The Song That Wrote Itself

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As their train pulled into the capital, Julia Ward Howe caught her first glimpse of the huge army which had made Washington an armed camp. Along the roadbed she saw the faces of pickets caught for an instant in the light of their campfires, and her first impression of the city was of soldiers everywhere. “Mounted officers and orderlies galloped to and fro,” she recalled, while men marched incessantly through the dusty streets. Ambulances weaved back and forth through the traffic of hacks and private carriages, and outside her window at the Willard Hotel a billboard advertised the embalming and shipping of soldiers’ bodies to their homes.

There was in the city an air of confidence and cheerfulness, none the less. A few days after his arrival, Dr. Howe wrote home to his twelve-year-old daughter Laura: “Your Mama is having a delightful time: for the weather is delicious: there are expeditions every day, to camps, to objects of curiosity. In the evening there are many people gathered in the salon of the Hotel and all the people who can appreciate talent and wit and conversational power are sure to be drawn to her. …”

One of the high points of their stay was an interview with the President. Mrs. Howe recorded a vivid impression of Lincoln seated on a sofa, directly below Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. While the men talked of war and politics, she occupied herself in contrasting Washington’s calm features on canvas with Lincoln’s furrowed cheek and brow. “The President was laboring at this time under a terrible pressure of doubt and anxiety,” she said. “I remember well the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep blue eyes.” They were, she thought, “the only feature of his face which could be called other than plain.”

On November 18, 1861, a picnic was planned for Mrs. Howe and the other members of Governor Andrew’s party. Supplied with a carriage and coachman and a hamper of lunch, off they went to see a review of the troops which took place “some distance from town,” as Mrs. Howe described it. Actually, it was across the Potomac in territory occupied until recently by Confederates. Carriage alter carriage filled with gentlemen in high silk hats and ladies in crinolines, drove out of town over the bridge and along the narrow road.

To everyone’s dismay, the review was interrupted by the appearance of southern skirmishers, and Mrs. Howe watched “a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat.” Her coachman wheeled the carriage around and headed for Washington at a gallop—a pace which soon became a crawl as all the other drivers attempted the same thing and troops marched back along the same road. Although she heard the bugle sound retreat, apparently Mrs. Howe was unaware of the danger, and she remembered that “to beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time, snatches of the army songs so popular at that time.” One of them was the song she had heard the 12th Massachusetts sing when the Civil War first began: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on.”

Julia Ward Howe had a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. In girlhood she had had musical training equal to that of an opera star, and as she joined in the singing the soldiers called out, “Good for you, Ma’am.”

The Reverend Mr. Clarke leaned forward to speak to her.

“Why don’t you write some good words for that stirring tune?” he asked.

“I have often wished to do so,” she replied.

That night, Julia Ward Howe went to bed at the Willard Hotel and “as usual slept soundly.” Troops marched in the streets below but she was not conscious of hearing them. “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight,” she recalled, “and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the poem began to twine themselves” in her mind.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord …” —line by line, like the measured cadence of marching feet she had heard so often, the words began to come to her. Intermingled with some of the great phrases of the Old Testament was a vision of the long blue lines, the pickets huddled around campfires, and the righteousness, the anger, and the dream which the nation’s youth had taken into battle.