Women in History DowntownDC Callbox Tour: Julia Ward Howe

Writer and Activist, 1819-1910

Julia Ward Howe was a poet, author, composer, abolitionist, suffragist and more—but she is most remembered for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Born in New York City in 1819, Howe grew up as the seventh child of a wealthy Wall Street banker; her mother, a published poet, died soon after giving birth to Julia. An older brother exposed her to modern ideas, and Julia devoured books.

In her early twenties, she married Samuel Gridley Howe. Twenty years her senior, he was famous for his work on behalf of Greek revolutionaries, prison reform, and education for the blind, but his ideas about women were not at all progressive: he took control of his wife’s inheritance and expected her to stick to housekeeping and children. To make matters worse, she felt isolated in Watertown, Massachusetts, where Samuel taught at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and fell into a depression. 

By the early 1850s, Julia Howe had found the strength to defy him, publishing her poetry—and shocking Boston society with its frankness. She also began working with reformers in Boston for the abolition of slavery, woman suffrage, and prison and education reform. Although Sam Howe considered this a betrayal, he also relied on her writing and editing talent.

By the time he died in 1876, most of his wife’s money had been lost to bad investments, but she was famous and able to thrive for the rest of her long life, as a writer and poet, reformer and intellectual, world traveler and force for change.

So why is Julia Ward Howe, a non-Washingtonian, being honored at this particular site?

As the story goes, in November 1861, early in the Civil War, she and her husband were staying at the Willard Hotel when she was awakened one night by voices in the street singing “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.” Looking out the window, Julia Ward Howe saw lines of Union troops marching by. Inspired, she composed new words to their tune, a combination of old hymns, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” soon became the Union anthem.