Music as Memory: Spirituals, Minstrelsy, and Marching Songs during the Age of Abolitionism


Notman Photo Co. (Boston and Cambridge, Mass.) Julia Ward Howe, signed photograph,ca. 1909.

According to Howe's own account of her composition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the verses to the hymn came to her in what she believed to be an episode of divine inspiration. During her stay at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the night of November 18, 1861, Howe awoke with the words of the song in her mind and scribbled the verses to the music of "John Brown's Body":

"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.' I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper."

bMS Am 2214 (334) – Gift of Sally Fairchild, 1945.