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The Boston Globe

Arts

ALEX BEAM

Happy birthday, Battle Hymn!

Julia Ward Howe wrote the words that made the Union troops sing - 150 years ago

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a Beacon Hill blueblood who dabbled in poetry gave the country a precious gift: the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Martial anthem, funeral dirge, Elvis selection, Grammy Award winner, and controversial sectarian hymn, Julia Ward Howe’s famous creation is “the most tremendous war song I can recall,’’ according to Arthur Conan Doyle.

A century and a half ago, Howe, the rich, plain daughter of a wealthy New York banker, rode out to see the Union troops preparing for battle in Virginia. The soldiers were singing the famous air “John Brown’s Body,’’ which had multiple resonances for Howe. She had met the fanatical Brown when he visited Boston to raise money for his abolitionist crusade. Her husband, Samuel Howe, and her trusted Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, were both members of “The Secret Six,’’ a cabal that supported Brown’s dream of fomenting a slave revolt in the South.

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