The Struggles of the Woman Behind 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'

A short review of The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

The stanzas that made Julia Ward Howe famous came to her during a night at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1861, after she had spent the day visiting Union troops. The poem she scribbled down in the predawn darkness went on to enjoy a viral success as yet unmatched by any other verse in The Atlantic, where “Battle Hymn of the Republic” appeared in February 1862.

Simon & Schuster

That bit of triumphant patriotic lore is familiar. Far more fascinating are the personal tribulations that the feminist critic Elaine Showalter probes in her unfailingly vivid—and fair-minded—biography. Domestic power struggles made the Howes’ marital union an unending misery. Howe’s domineering husband—Samuel Gridley Howe, renowned for working miracles with Laura Bridgman at the Perkins Institution for the Blind—did everything he could to impede his wife’s quest for creative freedom.

She wrote anyway and, without warning him, published now-forgotten poems that exposed, and fueled, their strife. As an appalled Nathaniel Hawthorne said, these other battle hymns “seemed to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness.” In one of them—about a millstream that a proud miller couldn’t tame (the parable was obvious)—Howe made history again when she burst into slang: “Wow! but it wrought its will.” Howe, Showalter discovers, was evidently the first writer outside of Scotland to use the word wow.