Monday, September 14, 2015

Julia Ward Howe

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Though I know this is a blog about the Southwest, I decided to diverge a little to a well-known woman of the late 20th Century, Julia Ward Howe.  I learned of Mrs. Howe in a book I’ve had for 20 years, TREASURY OF GREAT HYMNS AND THEIR STORIES by Guye Johnson.  My question at this time is, do you know what Great Hymn Mrs. Howe wrote? (no googling if you don’t know already.)

Julia Ward Howe was born May 27, 1819 in New York City. Her father was a prominent banker and Julia was born not only into a life of privilege and wealth, but of strict Calvinist beliefs as well. However, when her mother died while Julia was still young, she went to live with an aunt. After her father’s death, her guardian was a more liberal uncle and her own views grew less stringent.  She was not given a formal education, but was instead taught at home where she took an early interest in writing.

At the age of 21 she married a much older Samuel Howe who was a pioneer for the education of the blind. He was a radical Unitarian and was part of the circle know as the transcendentalists.  He married the free-thinking Julia, in admiration of her quick mind, wit and commitment to the causes she believed in.  However, he also believed that it was a married woman’s job to take care of hearth and home, forgoing any life or interests outside of the home, and certainly she should not speak publically or being active any causes.

Trapped in a marriage that was far from happy, Julia turned to educating herself and raising her six children (four of whom lived to adulthood).  She studied philosophy and learned several languages.  Eventually, she did become involved in writing and public life.

Both Samuel and Julia were strong supports of the abolition movement and Julia support woman’s rights with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Her writings included poems, plays, essays and letters in support of suffrage, an end to slavery, prison reform and peace. The plays and poems she wrote further angered her husband, because it was obvious that her writings of alienation and even violence alluded to her own marriage. However, her writings were popular and well received and she continued on with them despite her husband’s protests.

In 1861, Julia and Samuel, along with their pastor, Dr. James Freeman Clarke, were invited to Washington, DC to watch a review of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. As they watched, the troops began to sing “John Brown’s Body.” It is said that Dr. Clarke, knowing of Julia’s poetry, told her “This is a good marching tune, Julia. Why don’t you write better words for it?”

Julia later wrote, "I replied that I had often wished to do so.... In spite of the excitement of the day I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me."

When she returned to Boston, she showed her poem to the editor of The Atlanta Monthly, who paid her either $4 or $5 (the amount is in dispute) and suggest the appropriate title. The poem was set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” and its popularity is attributed Charles C. McCabe, “the Signing Chaplain.” After he was captured by the Confederates and imprisoned in Libby Prison, it is said that prisoners were mistakenly told that the Union had suffered a loss of 40,000 men as well as a defeat. Once they learned that the Union had actually won the battle, McCabe began to sing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and the other prisoners joined in the chorus, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

Following his release from prison, McCabe went to Washington, DC to speak before the Christian Commission.  There he recounted his prison experience and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  The audience exploded in applause and President Lincoln, tears streaming down his face, requested an encore.  McCabe later sang the song at several of Lincoln’s memorial services.

The hymn became the unofficial anthem of the Union military for the remainder of the war.

Julia and her husband were also involved in the Sanitation Commission; its purpose was to promote clean and healthy conditions in the Union Army camps. The Sanitary Commission staffed field hospitals, raised money, provided supplies, and worked to educate the military and government on matters of health and sanitation. After the war, Julia continued her sanitation work, building on the efforts of Ann Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who had, since 1858, attempted to start a movement to improve sanitation through what she called Mothers' Work Days.

Using Ana’s idea, Julia pushed to have a Mother’s Day for Peace. She wanted women to come together across national lines, to recognize what they held in common above what divided them, and commit to finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts. She issued a Declaration, hoping to gather together women in a congress of action. Unfortunately, her efforts failed.

