...in 1908, 89-year-old Julia Ward Howe became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Howe lived most of her long life in Boston, but it was in the nation's capital that she wrote the poem for which she is remembered today. After an outing to see the Union Army massed outside of Washington, she was inspired to write new words for an old folk tune. The result, published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1862, was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The song was instantly popular and won Howe admirers throughout the North. After the war, she devoted the next half-century to the cause that was closest to her heart: equality for women.
The daughter of a New York banker, Julia Ward had unusual advantages for a girl born in 1819. She was tutored at home and attended private schools. She had the run of the family's extensive library and art gallery. Bright and precocious, she was still in her teens when she published anonymously her first work of literary criticism.
Julia's Boston-born mother died when she was five. She was 20 when her father, a strict disciplinarian and devout Episcopalian, died. Her far more liberal and permissive uncle became guardian for the Ward children. In 1841, Julia and her two sisters moved to Boston to live with their older brother and his family. Attractive, intelligent, and high-spirited, the Ward sisters fit easily into Boston society. As they made the rounds of parties, balls, musicales, and literary evenings, they became acquainted with the city's elite. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reported that Julia was "enjoying herself much in Boston, and making many friends and admirers."
Julia Ward was fun loving but she was also intellectually ambitious. Under the influence of men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, and Theodore Parker, she was introduced to new ideas and embraced new causes. She met and deeply admired reform-minded writers such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody. With encouragement from her Boston friends, Julia Ward began to let other people read the poetry she was writing.
In 1841, Julia met the dashing Samuel Gridley Howe, a 40-year-old Bostonian who had fought in the Greek War for Independence. She had read his book on the Greek Revolution, and when friends took her to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where he was director, was immediately attracted to him. A serious man, with an interest in reform, he soon won Julia's heart. They were married in 1843.
It was a troubled union from the beginning. Samuel Howe was egotistical and overbearing; although he was deeply committed to his ideals and causes, he wanted his brilliant, witty, well-educated young wife to live in social isolation and to attend strictly to her domestic duties. Julia Ward Howe bore six children in the first 12 years of her marriage. She continued to publish poems, even without her husband's approval.
When she anonymously published a collection of poems in 1854, she confessed to her sister that her husband "was very angry about the book and I really thought at one time he would drive me to insanity, so horribly did he behave." Later she confided to her journal, "I have been married twenty years today. In the course of that time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued."
The Howes' relationship was strongest when shared work drew them together. Both were actively involved in abolitionism, and they published an anti-slavery paper together. Samuel Howe gradually allowed his wife to assume a more public role. In 1857 she published another book of poems and a play.
When the Civil War began, the Howes traveled to Washington to help with the war effort. One afternoon they were returning to the city from watching a Union Army parade. After singing patriotic songs, including the popular "John Brown's Body," it was suggested that the poetically inclined Mrs. Howe should write more dignified lyrics for the old folk tune.
Julia later recalled that she awoke in the night with the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" forming in her mind. She sent the poem to the Atlantic Monthly, and it appeared in the February 1862 issue of the magazine. Julia Ward Howe earned five dollars for her work, but the real reward was the song's immense, instant and, as it turned out, lasting popularity.
Now that she enjoyed a national reputation, Julia Ward Howe began to travel the lecture circuit. She had a natural talent for public speaking and won converts to whatever cause she was promoting. With her children grown, Howe devoted her considerable energies to organizational and reform work, especially on behalf of women. She founded the New England Women's Club, one of the first woman's clubs in the country, and was a leader in the woman suffrage movement.
Like many woman suffragists, she believed women had a special role to play in bringing about world peace. In the 1870s she helped organize meetings in New York and later in London, calling for a "general congress of women to promote the alliance of different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, and the general promotion of peace." In spite of her dogged efforts on behalf of the Women's Peace Congress, it never came to fruition. One lasting legacy of her "appeal to womanhood" was the forerunner of Mother's Day Mother's Peace Day, which she initiated in 1872.
In 1908, Julia Ward Howe was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. By this time, she was known and admired around the nation. In Boston, she was treated almost as royalty. As one biographer put it, "people of all ranks and races, of all creeds and colors, regarded her as their friend and benefactor. No important birthday celebration, memorial service or other public gathering of the type cherished by Victorian Boston was complete unless she were seated in a place of honor on the platform."
When Julia Ward Howe died in 1910, she was eulogized as "the Queen of America" and the "Dearest Old Lady in America." Today she is best remembered as the woman who wrote the words to the song that became the anthem of the Union cause, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe, by George William (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, by Deborah Clifford (Little Brown and Co. 1979).
Notable American Womenž Vol. II.
Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819 to 1868, by Mary Grant (Carlson Publishers, 1994).