On January 28, 1908, author and activist Julia Ward Howe, famous for her composition, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Born in New York City in 1819, Howe expressed her ambition to become a writer early on. She married social activist and reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843. By the mid-1850s Julia strongly supported her husband’s embrace of the abolitionist movement and they soon saw the inevitability of war. In late 1861, the couple was among a group visiting Washington, D.C., to appraise the status of Union troop morale after the First Battle of Bull Run.
On November 18, 1861, Howe’s party was invited to review the Union troops outside of Washington. A sudden Confederate attack disrupted the proceedings. During the return trip to Washington, the Howes’ carriage was surrounded by Union troops who joined them in singing popular Army songs of the time. These events became the inspiration for Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She wrote the poem to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” a marching song popular among Union soldiers. Published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, the author received just a few dollars for the piece. Although soldiers were reluctant to abandon their improvised verse to the popular folk song, the poem proved popular among civilians in the North. Soon “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” rang out at public gatherings above the Mason-Dixon line.
After the war, Julia Howe worked for women’s rights, prison reform, and sex education. In 1868, she co-founded the New England Women’s Club. She also served as a leader of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). After a long life of public service, Howe died in 1910.
The National Institute of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 by the American Social Science Association to advance the interests of literature and fine arts in the United States. The Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in 1904 as a division of the Institute, merged with its parent organization in 1976 to become the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Each year, fifty individuals are awarded the distinction of election to the Academy. Howe was the first woman elected to both the Institute, in 1907, and the Academy.
- Read other works by Julia Ward Howe. Search the Making of America collection from Cornell University to find poetry, opinion articles and a 6-part series, “Reminiscences of Julia Ward Howe” published in popular periodicals of the time such as The Atlantic Monthly and The North American Review.
- Learn a Civil War song. During the Civil War era, Americans learned the latest songs from printed song sheets. America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets contains several copies of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” including one commemorating the twenty-ninth anniversary of the American Anti-slavery Society. Search on Civil War to locate additional songs from that era. Visit The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana and the Civil War Sheet Music Collection. These collections include more than two thousand sheet-music compositions that show Lincoln and the Civil War reflected in popular music. “Abraham’s Covenant: A New Battle Song” is one of many pieces written to inspire soldiers and civilians.
- Listen to a Civil War song. Search on Civil War in California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties to locate recordings of Civil War songs including “The Faded Coat of Blue” and “Lily Dale.” The “Patriotic Melodies” collection tells the stories behind many of the songs that have now become part of the American national heritage. Included are recordings of ” Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.”
- Read about the suffrage movement. Search the collection Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921 on American Woman Suffrage Association to explore the history of this organization, led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Howe. In 1890, the AWSA and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged to become The National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911 contain many clippings documenting the activities of Julia Ward Howe in her later life such as the “celebration of her 90th birthday.”
- Discover other suffragists, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Search Today in History on suffrage.