- Historic Sites
The Song That Wrote Itself
Mrs. Howe jotted down the “Battle Hymn” in haste, but she lived to hear a nation sing it, and went to her grave to its tune
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Just four days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, the 12th Massachusetts marched through the streets of Boston on their way to the Worcester and Western Railroad Station. Every one of them was a volunteer, and proud of it, and everything that was youth and eagerness and adventure was in the air that April day as they passed in review for the crowds to see and cheer. This was the great crusade, and the boys in new blue uniforms, with their glistening guns and bright bayonets, were on the march to make things right.
As this segment of the army of America’s youth stepped off on what it confidently considered the road to glory, all the ingredients of romance and chivalry went with it. Their cause was just; they had a shining new silk flag to follow, and a band as good as any regiment could boast. To cap it all, they had a song—a truly great marching song that every outfit in the Union Army would be singing before long.
Not many of these troops knew it, but this music had been composed by a southerner named William Steffe. It had started life about ten years earlier as a camp meeting hymn in Charleston, South Carolina, and Steffe called it “Say Brothers Will We Meet You Over on the Other Shore?” One way or another, the regulars of the 2nd U.S. Infantry had picked up the melody, fitted new words to it, and brought it along with them to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. That was where the 12th Massachusetts learned it, and anyone who saw them on their way to war and heard them boom out the words, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on,” could tell it was their favorite.
No one quite knew where the train would take them, but nearly everyone in Boston was out to see them get on it. Somewhere in the crowd that day was a small, attractive woman, just past forty, and the song she heard the soldiers sing was one she never forgot.
In the Boston of 1861, only a stranger would have asked who Julia Ward Howe was, but the replies would have been as varied as the points of view. Most people knew her as a staunch opponent of slavery and the wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, reformer, abolitionist, and director of Perkins Institution for the Blind.
Old friends from Park and Beacon streets had a different version. Mrs. Howe had been the wealthy Julia Ward of Bond Street, New York. Her father was Samuel Ward, head of the great banking firm of Prime, Ward & King. She was related to the Astors by a marriage of her colorful brother Sam Ward, forty-niner, Wall Street plunger, and playmate of princes. An authentic New York belle, red-haired Miss Julia Ward had descended upon Boston society several times a year to captivate young men with her operatic voice and wicked wit, and nearly everything she did both shocked and fascinated her father’s Boston friends.
Other acquaintances remembered Julia Ward Howe as a poet, whose first-published book, Passion Flowers, had set Boston on its collective ear. This was followed by a short-lived play produced in New York, which had tongues wagging all the faster. It was about a “fallen woman!”
Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe looked upon his wife’s achievements with decidedly mixed feelings, perhaps because he shared her capacity for causing comment. Older Bostonians recalled the doctor as a dashing young hero who, spurred on by the example of Byron and a blighted love affair, had sailed to aid the Greeks against Turkish oppression. He never met Byron—his hero died before he arrived—but Dr. Howe bought the poet’s helmet at an auction of his effects and brought it home with him after serving six years in the Greek cause. He returned also with a well-earned Knight of St. George Cross—to be called “Chevalier” by his friends. All this was behind him when, at the age of 42, he married the 24-year-old New York heiress Julia Ward.
Dr. Howe was as handsome as the hero of a Nineteenth-Century novel, and he was endowed with a diversity of gifts. Turning his back on military adventure, he devoted himself to the teaching of blind children, and his pupil Laura Bridgman was the first blind and deaf child to learn to communicate with the world around her. All patience and gentleness with the blind, Dr. Howe nevertheless could not ride in his carriage without shouting at the coachman to drive faster.
When news of the fall of Sumter reached Boston, it was like him to write Governor Andrew: “If I can be of any use … (save that of spy), command me.” The doctor was now sixty years old and got no war horse to ride, but he was appointed to the United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross, and to this task he devoted his enormous vigor. His first assignment was in Washington, as a member of a commission to supervise the distribution of supplies for Massachusetts volunteers, whither, in November, 1861, he went with Governor Andrew, Mrs. Andrew, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, and Mrs. Howe.