Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) gave the United States — and the world — some of the most inspirational words ever written. 

She penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in November 1861, during a wartime tour of Washington, D.C., as Americans realized with gloom that the seven-month-old Civil War would be longer, darker and deadlier than anticipated. 

Howe's masterpiece has been called America's fight song. Its lyrics inspired the United States to spiritual resolve and sacrifice. 

The words tell the biblically heroic story of Union soldiers marching to their death in the name of Christ to vanquish slavery: 

As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
His truth is marching on


The lyrics are often altered in modern performances to "let us live to make men free." Yet some 360,000 federal soldiers, according to the American Battlefield Trust, answered the call to martyrdom in the name of human liberty. Their sacrifice freed 4 million Americans from bondage. Hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers died in the conflict, too.

The "glory, glory hallelujah" chorus of "The Battle Hymn" is today one of the most familiar refrains in world music. 

Writer and activist Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which includes some of the most inspirational words ever written.  (Bettmann Archive)

But many people have forgotten the rest of the tune and its impassioned Christian call to arms — even willfully erased it in certain circles of the American political spectrum. Many recent accounts of the song gloss over its foundations.

Howe’s imagery is unmistakable, though; the song was deeply informed by her literary Christian upbringing. 

Flickering campfires in "The Battle Hymn" are the light of the Lord; encampments are altars where soldiers pray "in the evening dews and damp"; glimmering bayonets formed for battle reflect the "fiery Gospel." Slavery is an Old Testament serpent to be crushed beneath the heel of Jesus Christ.

The song was deeply informed by Howe's literary Christian upbringing.

The famous second line — "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored" — is a plea for divine justice inspired by the Book of Revelation. (John Steinbeck lifted the phrase "The Grapes of Wrath" straight from Howe's pen when naming his 1939 American epic novel.)

‘The word of the hour’

The song was a sensation, embraced by soldiers in the field and beloved by ordinary Americans, legendary performers and world leaders for 160 years. 

"The Battle Hymn" was "sung, chanted, recited and used in exhortation of prayer on the eve of battle," Howe later wrote. "It was the word of the hour, and the Union armies marched to its swing."


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir won a Grammy and enjoyed its only chart hit with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in 1960. 

Elvis Presley closed his glitzy late-career performances with his impassioned "American Trilogy," featuring "The Battle Hymn." 

Mormon Tabernacle Choir of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sings in the Conference Center at the morning session of the two-day Mormon church conference in Salt Lake City. Mormons will hear guidance and inspiration from the religion's top leaders during a church conference this weekend in Salt Lake City as well as getting an update about church membership statistics.

In this Oct. 1, 2016, file photo, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sings in the Conference Center at the morning session of the Mormon church conference in Salt Lake City.  (AP Photo/George Frey, File)

Flag-waving Whitney Houston electrified sailors returning from the Gulf War with her spirited live version of "The Battle Hymn" in 1991, just months after her iconic Super Bowl performance of the national anthem.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Ronald Reagan are among the song’s most famous fans. 

Reagan was reduced to tears by the power of "The Battle Hymn" on Jan. 20, 1981, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed it during his inauguration parade.

"In times of danger and thanksgiving, ‘The Battle Hymn’ is now, as it was in the [1860s], the fitting vehicle of the national feeling," Howe's daughter, Florence Howe Hall, wrote in her 1916 book, "The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic." 

And in the days after 9/11, the nation instinctively rallied around "The Battle Hymn" in churches and in public performances, proving that the song speaks to the spirit of the American people through the ages. 

Bright, inquisitive young woman

Julia Ward Howe was born May 27, 1819, in apparent comfort in New York City to Julia Rush Cutler and Samuel Ward III. Her mother was a published poet, her father a prominent Manhattan businessman. 

Among other achievements, her father was one of the founders of what’s now known as New York University, as well as a leader of the New York Temperance Society, a devout Christian and a prominent fundraiser for the Episcopal Church, according to various sources. 

She published poems and essays as a young person in her 20s. 

Family wealth afforded the bright, inquisitive young woman access to literature and the great minds of her time. She published poems and essays as a young person in her 20s. 

The Ward family descended from notable lineage that included several American patriots. The family traced its name to a Captain Ward of Normandy who accompanied William the Conquerer on his invasion of England in 1066, according to the 1917 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "Julia Ward Howe," written by her daughters, Laura E. Richards, Maud Howe Elliott and Florence Howe Hall — who also wrote the book about the song itself. 


John Ward, of Gloucester, England, the first of the family to arrive in America, was cavalry officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army in the late 1600s before settling in Newport, R.I. Julia's great-grandfather, Samuel Ward, was governor of the Rhode Island colony and a member of the Continental Congress. He died of smallpox in Philadelphia four months before America declared independence, his death at the Congress recorded by John Adams

His son, Samuel Ward Jr., Julia's grandfather, was a hero of the American Revolution. He survived capture by the British and then the "snows and starvation of the winter camp" at Valley Forge alongside George Washington

Julia Ward "inherited many traits from the Wards, among them a force and integrity of purpose, a strength of character," her children wrote.

She married acclaimed Boston doctor Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843. Among other achievements, Howe in 1829 founded the Perkins School for the Blind, the first of its kind in the nation in Watertown, Mass. It's still in operation today. 

Julia spent much of her adult life living in Boston while traveling overseas and dining with literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens. 

Yet her marriage was troubled, unhappy and intellectually stifling for the spirited woman.

