|Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic
These were the days of the Civil War; we must return back to its opening year to record and episode of importance to her [Julia Ward Howe] and to others.
In the autumn of 1861 she went to Washington in company with Governor and Mrs. Andrew, Mr. Clarke and the Doctor [Samuel G. Howe], who was one of the pioneers of the Sanitary Commission, carrying his restless energy and indomitable will from camp to hospital, from battlefield to bureau. She longed to help in some way, but felt that there was nothing she could doexcept make lint, which we were all doing.
"I could not leave my nursery to follow the march of our armies, neither had I the practical deftness which the preparing and packing of sanitary stores demanded. Something seemed to say to me, 'You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.' Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word was given to me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison."
"John Brown's body lies a-moulding in the grave.
The soldiers liked this, cried, "Good for you!" and took up the chorus with its rhythmic swing.
"Mrs. Howe," said Mr. Clarke, "why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?"
"I have often wished to do so!" she replied.
Waking in the gray of the next morning, as she lay waiting for the dawn, the word came to her.
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"
She lay perfectly still. Line by line, stanza by stanza, the words came sweeping on with the rhythm of marching feet, pauseless, resistless. She saw the long lines swinging into place before her eyes, heard the voice of the nation speaking through her lips. She waited till the voice was silent, till the last line was ended; then sprang from bed, and groping for pen and paper, scrawled in the gray twilight the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She was used to writing thus; verses often came to her at night, and must be scribbled in the dark for fear of waking the baby; she crept back to bed, and as she fell asleep she said to herself, "I like this better than most things I have written." In the morning, while recalling the incident, she found she had forgotten the words.
The poem was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for February, 1862. "It was somewhat praised," she says, "on its appearance, but the vicissitudes of the war so engrossed public attention that small heed was taken of literary matters....I knew and was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung in chorus by the soldiers."
She did not, however, realize how rapidly the hymn made its way, nor how strong a hold it took upon the people. It was "sung, chanted, recited, and used in exhortation and prayer on the eve of battle." It was printed in newspapers, in army hymn-books, on broadsides; it was the word of the hour, and the Union armies marched to its swing.
Among the singers of the "Battle Hymn" was Chaplain McCabe, the fighting chaplain of the 122d Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He read the poem in the "Atlantic," and was so struck with it that he committed it to memory before rising from his chair. He took it with him to the front, and in due time to Libby Prison, whither he was sent after being captured at Winchester. Here, in the great bare room where hundreds of Northern soldiers were herded together, came one night a rumor of disaster to the Union arms. A great battle, their jailers told them; a great Confederate victory. Sadly the Northern men gathered together in groups, sitting or lying on the floor, talking in low tones, wondering how, where, why. Suddenly, one of the negroes who brought food for the prisoners stooped in passing and whispered to one of the sorrowful groups. The news was false; there had, indeed, been a great battle, but the Union army had won, the Confederates were defeated and scattered. Like a flame the word flashed through the prison. Men leaped to their feet, shouted, embraced one another in a frenzy of joy and triumph; and Chaplain McCabe, standing in the middle of the room, lifted up his great voice and sang aloud,
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
Every voice took up the chorus, and Libby Prison rang with the shout of "Glory, glory, hallelujah!"
The victory was that of Gettysburg. When, some time after, McCabe was released from prison, he told in Washington, before a great audience of loyal people, the story of his war-time experiences; and when he came to that night in Libby Prison, he sang the "Battle Hymn" once more. The effect was magical; people shouted, wept, and sang, all together; and when the song was ended, above the tumult of applause was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, exclaiming, while the tears rolled down his cheeks,
"Sing it again!"
(Our mother met Lincoln in 1861, and was presented to him by Governor Andrew. After greeting the party, the President "seated himself so near the famous portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart as naturally to suggest some comparison between the two figures. On the canvas we saw the calm presence, the serene assurance of the man who had successfully accomplished a great undertaking, a vision of health and of peace. In the chair beside it sat a tall, bony figure, devoid of grace, a countenance almost redeemed from plainness by two kindly blue eyes, but overshadowed by the dark problems of the moment....
"When we had left the presence, one of our number exclaimed, 'Helpless Honesty!' As if Honesty could ever be helpless.")
The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Armenian. Written in the dark on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper, it has been printed in every imaginable form, from the beautiful parchment edition presented to the author on her seventieth birthday by the New England Woman's Club, down to the cover of a tiny brochure advertising a cure for consumption. It has also been set to music many times, but never successfully. It is inseparably wedded to the air for which it was written, an air simple, martial, and dignified: no attempt to divorce the two could ever succeed.
From the time of writing it to that of her death, she was constantly besieged by requests for autograph copies of part or the whole of the hymn. Sometimes the petitioners realized what they asked, as when Edmund Clarence Stedman wrote:
"I can well understand what a Frankenstein's monster such a creation grows to besuch a poem as the 'Battle Hymn,' when it has become the sacred scroll of millions, each one of whom would fain obtain a copy of it."
Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 Volume I. by Laura E. Richards (1850-1943) and Maud Howe Elliott (1854-1948), Assisted by Florence Howe Hall(1845-1922). Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916. (Copyright, 1915.)
Words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic
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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
From the Atlantic Monthly; February 1862; The Battle Hymn of the Republic; Volume 9, No. 52; page 10.
Julia Ward Howe circa 1861
from a photograph
Mrs. Howe In Lawton's Valley
circa 1865, from a painting
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