As the Civil War raged in 1861, Julia Ward Howe penned a poem that first appeared in The Atlantic monthly magazine on February 1, 1862.
With February being Black History Month, the importance of her 160-year-old work continues to resonate today.
Titled “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by the magazine’s editor, Howe’s poem defined the emotions of the nation – or at least the Northern half of it. An abolitionist and social reformer from New York, the magazine paid Howe $5 for the right to publish the piece, which originally contained no byline. When she did receive credit, it brought her an adoration that continues to this day.
Set to the tune of a song of the day, “John Brown’s Body,” Howe’s words embodied the anti-slavery movement in the North and challenged Americans to fight to end the inhumane and horrific practice of slavery. She penned an anthem that, in essence, demanded Americans live up to their own Declaration of Independence, which stated, “… all men are created equal.”
Indeed, Francis Scott Key ended his “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814 with “… the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but it applied only to whites for five more decades.
In 1863 – a year after Howe’s poem first appeared – President Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation,” a largely symbolic edict that bore no power until after the war ended in 1865, finally ending slavery as an institution in this country as well.
Parts of the poem’s first stanza later appeared in two iconic writings. In 1939 – 77 years after Howe’s poem first appeared – John Steinbeck titled his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath” in a tribute to Howe’s line, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
Then, on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. closed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” – the final speech of his life – by reciting her words, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” A day later, he was shot and killed as he stood on the second-floor landing of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Howe’s advocacy for equality did not end with the Civil War. She became a voting rights advocate, co-founding the American Women Suffrage Association that backed the 15th Amendment. In doing so, she broke with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady of the National Woman Suffrage Association, which opposed the Amendment because it gave voting rights to Black men, but not to women. Congress ratified the 15th Amendment in 1869. Women had to wait until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920, before they could vote.
Howe died at 91 in 1910.
The words she wrote in 1861 – words that became America’s anthem of freedom during the Civil War – continue to march on today.
Listen to the U.S. Army Field Band sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.