UGA's "Glory, Glory" fight song

"Glory, Glory" is a beloved tradition in University of George football, set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Fans reverently point to a trumpet soloist who introduces the song before each home game. (University of Georgia)

"Howe’s husband disapproved of her literary ambitions and dictated her behavior, but he also remained physically and emotionally distant," according to a National Park Service biography. 

Howe, 18 years older than his wife, died in 1876, when Julia was just 56 years old. She painted her widowhood as a liberating event. 

Howe "began her new life today," she wrote the day after his funeral, making the most of living out the next 35 years on her own terms. 

Julia Ward Howe inherited … a force and integrity of purpose, a strength of character.

Notably, she spent years as one of the leading voices for women's suffrage, while championing the role of mothers in American society. She was the first president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association and a key figure in the Boston-based American Woman Suffrage Association. 


She penned an appeal in 1870, known as The Mother's Day Proclamation, inviting women around the world to unite for peace in the wake of the terrible human carnage of the Civil War. 

"The mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering," Howe, a mother of six, proclaimed. Her efforts helped lead to Mother's Day celebrations enjoyed around the world today.  

‘Wished-for lines were arranging themselves’

Julia and her husband toured wartime Washington, D.C., in November 1861, with Dr. Howe on duty for the federal Sanitary Commission at a time when filth and disease were deadly issues in military camps. The writer enjoyed divine inspiration the night of Nov. 18, while staying at Willard's Hotel. 

"I awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain," she later recorded. "I began to scrawl the lines almost without looking … Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me."

Hotel where Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn"

This illustration shows President Franklin Pierce leaving Washington, D.C., landmark Willard's Hotel in a horse-drawn carriage in 1853. Julia Ward Howe penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at this same hotel eight years later — after awaking from a dream.  (Library of Congress)

She scribbled the lyrics on sheet paper from the Sanitary Commission. They were published four months later, in February 1862, in The Atlantic Monthly. 

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.


I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
As ye deal with my condemners, so with you my grace shall deal
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel
Since God is marching on


He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on


In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
While God is marching on.

The tune is not her own. She wrote the lyrics to the music of the existing abolitionist song, "John Brown’s Body," based on a popular folk melody — a version of which she heard performed by troops during her Washington, D.C., tour.

The response to her spirited new Christian anthem, among the public and in military camps, was immediate and overwhelming. 

The sheet music cover image of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe, with lithographic or engraving notes, 1898. 

The sheet music cover image of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe, with lithographic or engraving notes, 1898.  (Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Images)

"Singing Chaplain" Captain Charles Caldwell McCabe of Ohio was among those Union soldiers instantly spirited by the "The Battle Hymn." 

"He was so charmed with the lines that he committed them to memory before arising from his chair," Hall wrote in her tome about her mother's song. 

"The Battle Hymn" inspired the chaplain a year later, in 1863, after he was taken prisoner and sent to brutal Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., where his "wonderful voice was wont to dispel the gloom that often settled upon the inmates of the prison." 

"He was so charmed with the lines that he committed them to memory before arising from his chair."

The hopeless conditions of the prison grew too heavy one July day. The men were forced to cast lots to decide two officers to be executed, while word filtered in from Confederate sources that the Union had been defeated at Gettysburg and repulsed at Vicksburg. 

Union charge at Vicksburg

First at Vicksburg, May 19, 1863, painting by Hugh Charles McBarron Jr. (1902-1992), of the American Civil War, 19th century. American troops were often spirited into battle by the power of Julia Ward Howe's haunting American anthem.  (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

"A pall deeper than death itself settled upon the prisoners," Hall wrote. "The poor, emaciated fellows broke down and cried like babies."

Then, good news arrived. The stories of defeat were wrong. Their comrades had, in fact, won decisively at Gettysburg. The tide of war had turned in favor of the Union. 

"Five hundred voices sang the chorus, Glory, glory hallelujah,' as men never sang before."

Chaplain McCabe immediately leaped upon a box and began to sing: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord." 

"Five hundred voices sang the chorus, ‘Glory, glory hallelujah,' as men never sang before," Hall wrote. The two Union officers meant to be executed celebrated, too. Their lives were spared amid the spontaneous prison outburst. 

Captain McCabe would later write: "No hymn has ever stirred the nation’s heart like ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’" 

National Women's Hall of Fame

Howe died of pneumonia on Oct. 17, 1910, at a home she kept in Portsmouth, R.I., now on the National Register of Historic Places. She was 91 years old. 

Her contribution to American culture has been celebrated through the decades. She was the first women elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908. She was in the inaugural class of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 alongside Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and W.C. Handy. And she was selected for the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998. 

Howe was honored in 1987 in the "Great American Series" of U.S. postage stamps.

Julia Ward Howe

Writer Julia Ward Howe (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Lighter versions of her song are spirited sports anthems around the globe. 

"Glory, Glory" is a beloved ritualistic tune for the University of Georgia football team dating back more than a century. Soccer fans sing joyous full-throated versions with altered lyrics, such as "Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur," a tribute to the English Premier League power.

Howe's trumpet of Christian justice helped inspire greater causes — including the Civil Rights Movement, born in the pulpits of the South. 

Its most notable figure was fire-and-brimstone Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. MLK and his organization picked up the march for equality in the name of Christ where the nation had fallen short a century earlier. 

King, just 39 years old, made his last soaring public speech on the night of April 3, 1968.

"I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man," bellowed the reverend with chilling conviction in his faith and his cause, after hinting at his fate. 


"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" King thundered — then he turned and walked off the Memphis stage to delirious applause.

He was killed the next afternoon. 


They were the very last words the reverend spoke in public — and the very first words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that Julia Ward Howe wrote one early morning in wartime Washington, D.C., more than a century before.