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.
As a rallying cry for the Northern troops, “John Brown’s Body’’ had two problems. First, it was extremely macabre (“They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree!’’) and it memorialized a political fanatic who was far from universally popular in the North. Second, the troops liked to sing obscene versions of the song, one of which Howe heard. Her Proper Bostonian traveling companion, the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, suggested she compose lyrics better befitting the Union’s sacred cause: “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?’’ So she did.
Howe had a modest gift for poetry, unrecognized by her churlish husband (who beat her) but encouraged by her family friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Anonymously, Howe published undistinguished romantic verse. But the night she retired to her room in Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel to cover “John Brown’s Body,’’ she created a masterpiece. She mined her encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible to forge some gorgeous, original lines. In Revelation, an angel casts grapes into “the great winepress of the wrath of God.’’ Howe’s line, “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel’’ echoes both Revelation and Genesis, but the words are hers alone.
The Atlantic Monthly published Howe’s work in its February 1862 issue. “The poem was somewhat praised on its appearance, but the vicissitudes of the war so engrossed public attention that small heed was taken of literary matters,’’ Howe later wrote. Eventually, it caught on. Abraham Lincoln liked it. He liked the South’s stirring anthem, “Dixie,’’ too.
During Howe’s lifetime and beyond, the song achieved something akin to immortality. She became an international celebrity constantly in demand as a headliner at fund-raising banquets for her favorite causes - women’s suffrage, “purity reform’’ (code for abolishing prostitution), and temperance. Susan B. Anthony used to introduce her as “the author of ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom.’ ’’ Howe later moved on to promoting world peace, and freeing the Russian serfs. She also invented Mother’s Day.
Her Battle Hymn is everywhere. She provided the title for a sprawling John Steinbeck novel and for John Updike’s similarly ambitious “In the Beauty of the Lilies.’’ Martin Luther King’s final, public utterance was “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’’ Choirs sang the Battle Hymn at Sept. 11 memorial services in both Washington, D.C., and London, and it was played at the funerals of both Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill.
Polite society north of the Mason-Dixon line has no idea how much this song is hated in some corners of the South. When Today’s Christian magazine published a brief, innocuous article praising Howe and her hymn a few years ago, outraged readers vented their anger, and told of leaving church services when the organ struck up the famous tune.
The magazine’s readers and other Southerners were quick to point out that Howe wasn’t really a Christian in doctrine - Unitarians do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ - or in temperament. Calling the hymn “a bloody, hate-filled song,’’ Michael Dan Jones, writing on a Confederate veterans’ website, asked: “Did Jesus Christ teach that God is a vengeance seeking, sword-wielding maniac that slaughters innocents and tramples people under His wrathful feet, as Mrs. Howe’s violent and bloody lyrics would have you believe?’’
The official hymnal of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant sect, included the “Battle Hymn’’ only in 2008, as part of a broader campaign to attract African-American members.
I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, but my sympathies have drifted somewhat northward. Happy figurative non-birthday to you, Mrs. Howe. Your creation has never been equaled.Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.