Because of their volunteer work with the Sanitary Commission, President Lincoln invited Samuel and Julia Howe to Washington D.C. November, 1861. The President gave the patriotic couple a personal tour of the Union troops.
The Boston, Massachusetts residents visited several Army camps in Virginia across the Potomac where they heard the men sing, "John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in his grave.” Both the North and South, one in admiration of John Brown, one in celebration of his death, sang this song.
Another member of the tour, the Howe’s Pastor, Reverend James Freeman Clarke, expressed his disappointment with the morbid words the soldiers sang.
“Julia, surely you can write more uplifting lyrics than these dreary ones for our solders to sing. You’re a published poet and playwright; please pen a few patriotic verses.”
“I’ll do my best, Reverend Clarke.”
The next morning at the Willard Hotel Julia awoke in the twilight before dawn as the first pink suffused the gray sky. All night long, her mind chased elusive words as she tried to corral them into a patriotic poem.
She lay still in the dark until five verses lined up in her head. A few minutes later she scrambled from her bed, fumbled in the dark and found a pencil stub and piece of notepaper. In the dim light, Julia scratched down the lyrics before they flew out of her mind.
Samuel, propped his tousled head on his hand and croaked, “Anything wrong?”
“No....” She paused, pushed back her mane of brown hair and mumbled. “Light a lamp so I can see better.”
Samuel groaned and threw off the covers. “Brr, it’s chilly. Can’t you wait until daylight?”
“No, I’ll forget the words.”
Samuel tossed a log onto the hot coals in the fireplace. He folded and twisted a page from the National Intelligencer, ignited the paper and lit the gas floor lamp beside Julia.
Squinting, he glanced at the stanzas, “I see you’ve taken up Reverend Clarke’s challenge to compose more encouraging words for the troops to sing as they march."
“Yes, these lyrics will inspire and motivate each soldier. There—it’s finished. I think this poem is the best one I’ve ever written.” Julia stood, held the paper under the lamp and read her creation to Samuel.
“A chef-d'oeuvre; my dear you are most talented. I’m sure Reverend Clark will be happy with the new verses as well as anyone who reads your poem.”
“Yes, I’m sure, too.” Julia said with a contented smile. “I’ll make copies and mail one to The Atlantic Monthly. The dawn is here. Let’s get dressed and go downstairs for breakfast.”
* * * * *
James T. Fields, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, strolled into his office early one morning in January, 1862. He eased into an upholstered chair and sighed as he realized it would take him days to go through the deluge of manuscripts stacked on his desk.
Hours later he called to his assistant editor in the room next to his, “Bill, come here please. I want you to read this.”
Bill appeared at the doorway, “Do you have something interesting for me to read, Mr. Fields?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said handing him a sheet of paper. “Tell me what you think.”
Bill read the five stanzas twice before he commented. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...”
“Stirring words, most inspiring, I don’t recognize the author.”
“No, me either. She mentions in her cover letter the titles of a few published works. Let me see... “Passion Flowers,” a collection of her poems published anonymously in 1853 and “Words for the Hour,” published in 1857. A play she wrote published in 1857, “Lenora, or the World’s Own.”
Let’s offer Mrs. Julia Ward Howe $5 for publishing rights for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I want to publish her glorious hymn next month. Can you take care of this matter?”
“Yes, I’ll prepare the paperwork.”
* * * * *
By 1863, the poem found its way to the Union camps. Soldiers sang the verses to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” chanted, recited and used the hymn in exhortation and prayer on the eve of battle. The hymn appeared in newspapers, in army hymnbooks, and the Union armies marched to the uplifting words.
In the years since the Civil War, U.S. citizens view "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as an American patriotic song.
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