The Writing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

With the American Civil War just getting underway in 1861, Americans were called to many duties. One prominent organization to play a part in the war was the Sanitary Commission. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe from Boston, Massachusetts, was appointed to this commission. His duty was to inspect encampments to make sure that conditions did not arise that would foster some of the deadly diseases that could rage through armies.1 Dr. Howe took his wife Julia Ward Howe on many of these inspection tours.

Julia had a good singing voice and had had several poems published. On going to Washington with her husband to review the Army of the Potomac, she travelled through some of the camps during the early evening hours where she would gain some of the imagery for her hymn. ("I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps.")2 Soon she came to be involved in the inspections herself, often going to hospitals and camps to see conditions first hand.

It was in the autumn of 1861 when she was invited to a review of the Union troops. But on the day appointed for the review the army was called to action. As the regiments streamed by her carriage the troops struck up one of their favorite marching hymns, John Brown's Body. The tune of the song came from camp meetings of the early 1800s. The words had spontaneously generated in a Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.3 The troops sang the song with gusto and Mrs. Howe joined in. When the troops had gone by, one of her travelling companions, James Freeman Clark, suggested to Julia that, with her poetic skill, she might put some new lyrics to the tune.

That evening she went to sleep at the Willard Hotel, in Washington. When she woke in the wee hours of the morning, she found new verses were going through her head. She got up, though it was still dark. She did not want to light a lamp because her husband was still asleep, so she wrote the verses in the dark on the back of an official document of the sanitary service. She then submitted it to the Atlantic magazine where it was published in the February 1862 issue. It was given its name "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by James T. Fields, the editor of the magazine.4

From the Atlantic it was soon reprinted in the newspapers and from there found its way into the army camps to be sung by the Union troops as they marched.

< Context of Battle Hymn of the Republic | Trampling Out the Vintage: Analyzing Verse 1 of Battle Hymn of the Republic >

  1. The Sanitary Commission
  2. The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Florence Howe Hall, p.38
  3. History of John Brown's Body
  4. The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Florence Howe Hall, Chapter 4

Interesting Fact:

Julia Ward Howe wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the dark.

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