HOWE, Julia Ward (1819-1910). Autograph manuscript signed and inscribed, constituting the original draft of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," [Willard's Hotel, Washington D.C.], [the night of 18-19] November 1861. 4 pages, 4to, in ink on her husband's printed stationery of the Sanitary Commission, Washington D.C., first page labeled by Howe: "First draft of the "Battle/Hymn of the Republic." By Julia Ward Howe Washington Nov. 1861," page 2 with her inscription: "Willard's Hotel Julia Ward Howe to Charlotte B. Whipple"; the two leaves partially separated, enclosed in a custom-fitted dark red morocco gilt folding protective case by Sangorski and Sutcliffe.
"THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC": THE POET'S ORIGINAL DRAFT OF THE BEST-KNOWN AMERICAN HYMN, WITH A DISCARDED STANZA; WRITTEN IN SEMI-DARKNESS THE NIGHT AFTER HER VISIT TO LINCOLN AND A TOUR OF BATTLE LINES NEAR WASHINGTON D.C.
An exceptional and unique working manuscript of the most inspired and stirring of all American hymns, composed by Howe under striking circumstances during the early days of the Civil War. In November 1861 Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts entertained a party from his state on a twelve-day visit to Washington D.C. The party included Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, employed with the relief work of the Sanitary Commission (a precursor of the Red Cross), his wife Julia Ward Howe, a poet and ardent Abolitionist, and the Reverend James Freeman Clarke. In her later Reminiscences, Julia confessed that "a feeling of discouragement came over me as I drew near the city of Washington. I thought of the women of my acquaintance whose sons or husbands were fighting our great battle; the women themselves serving in the hospitals, or busying themselves with the work of the Sanitary Commission. My husband was beyond the age of military service, my eldest son but a stripling; my youngest was a child of not more than two years. I could not leave the nursery to follow the march of our armies, neither had I the practical deftness which the preparing and packing of sanitary stores demanded. Something seemed to say to me, 'You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.'" Lodging at Willard's Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, they found the Union capital--only a few miles from the Confederate advance posts--full of marching troops and ringing with rumor and news from the battlefields. In an interview with President Lincoln, Mrs. Howe was especially struck by "the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln's deep blue eyes."
On November 18, the Governor and Howe's party crossed the Potomac to observe a review of troops. Just as the review got under way, Confederate skirmishing parties and sharpshooters went into action. Julia recalled: "While we were engaged in watching the manoeuvres, a sudden movement of the enemy necessitated immediate action. The review was discontinued, and we saw a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat. The regiments remaining on the field were ordered to march to their cantonments. We returned to the city very slowly, of necessity, for the troops nearly filled the road. My dear minister [Rev. Clarke] was in the carriage with me, as were several other friends. To beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time snatches of the army songs so popular at that time, concluding, I think, with 'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground; his soul is marching on.' The soldiers seemed to like this, and answered back, 'Good for you!' Mr. Clarke said, 'Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?' I said that I had often wished to do this, but had not as yet found in my mind any leading toward it." In other accounts, it was Mrs. Howe's husband who asked her to compose new verses to the tune; Mrs. Howe's version is likely the correct one.
If inspiration had previously been lacking, the experience of Lincoln's sad eyes, the swirling activity of the front-line skirmishes, galloping cavalry and marching ranks of blue-clad soldiers proved potent catalysts to Julia's imagination. "I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. I had learned to do this when, on previous occasions, attacks of versification had visited me in the night, and I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept near me. I was always obliged to decipher my scrawl before another night should intervene, as it was only legible while the matter was fresh in my mind. At this time, having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, 'I like this better than most things that I have written.'" One of Mrs. Howe's daughters reported that later the next morning, Julia was unable to recite the verses from memory.
The manuscript confirms Mrs. Howe's account of the poem's striking genesis: the cover sheet and presentation inscription are written in her usual neat, very elegant cursive hand, the lines perfectly horizontal, parallel and evenly spaced. The verses themselves, though, are written in a very different fashion: the lines wander and weave over the paper, the hand is extremely hurried and at times very difficult to read: all characteristics to be expected of a manuscript written in semi-darkness, in a flush of inspiration. Several word changes appear to have occurred to the poet while writing down the hymn. In the same scrawled hand, these appear in stanza 1, line 3, stanza 5, line 1 and stanza 6, lines 2 and 4. The six stanzas are as follows:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling down the vine from which the grapes of wrath are stored,
He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of his terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
I have seen him in the watchfires of an 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 burning gospel writ in fiery rows of steel,
As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Our God is marching on.
He has sounded out the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He has waked the earth's dull bosom with high ecstatic beat,
Oh! Be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet
Our God is marching on.
In the whiteness of the lilies he was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that shines out on you and me,
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
Our God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, he is succour to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of Time his slave
Our God is marching on.
The tune used by Howe, rhythmic and powerfully melodic, had been composed in 1852 by William Steffe, a Methodist preacher, for the open-air revival meetings he conducted in Georgia. As often happens with striking tunes, it soon acquired new lyrics. The rather macabre "John Brown's Body" version known to Howe's party and the soldiers around Washington is thought to have originated with troops at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, to tease a sergeant who was a namesake of the abolitionist John Brown, executed in 1859.
After showing the poem to several literary friends, Julia made a number of revisions and dropped the anticlimactic sixth stanza. A final version was submitted to the Atlantic Monthly. The editor, James T. Fields, gave it the familiar title "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and it appeared in the February 1862 number. For it, Mrs. Howe received the sum of $5.00. Her powerful rhymes, coupled with Steffe's stirring tune, soon made the piece phenomenally popular: sung by millions, it was printed as sheet music, included in hymnals. An ideal marching song, it followed the Union armies into every theater of the Civil War. In the Confederacy's notorious Libby Prison, it was sung by Chaplin McCabe and the Union prisoners. Upon his release, McCabe was summoned to the White House, where he sang the song for the President. Spectators reported that Lincoln, with tears visible in his eyes, exclaimed "Sing it again!"
In 1899, while preparing the publication of Howe's Reminiscences, Houghton Mifflin borrowed the manuscript from Charlotte Whipple (to whom it had given by Howe) and asked if they might include a facsimile of the original draft in the book. To her daughter, Mrs. Howe wrote, "I hesitate to allow it, because it contains a verse I discarded, as not up to the rest of the poem." But after getting advice from Edward Everett Hale and Edward Arlington Robinson, she gave permission and a lithographic facsimile was included in her memoirs.
Provenance: Charlotte A. Whipple, Howe's biographer, given her by the poet--William Randolph Hearst--David Magee, bookseller of San Francisco--The Rendells, "The American Civil War," item 192 -- The Hon. J. William Middendorf II (sale, Christie's, 19 May 1989, lot 279, purchased by Malcolm Forbes).