Detail from Alfred R. Waud's drawing of McClellan reviewing his troops… (Alfred R. Waud/Library…)
Julia Ward Howe remembered years later that she had awakened around dawn in her room in Willard’s Hotel with the lyrics floating in her head. It was November 1861, and she was on her first trip to wartime Washington, with her husband and her minister.
The day before, she and thousands of others had attended a review of Union troops at Baileys Crossroads. In the traffic jam on the way back to town, she had joined in singing the new soldiers’ song, John Brown’s Body.”
Julia, then 42, had a beautiful, finely trained mezzo-soprano voice that carried over the crowd.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave
His soul is marching on.
“Good for you!” the soldiers called out.
Her minister, James Freeman Clarke, suggested that Howe, an accomplished poet, write better lyrics. She said she had thought about it but had not come up with anything.
Now, in the dim morning light of her hotel room, new words began to form.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
Later, looking back on the birth of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” 150 years ago this month, Julia didn’t mention her famous husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, who had funded the militant abolitionist John Brown.
She didn’t say whether Samuel was with her in the room that morning as she “sprang” from bed, grabbed a pen and scribbled the timeless verses before she could forget them.
She didn’t mention whether he was in the carriage the day before with Clarke and “several other friends.”
Indeed, if her husband was there, he might have rolled his eyes at the suggestion that his wife take on another literary endeavor.
Her writing had been one of the sources of the bitterness that had poisoned their marriage and would continue to do so until his death 15 years later, according to historians.
A dashing, bewhiskered Romantic who had just turned 60, he had fought in the Greek revolution of the 1820s, battled slavery and pioneered care for the blind in Boston.
He also worked diligently to crush his wife’s intellectual aspirations and isolate her from literary outlets for much of her life.
“I am forced to make to myself an imaginary public,” she recorded early in her marriage. “I have seen and heard only myself, talked with myself, eaten and drunk with myself . . . and condoled [grieved] with myself that I was about to be left to myself for another day. Oh cursed self. How I hate the very sight of you!”
Brilliant, ambitious and suffocated by her husband’s domination, she engaged in a stubborn domestic insurgency, defying his wishes when she could and publishing at one point an anonymous book of poems that hinted at their damaged relationship. At least one of its foolish characters seemed modeled on him.
He was enraged.
“The book . . . was a blow to him,” she wrote, after she was revealed as the author. “He has been in a very dangerous state, I think, very near insanity.”
In one of the most troubled, high-profile marriages of the time, he would badger her for divorce, and separations, and custody of some of their children, all of which she declined.
He complained about her housework. He told her he’d had affairs and, she said, made a marital civil war of long stretches of their 33-year union.
Often, the author of the battle hymn felt vanquished, and in a photograph from that period she wears an expression of one who looks lost.
“I make no opposition of will or of temper, because it would be useless,” Julia wrote her husband during one fight, according to biographer Valarie H. Ziegler. “I cannot struggle with so fierce an opponent.”
On April 23, 1865, two weeks after the close of the nation’s Civil War, she indicated in her diary that her battles continued.
“I have been married twenty two years today,” she wrote. “In the course of this time I have never known my husband to approve any act of mine. . . . Books, poems, plays, everything has been contemptible . . . in his eyes, because it was not his way of doing things.”
But he had not been able to silence her voice.
And as the nation marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War era, the intense, apocalyptic “poem” that came to her that morning in Washington has outlived the story of its author, her husband and their turbulent lives.
Song of grief and vengeance
On June 8, 1968, as the 21-car funeral train bearing the body of assassinated U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington crept through Baltimore, a lone mourner in the crowd began slowly singing, Mine eyes have seen the glory . . .
Others in the throng of stricken bystanders picked up the lyrics and the melody:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah.
Soon, as millions watched on television, thousands of people lining the tracks were singing Julia Ward Howe’s century-old lyrics — somehow still fitting, and comforting, as an American song of grief.