November 18, 1861: Julia Ward Howe visits the Front

At the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Samuel Gridley Howe, Director of the Perkins School for the Blind, to the Sanitary Commission, which had been created to care for sick and wounded soldiers, and so Howe, along with his wife Julia Ward Howe, and their pastor, James Freeman Clarke, travelled to Washington in November of 1861.flag 1860

The capital was filled with soldiers and ambulances, and they were quickly immersed in the reality of the war – Julia was appalled by “the ghastly advertisement of an agency for embalming and forwarding the bodies of those who had fallen in the fight or who had perished by fever.”

On November 18, Julia and her companions traveled to a see a review of the troops of the Army of the Potomac.

“While we were engaged in watching the manoeuvres a sudden movement of the enemy necessitated immediate action. The review was discontinued and we saw a detachment of soldiers gallop to the assistance of a small body of our men who were in imminent danger of being surrounded and cut off from retreat. The regiments remaining on the field were ordered to march to their cantonments. We returned to the city very slowly of necessity for the troops nearly filled the road.”

Julia was very discouraged – America was at war with herself, many of her friends had husbands and sons fighting in the “great battle,” and their carriage was caught in traffic jam of retreating soldiers.

Julia and her friends began to sing popular war songs, and the soldiers joined in:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
 John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
 John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
 But his soul goes marching on.
 Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
 Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
 Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
 His soul goes marching on.

Julia thought she had nothing more to give, but one of the people in the carriage, her pastor, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, told her:
Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?

That night Julia awoke, in the early morning in her room at the Willard Hotel.

“I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. 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:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
 He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
 He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
 His truth is marching on…”

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