For a group of passionate New Englanders, the Civil War was always a divine mission to end the scourge of slavery. It took a while for Lincoln to see things that way.
In his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln made a statement that would only later become controversial: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."
The fact that slavery was the crux and cause of the war did not mean, however, that Northerners were ready to fight and die to end slavery. In early 1862, Lincoln believed that most people in the North cared "comparatively little about the Negro, and [were] anxious only for military successes." As he reminded a visiting abolitionist toward the end of January: "We didn't go into the war to put down slavery. To act differently at this moment would, I have no doubt, not only weaken our cause but smack of bad faith. ... The first thing you'd see would be a mutiny in the army."
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was anathema to men like General McClellan, who worried that zealots would turn a war for the Union into a bloodbath over slavery.
As if in response, The Atlantic, the voice of New England's abolitionist intellectuals, devoted the first page of its February 1862 issue to a new poem of five short stanzas by a Boston writer named Julia Ward Howe. Even by the standards of Boston, hotbed of America's antislavery movement, the poet and her husband held extreme views. Samuel Gridley Howe was an educator and philanthropist whose hatred of slavery and the plantation aristocracy led him to support violent action even before the war broke out. He organized the rescue of fugitive slaves from Northern prisons, funneled guns and ammunition to the antislavery settlers in "Bleeding Kansas," and secretly financed the efforts of John Brown to stir up an armed slave revolt. His wife had a more literary temperament, but her poem demonstrated that her convictions were just as intense.