The Song That Wrote Itself

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“I must get up and write these verses before I forget them,” she told herself, and she “found in the dimness an old stump of a pen” and some of her husband’s writing paper with the letterhead of the Sanitary Commission on it. Later it seemed to Mrs. Howe as if the poem had come to her as a revelation from a source beyond herself. She had good reason to think so. For years she had studied and practiced the art of poetry, counting the syllables, laboring over her rhymes, working for hours on a single stanza. In this whole original manuscript she crossed out or changed only four words, and a final stanza was discarded because it spoiled the climax. With almost no conscious effort the poem sprang into being. After writing it down, she fell asleep for awhile, and when she awoke she could remember what had happened but found that she had forgotten the words. Although she felt humble in the presence of this miracle, Mrs. Howe little realized the importance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Regarding her “Battle Hymn” as a poem rather than a song, Julia Ward Howe sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in February, 1862. It was, she said, “somewhat praised,” and the editors sent her a check for four dollars.

The stories vary as to when the army began singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Probably it was taken up simultaneously by more than one regiment, largely through the efforts of Chaplain Charles Cardwell McCabe of the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. A good-looking man with a fine baritone voice and dramatic ability, McCabe read the poem in the Atlantic and was so impressed with it that he memorized the words. Marching along with the Ohioans, he taught them the “Battle Hymn” to the melody he doubtless knew already as a hymn tune.

But it was back in the South again that the song came into its own. Captured at Winchester, McCabe was sent to Libby Prison along with hundreds of other northern troops herded together in a great bare room. One night their jailers told them the rumor of a great Confederate victory, a complete disaster for the North. Wondering where, and how, and why, the Union prisoners sat dejected on the floor, talking quietly, if at all. Suddenly a Negro who brought food to the men leaned over and whispered to one of the groups. The rumor was a lie, he said: there had been a great victory, but the North had won it, at a place called Gettysburg. Like wildfire the news flashed through the prison. Men jumped to their feet, cheering, crying, embracing one another hysterically, and in the center of the room Chaplain McCabe stood up and with his great voice began to sing: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” As he came to the chorus, every voice joined in, and the walls of Libby prison echoed to the thankful words of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” as few other men could have sung them.

When McCabe was exchanged some time later, broken in health, he set about raising money for the Christian Commission. Someone told Mrs. Howe of a large meeting in Washington, attended by the President, where McCabe told of his wartime experiences. When he spoke of that night in Libby Prison he raised his voice once again in the “Battle Hymn.” “The effect was magical, people shouted, wept, and sang together … and above the applause was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, exclaiming while the tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘Sing it again!’ ”

Julia Ward Howe was now becoming a famous woman, although, immersed in war work in Boston, she scarcely realized that people all over the country knew her name. Making an entry in his journal, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I honor the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. … She was born in New York City. I could well wish she were a native of New England. We have no such poetess in New England.”

After the war, Mrs. Howe became interested in the plight of war widows and fatherless girls in need of a livelihood, turned her energies to the struggle for higher education and the opening of professions to women, and became an influential leader in the woman’s suffrage movement. She continued to write, turning out travel books, essays, and poetry, but no poem she wrote ever again reached the heights of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and her books seem hardly readable today. In her long life—she was born in 1819 and died in 1910—Mrs. Howe never served a cause that was small or personal, and she was, in her last years, one of America’s most admired and best-loved women.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was always sung for her when she appeared at public gatherings, becoming, in a very real sense, her theme song. No audience was likely to forget the sound of that music, the soaring words which captured the deepest emotions of the nation, and the sight of the handsome white-haired woman who had given it to them.