Happy 200th Birthday to Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, half-length portrait, seated, facing left. Circa April 27, 1908. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

If you’ve explored our new digital collection Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music or plan to visit the Library of Congress for the June 4th opening of the suffrage exhibit Shall Not Be Denied, get excited about the date May 27, 2019: it is the 200th birthday of suffragist, abolitionist, and writer Julia Ward Howe! In 1904, Howe was the first woman elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. (Read a poem written in honor of the occasion by fellow suffragist Ada Foster Murray here.) In 1908, Howe was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But, did you know that Julia Ward Howe was also a vocalist, composer, and lyricist? That’s right – Julia Ward Howe, a contemporary of Amy Beach, choir member of Beach’s beloved Handel and Haydn Society, and opera lover, gets musical recognition, too. Howe reflects upon her musical training and love for music in her book Reminiscences (the Rare Book and Special Collection Division has a first edition). Howe also reviewed the world premiere of Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat in an 1892 issue of the suffrage newspaper Women’s Journal.



Julia Ward Howe most famously wrote the lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an American patriotic song from the Union side of the Civil War in 1862. The Music Division has digitized the first printed edition of the sheet music from the Boston publisher Oliver Ditson. The Music Division also holds an 1890 edition from the same publisher. Of course, on the cover of both printings it’s hard to miss that her name is printed entirely as the wife of her husband, “Mrs. Dr. S. G. Howe.” In later musical publications, her name appears as “Julia Ward Howe” or “Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.” You can see two versions of song sheets for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” digitized by the Rare Book and Special Collection Division: one printed in New York for the 29th anniversary of the American anti-slavery Society on May 12, 1863, and a second song sheet published in Philadelphia in 1863 by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments.

Howe’s lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” have been set by many composers since 1862. Predictably, war time prompted its most popular revival. The Music Division has digitized a 1918 setting by Stephen Sumner Townsend for men’s chorus, a 1918 setting by Grace Wilson Mac Elroy for SATB chorus, a 1918 setting by Arthur Fagge for voice and piano, and a 1919 setting by Blanche Ebert Seaver for voice and piano. Take a listen to this 1917 Edison recording of baritone Thomas Chalmers singing William Steffe’s setting.

American composer Irving Fine (1914-1962) set Howe’s lyrics in the midst of World War II. The Music Division holds the holograph score of this setting, “Voices of Freedom,” for mixed chorus and orchestra. Czech-American composer Václav Nelhýbel (1919-1996) set Howe’s lyrics as “Hymn of Hope” during the Vietnam War in 1971. And, a 2015 setting by K. Lee Scott in “Band of Angels: a service of remembrance for the children who died in racial violence on September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama” brings this patriotic song into a space to mourn the consequences of racism.

Francis Boott (composer) and Julia Ward Howe (lyricist). “The Saturday Gazette: Jan’y 6, 1883” title page. Gift of Mrs. John Elliott, 1938. ML96.B656 Case, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Francis Boott (composer) and Julia Ward Howe (lyricist). “The Saturday Gazette: Jan’y 6, 1883” first page [unnumbered]. Gift of Mrs. John Elliott, 1938. ML96.B656 Case, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Julia Ward Howe wrote more lyrics than just this immortal patriotic song; Boston composer Francis Boott (1813-1904) set lyrics of hers twice. The Music Division holds copyright deposits of Boott’s popular song “Baby’s Shoes,” published in 1870 in Philadelphia by Lee and Walker. Even more special, though, is a second setting of Howe’s lyrics by Boott, “The Saturday Gazette: Jan’y 6, 1883” (call number ML96.B656 Case). The copy is a holograph in Boott’s hand. This unpublished song for voice and piano was a gift to the Music Division in 1938 with two other scores in Howe’s hand: “Out of the Deep/De Profundis” (call number ML96.H856 Case) for SATB choir and Songs for Children (call number ML96.H856 Case). As of now, you’ll only find these items in the card catalog of the Performing Arts Reading Room, not in the online catalog, so make note of these call numbers!

Julia Ward Howe. “Out of the Deep/De Profundis.” Undated holograph sketch. Gift of Mrs. John Elliott, 1938. ML96.H856 Case, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Additional musical compositions by Julia Ward Howe in the Music Division include Mother Goose Songs and Dances for Children (1931 published version in addition to the ML96.856 Case holograph) and Original Poems and Other Verses Set to Music published in 1908. Another interesting work is the “Harvard Student’s Song” from 1863, a setting of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics about the Civil War adapted to the German song “Denkst du daran.”

To learn even more about Julia Ward Howe, research her papers in the Manuscript Division and explore the digitized scrapbooks of the National American Women Suffrage Association collection from the Rare Book and Special Collection Division. For music questions, Ask a Librarian!

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