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Julia Ward Howe had a long career as an abolitionist, writer, and campaigner for women's rights, but funny enough, she made her most famous contribution to American history as the result of a few brief moments of writing early one morning in 1861.
She had rolled out of bed that day with the inspiration to compose new lyrics for a popular Civil War song called "John Brown's Body," which itself was a revised version of an old Methodist spiritual. Howe's lyrics were published in The Atlantic Monthly in early 1862, and the new song quickly became an anthem for the Northern cause.
The revised words to the song—Howe titled her work "Battle Hymn of the Republic"—have remained popular ever since. The hymn has been covered by everyone from Judy Garland to Whitney Houston, and pieces of it even show up in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s beautiful "How Long? Not Long!" speech.
Perhaps most famously, the hymn gave John Steinbeck the title for his highly acclaimed novel The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has become a part of the American national identity in a serious and long-lasting way.
|Artist||Howe, Julia Ward|
|Year||1862 (first published; written in 1861)|
|Writer(s)||Julia Ward Howe|
|Learn to play||Piano|
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" was preceded musically by the hymn "Canaan's Happy Shore" and the military marching tune "John Brown’s Body."
Howe's Civil War hymn has been influencing spiritual writers and patriotic folksingers since the late 19th century.
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity
This wide-ranging study includes a section on the role of music in the democratic and revival-based religion of antebellum America.
Valarie H. Ziegler, Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe
Religious Studies professor Valarie H. Ziegler chronicles Howe's complicated life and the "superwoman's" efforts to meet her private and public responsibilities.
Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910)
Here's Julia Ward Howe, our reformer and writer, in all her glory.
Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876)
Samuel was an abolitionist and husband of Julia Ward Howe.
The Atlantic Monthly, First Publication
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862.
The Civil War (1990)
Ken Burns' award-winning documentary on the Civil War is still one of the best that he has produced. Julia Ward Howe is only mentioned in the prologue, but the second episode explores the political and military context framing Howe's writing of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Julia Ward Howe Site
This useful site contains a biography, a timeline, reading recommendations, and links to many of Howe's writings.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir, "Battle Hymn of the Republic"
This is an award-winning version of the song.
Whitney Houston, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1991)
Houston belts out a jazzed-up version of the song for American troops to waving of American flags.
Judy Garland, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1963)
Garland performs a more traditional version of the song after President John F. Kennedy's assassination. This is a long way from her famous "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Click the play button on the right side of your screen to take a listen.)