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Definition: Howe, Julia Ward from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

née

Ward

1819-1910

US feminist, reformer and writer

Born in New York, a wealthy banker's daughter, she became a prominent suffragette and abolitionist, and founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association (1868) and the New England Women's Club (1868). She published several volumes of poetry, including Passion Flowers (1854) and Words for the Hour (1857), as well as travel books and a play. She also wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862, published in Atlantic Monthly), and edited Woman's Journal (1870-90). In 1908 she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was married to Samuel Gridley Howe.

  • Richards, L Julia Ward Howe (1916).

Summary Article: JULIA WARD HOWE (1819-1910) from Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia

A poet, author, and abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe is best known for writing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the rallying song for the North during the Civil War. Born and raised in New York City, she moved to Boston in 1843 upon marrying Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind and an ardent abolitionist. Unhappy in her new surroundings and prohibited by her husband from participating in public reform work, she attended lectures; privately studied foreign languages, religion, and philosophy; and wrote poetry and drama while maintaining a household with children.

In the 1850s, while embarking upon a literary career, Howe became a convert to abolitionism. Having been raised in a family that feared abolitionism as a threat to society, she became thoroughly convinced in her thirties that it was a just and necessary cause. Although she supported ending slavery, she did not believe in racial equality. She thought that freed slaves would have to be trained, educated, and “refined by white culture” in order to be more than “the laziest of brutes.” Her derogatory comments about blacks, published in her book A Trip to Cuba (1860), drew public criticism from fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Howe wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on November 19, 1861, while in Washington, D.C., with her husband to distribute supplies to Massachusetts regiments. Seeing Union troops return from the battlefield and personally witnessing President Lincoln’s sadness over the war deeply affected her. She wrote the “Battle Hymn” as her personal contribution to the Union cause, and upon returning to Boston, she submitted it to the Atlantic Monthly for publication. The magazine’s editor, James T. Fields, gave the poem its title and published it on the cover page of the February 1862 issue. In April 1862 Oliver Ditson and Company published sheet music setting the poem to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” a song already popular among Union troops. Not long after its publication, regiments throughout the North were singing the new “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In the work, Howe used biblical imagery from both the Old and the New Testaments to depict a powerful, wrathful God marching alongside Union troops to the battlefield. She depicted a God who “sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat” and “loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” God marched with the Union to preserve truth and justice, and “crush the serpent [symbol of the South] with his heel.” In the last of the song’s five verses, Howe gave the Union the emotional boost it needed to legitimize and continue the war by proclaiming it a crusade to end slavery. Referring to Christ, she wrote, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.” The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” remained popular even after the Civil War and was a serious contender for the national anthem until 1931 when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was chosen instead.

See also: Abolitionism in the United States; Garrison, William Lloyd.

For Further Reading
  • Clifford, Deborah Pickman. 1979. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Grant, Mary H. 1994. Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819 to 1868. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.
  • Ream, Debbie Williams. 1993. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” American History Illustrated 27 (1): 60-64.
  • Mary Jo Miles
    Copyright 2007 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

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