A social activist, abolitionist, supporter of suffrage, author, playwright, poetess and lyricist, Julia Ward Howe is an imposing monument to womanhood.
Tiny in stature, yet great in accomplishment, Julia Ward Howe was born November 27, 1839, during President James Monroe’s Era of Good Feeling. Her lineage is pure Americana. It began with her great grandfather, Samuel Ward, colonial Governor of Rhode Island and delegate to the Continental Congress. Her father was Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ward of the Continental Army. Her grandmother, Phoebe Greene was the daughter of William Greene, also a Rhode Island Governor. She married in 1843 to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a prestigious founder of Perkins Institute for the Blind and former hero of the Greek Revolution. She raised six children, though only five lived to adulthood, in the difficult days of the middle 1800’s. As a member of the Unitarian Church, she and her husband became active in the Free Soil Party which likely began her forward movement into social activitism.
Julia’s vivacious nature and effervescence kept her drawing room lively with the most interesting people from all walks of life, i.e., ministers of new faiths, Persians, and others her staid Boston neighbors considered below her station in life.
Julia developed an interest in the literary arts and to her credit are works of poetry: Passion-Flowers, Words for the Hours, From Sunset Ridge: Poems Old and New, Later Lyrics, and At Sunset, among others. She also wrote Woman’s Work in America and Reminiscences: 1819-1899, as well as speeches and essays as part of her work on the suffrage movement.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Julia Ward Howe visited a Union Camp during the Civil War located on the Potomac near Washington, DC. While there, she heard the soldiers singing a “walking song”, John Brown’s Body, and was inspired by the marching cadence of the song. The next day, she wrote a poem set to the music of William Steffe. She described in her own words the event:
“I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them! So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”
The poem became the lyrics for Battle Hymn of the Republic, which debuted in Atlantic Monthly in 1862 and became one of most popular Union songs of the American Civil War. It is fitting that Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and activist for social freedoms should write a poem that lives on in American History and has been sung by supporters of civil rights. In his speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the lines of Battle Hymn of the Republic, “My eyes have seen the glory….”. The Battle Hymn of the Republic remains one of America’s most beloved songs representative of the ideals of freedom.
Julia Ward Howe, Her Accomplishments Continue
After the Civil War ended, Julia took part in activities that placed stronger focus on the suffrage movement and pacifism. In 1870, she would claim another first in her accomplishment, her Mothers Day Proclamation. She continued her interests in literary work as an associate editor with Lucy Stone and Henry Brown Blackwell, at Woman’s Journal.
Julie Ward Howe died on October 17, 1910, at the age of ninety-one, having lived through entire episodes of history of the new American Republic. Her wit and beauty was far less important to her than her ability to reach heights never before conceived by most of the women of her time. She was often classified as a “leftist”, “anarchist”, “liberal” and “free thinker”, in an era that prided itself on conformity and enforced subtle uniformities on women. Above all her courage to prevail with grace and charm on a society that looked upon “difference” as an inherent evil reflects the depth of her illustrious character and the patina of her social awareness.
- America Enters The World, Page Smith; Colliers Encyclopedia