusto “The John Brown” song (which obviously referred to the controversial recently “martyred” abolitionist John Brown) with its opening refrain: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul’s marching on.”

While staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington, it was suggested to Julia that she write new lyrics to the popular musical score of “The John Brown” song. As she later wrote, it was the night of Nov. 18, 1861, when she composed the hymn, which quickly became a Christian rallying cry for the Union during the Civil War.

“I went to bed that night as usual. ... I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind,” she wrote. “Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed and scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Upon her death Oct. 17, 1910 (age 91) in Newport, R.I., Julia Ward Howe – although certainly lauded in some of her published eulogies for her post-Civil War philanthropic activities in support of women’s rights, prison reform, world peace, and coeducation and for her prolific literary output – was, however, universally eulogized and remembered as the inspired author of the lyrics of Sir Winston Churchill’s and many Americans’ favorite patriotic hymn: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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