With a legacy as author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and as a thought leader, Julia Ward Howe influenced the course of the Civil War. She traveled throughout Europe and America, raised a family and helped win women the right to vote. Executive is pleased to welcome Julia Ward Howe in this time machine interview.
EL: You have lived an amazing life. You’ve been called a builder.
Howe: I am confirmed in my division of human energies. Ambitious people climb, but faithful people build.
EL: What would you think if, more than 100 years from now, your best-known work would be “The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?
Howe: I would be pleased if my countrymen still would be willing to “die to make men free.” You know, I sent that poem in 1861 to James Fields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. I said, “Fields! Do you want this?” He did. He took it.
EL: It was widely sung by 1883.
Howe: Before it was published, I had thought there was nothing I could contribute to the war effort. I remember well the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep blue eyes. Much later I understood that I had made a contribution, a few words to strengthen the hearts of those who fought.
EL: Those words: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Where did they come from?
Howe: The day before I wrote that hymn, my husband and I were visiting in Washington and we rode out to attend a review of the Union troops at Baileys Crossroads. On our way back to town, we sang that new soldiers’ song, “John Brown’s Body.” We also saw the ambulances and the orderlies, the ghastly toll of war. I began writing at dawn.
EL: You also are known as a leader among women.
Howe: Women must rise. When I see their elaborate study and ingenuity in the pursuit of trifles, I feel no doubt of their capacity for the most herculean undertakings.
EL: You agreed with your late husband on important matters—in fact, he helped fund John Brown’s rebellion—but your husband tried to crush your aspirations. Why?
Howe: I still cannot fathom it. I never opposed him in anything because it would have been useless. I could not struggle with so fierce an opponent. But in 33 years of marriage, I never knew my husband to approve any act of mine. Everything was contemptible in his eyes because it was not his way of doing things.
Howe: My life has been a true expression of my faith. Why would I fear anyone? I have stuck to my resolution of writing what I thought, no matter whom it offended. God forgive me if I was wrong.
Sources: Reminiscences: 1819-1899, Julia Ward Howe, Harvard College Press; “A poet’s voice that would not be silenced,” Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post; womenshistory.about.com; and www.juliawardhowe.com. (Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons, top photo circa 1861; photo at right circa 1908.)