Today in History

Today in History: January 28

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe, half-length portrait, seated, facing left
Julia Ward Howe,
c. April 27, 1908.
By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

On January 28, 1908, author and activist Julia Ward Howe, famous for her composition, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Born in New York City in 1819, Howe expressed her ambition to become a writer early on. She married social activist and reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843. By the mid-1850s Julia strongly supported her husband's embrace of the abolitionist movement and they soon saw the inevitability of war. In late 1861, the couple was among a group visiting Washington, D.C., to appraise the status of Union troop morale after the First Battle of Bull Run.

On November 18, 1861, Howe's party was invited to review the Union troops outside of Washington.  A sudden Confederate attack disrupted the proceedings.  During the return trip to Washington, the Howes' carriage was surrounded by Union troops who joined them in singing popular Army songs of the time.  These events became the inspiration for Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." She wrote the poem to the tune of "John Brown's Body," a marching song popular among Union soldiers. Published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, the author received just a few dollars for the piece. Although soldiers were reluctant to abandon their improvised verse to the popular folk song, the poem proved popular among civilians in the North. Soon "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" rang out at public gatherings above the Mason-Dixon line.

The lyrics to Battle Hymn of the Republic on a printed sheet with an illustration
Battle Hymn of the Republic,
published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments,
1863.
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and other Printed Ephemera

After the war, Julia Howe worked for women's rights, prison reform, and sex education. In 1868, she co-founded the New England Women's Club. She also served as a leader of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). After a long life of public service, Howe died in 1910.

The National Institute of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 by the American Social Science Association to advance the interests of literature and fine arts in the United States. The Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in 1904 as a division of the Institute, merged with its parent organization in 1976 to become the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Each year, fifty individuals are awarded the distinction of election to the Academy. Howe was the first woman elected to both the Institute, in 1907, and the Academy.

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