This week (Jan. 28) in 1908 Julia Ward Howe, a Civil War-era author, abolitionist and — as we shall see — songwriter, became the first woman ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was a fitting tribute to a life of unceasing dedication to human rights.
Born in 1819, Julia Howe, together with her husband, Sam Howe, founded and edited the Abolitionist, which was the premier abolitionist newspaper during the Civil War. In 1861, their work on behalf of the anti-slavery cause came to the attention of President Lincoln, who invited the Howes to Washington.
While there, she often passed by the soldiers stationed in the Capitol, many of whom she overheard singing a popular marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” which had gained widespread fame as a memorial to the firebrand abolitionist who had led a doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in the hopes of igniting a slave insurrection.
Listening to “John Brown’s Body” during that visit, and having witnessed a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops in nearby Virginia, Howe decided she could write better lyrics to the tune than such lines as “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,” so back at her hotel room one night she pulled out her copy of the Book of Isiah and began composing. The result was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” whose opening line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” was certainly more poetic than anything in “John Brown’s Body.”
It was also more inspirational, and after “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was published in The Atlantic Monthly (earning Howe a whopping five dollars), it quickly gained a loyal following, first among civilians in the North and then among the soldiers. According to legend, the hymn moved President Lincoln to tears and it became the unofficial anthem of the Union.
Today, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is considered one of America’s three anthems, after “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America, the Beautiful.” As for Julia Howe, after the Civil War she moved on from civil rights to women’s rights, co-founding with Lucy Stone the New England Women’s Club, which later became the American Woman Suffrage Association, which later merged with Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Among the legacies of NAWSA is the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
Howe died in 1910 and in 1998 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was acclaimed as “an advocate … of great causes of human liberty; [and] sincere friend of all that makes for the elevation and enrichment of women.”
Including a good patriotic song.