The Song That Wrote Itself

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One of the great moments for Julia Ward Howe came on Memorial Day in 1899, at the dedication of a Civil War Memorial in Boston. There was drama in the choice of Major General Joseph Wheeler’s carriage, in which she rode. Wheeler had fought on the Confederate side as a topnotch cavalry leader. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, General Wheeler offered his services to McKinley and was appointed a major general in charge of volunteers. He saw active service in Cuba and the Philippines and he was, in 1899, a national hero symbolizing the reunited nation.

In her diary, Mrs. Howe mentioned only that General Wheeler’s daughters rode with her— “very pleasing girls, one very pretty, the other interesting”—but the real story of the greatest ovation she ever received was written by a hard-boiled reporter who had come up from Philadelphia to cover the event. The clipping was pasted into her journal, headed “Philadelphia Press”: “… It was away over any similar celebration I ever saw,” wrote the newsman, who called his piece “Boston Warmed Up.”

“There was nothing mushy or hackneyed about it. It was the real thing. I never imagined possible such genuine sweeping emotion as was awakened by the singing of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ I always knew it to be the greatest thing of its kind ever written, but it never had a fair chance before. It’s the one poem—for it’s a poem—that can make me cry. I’m a blatant fool every time I hear it.

“If Boston’s cold, that song thawed it and heated it to a wild volcano on Tuesday. There was the packed, still house. Myron W. Whitney started to sing. First he bowed to the box and then we first recognized Mrs. Howe seated by the Misses Wheeler. You should have heard the yell! When Vic [Queen Victoria of England] celebrated her eightieth birthday a few days before, she got no ovation equal to that given this octogenarian. You could see the splendid white head trembling; then her voice joined in as Whitney sang: ‘In the glory of the lilies Christ was born across the sea’ and by the time he reached the words, ‘As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ the whole vast audience was on its feet sobbing and singing at the top of its thousands of lungs. If volunteers were really needed for the Philippines McKinley could have had us all right there.”

When Julia Ward Howe died, eleven years later, the song that played the 12th Massachusetts off to war, which she had made into a mighty battle hymn for all Americans, North and South, was sung at her funeral by the blind children from Perkins Institution. Chaplain McCabe and all the others are gone now, too, but the inspiring music with its majestic words still brings back their million marching feet and the red haze of flame and agony in which they died to make men free.