Her labors for women’s rights and suffrage did much better and in 1868, she helped found the New England Suffrage Association. After disagreements the group split into two camps and Julia joined Lucy Stone to establish the American Women Suffrage Association.  

In 1870 she helped Lucy and her husband, Henry Blackwell, found the Woman's Journal, remaining with the journal as an editor and writer for twenty years. She pulled together a series of essays by writers of the time, disputing theories that held that women were inferior to men and required a separate education. This defense of women's rights and education appeared in 1874 as Sex and Education.

Samuel died in 1876, confessing to his wife on his death bed that he had had several affairs throughout their marriage. After his death, Julia traveled Europe and the Middle East for two years.   

After her return to America and until her death in 1910, Julia remained very active in social causes, but none were more dear to her than women’s rights.  She helped to form several clubs and organizations, managed to help reconcile the two rival suffrage groups, wrote a biography on Margaret Fuller and participated in events at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair).

In 1909, Julia received an honorary degree at Brown University, Rhode Island and in 1910, at the age of 91, she received an honorary degree from Smith College. At the ceremony, Howe was hailed as "Poet and patriot, lover of letters and learning; advocate for over half a century in print and living speech of great causes of human liberty."

She became the first woman elected to the Society of Arts and Letters, and the biography of her, written by her children, won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition, Julia Ward Howe wrote travel books, children's fiction and music. Oscar Wilde paid her a visit in Newport. William Dean Howell's regretted not knowing her better. Emerson wished she were from Boston. And Samuel Clemens was a cohort and friend. Julia Ward Howe's letters and diaries read like a who’s-who of 19th century history, and her ideas are as pertinent today as they were during her own lifetime.

She died on October 17, 1910, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Four thousand people attended her memorial service and Samuel G. Eliot, head of the American Unitarian Association, gave the eulogy at her funeral.

Credits: Novel: The Hermaphrodite, Poetry:  Passion for Flowers (1854) and Words for the Hour (1857) and Play: Leonora, or the World's Own (1857)



Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. Thank you for a fascinating post. Admittedly, I had not heard of Julia Ward Howe. But having read your post, I plan to change that. I grew up in RI and lived there for 36 years before moving to FL. I'm familiar with Portsmouth, and Newport is one of my favorite places.

  2. I read your post early this morning before I left the house for several hours. Now I will comment.
    This is a wonderful post. Of course, I know the tune and some of the words to "John Brown's Body Lies Smoldering in the Grave..etc....but could not connect the tune to any other song. So when I read it was the tune for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, I got goosebumps. This afternoon? The tune is stuck in my head...on and on.
    I didn't know HBS wrote the hymn. Fantastic. Thanks for starting my day off so nicely.

  3. How amazing it is to me that women who are not treated well by their husbands get more done than those who are content. I certainly love the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I had no idea she wrote those heart stirring words. I also had no idea it was the same tune as used in John Brown's Body--maybe because the lyrics are so very different. This was a fine blog, Anna. I really did enjoy reading the part where she had a lovely time traveling after her husband died, too.
    All the very best to you.

  4. Julia Ward Howe was an amazing woman. I admire her determination and courage. Thank you for telling us more about her.

  5. Good evening, everyone. Thanks for stopping by. I agree with Sarah, it's amazing how women managed to make their mark in the world despite not only societies restrictions, but their own families. I read in my research that when her husband died, she wrote in her diary, "I am free."

  6. Lovely post, Anna Kathryn. I didn't know all the facts about her. What an unhappy marriage she must have endured. I am glad she was able to enjoy herself after her husband died.

  7. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for stopping by. I've read several biographies of 'forward thinking women' whose husbands admired them for their forward thinking, then suppressed them at home. How sad.

  8. Wow, thanks for all the details on this fascinating woman. I so admire our strong foremothers. I am so glad women today, or at least I think and hope so, are not married so such Neanderthals.

  9. Hi, Tanya. I so agree. It's amazing that the women weren't completely worn down by the men's way of thinking.


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