Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Seen the Glory (1861)

Apr 23, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


       Songs have oftentimes encapsulated the spirit of protest and become synonymous with a movement. In 1772 former slave trader turned abolitionist, John Newton, penned “Amazing Grace,” an ode against slavery.  In 1969 during his ‘bed-in,” John Lennon composed “Give Peace a Chance” against the Vietnam War.  In 1972 Helen Reddy, the voice from Down Under, became the roar of Women’s Liberation.  Another paean was born during a clash between the blue and the gray.

      19th century women-like overgrown children-were expected to be seen and not heard, unless the latter was in praise of their husbands. Julia Ward was born in 1819 into early New York power and privilege; her silver spoon came from her father Samuel, one of the country’s first bankers. Julia and her five siblings lived in a succession of opulent Manhattan mansions on Bond Street; what transformed these into prisons was her religious father’s restrictions on his daughters. Julia’s burning aspiration was to be a great literary light and to “write the novel or the play of the age.” Another outlet was singing, in which she excelled, and led to her nickname “the Diva.” The moniker could also have come from her constant thirst for attention. The petite, Titian-haired beauty enjoyed rides around the city in her lemon-yellow carriage, dreaming of a prince to come to her rescue.

     During an 1841 visit to Boston, Julia was smitten by Samuel Gridley Howe, 18 years her senior. He was a celebrity in literary and philanthropic circles, and he had spent years in Greece in support of the country’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He returned home with Lord Byron’s helmet as a relic of the poet, a feat that fired Julia’s romantic imagination. For his service the king of Greece bestowed on him the title the Chevalier of the Order of St. Saviour- that gave rise to his nickname, Chev. As a Harvard educated doctor, he obtained a position as the head of the new Perkins School for the Blind, an institution he made famous through his accomplishments with a deaf and blind student, Laura Bridgman.

      Samuel was also interested in the 22-year-old Julia, who, along with her sisters were known as the Three Graces of Bond Street. He wrote his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow glowing letters about his ladylove, how she was “gushing over with tenderness & love.” He felt he had found in her a helpmeet-a woman who would be happy as the wife of a busy man, not to mention the mother of many hoped for children. When Samuel asked for her hand, Julia declared, “The Chevalier’s way will be a very charming way, and is, henceforth, to be mine.” Because of Ward’s immense wealth from her father’s will, her brother Sam and Uncle John required Samuel to sign an “antenuptial agreement,” wherein the bride’s inheritance would remain under the control of male relatives. This legality was included because they viewed Chev as a “confounded bit of Boston granite.” Longfellow likewise harbored reservations about his friend’s fiancée, saying “a damsel of force and beauty…carrying almost too many guns for any man who does not want to be firing salutes all the time.” Julia, in an uncharacteristic move for the era, retained her maiden name, and became Julia Ward Howe. 

     The couple moved in rarified circles amongst the Lowells, Cabots, Louisa May Alcott, (who could not abide Julia,) Horace Mann, the Brownings, and Henry James. Ward Howe met Charles Dickens on his trip to America, and decades later had Oscar Wilde as a houseguest. Although the dashing doctor and the beautiful poetess presented a pretty picture of marital bliss, cracks soon appeared in the union of Chev and the Diva. Julia craved autonomy while Samuel assumed her father’s role as domestic dictator. A red alert sounded when Samuel told his young wife he wanted her kept in a chrysalis, declaring if she ever emerged and grew wings, “I shall unmercifully cut them off, to keep you prisoner in my arms.” Julia wrote her sisters, “The Dr. calls me child.” Another problem might have been Samuel was hiding in a Victorian closet, secretly in love with Charles Sumner, the best man at his wedding. Two hours after he returned from his honeymoon, Howe wrote Charles, “Julia often says Sumner ought to have been a woman & you to have married her.” Tensions were exacerbated on their sixteenth-month wedding anniversary to Europe. Samuel was “London’s lion’ because of his halcyon, Grecian past and burnished by his Perkins’ Institute accomplishment. Women were drawn to the doctor’s side like nails to a magnet and literary lights such as Thomas Carlyle invited the Howes to lunch, where Samuel served as the sun around which the host and guests orbited. The Diva was not impressed; she was not content to bask in spousal glory.

     Despite the doctor’s questionable sexual orientation, and Julia’s growing disdain, she became pregnant soon after tying the knot. Samuel wrote of the news to Charles, “Only a year ago, Julia was a New York belle. Now she is a wife who lives only for her husband & a mother who would melt her very beauty, were it needed, to give a drop of nourishment to her child.” That is not how Mrs. Ward Howe saw it. She wrote her sister Louisa, “In giving life to others, do we lose our own vitality, and sink into dimness, nothingness, and living death?” What wore at the fabric of her soul was the worry she did not care for her sons and daughters to the acceptable degree. “I am alas one of those exceptional women who do not love their children,” she wrote, and then crossed out “do not love” with the words “cannot relate to.”

      Another source of resentment was Samuel did not permit Julia the comfort of ether during her six deliveries. His rationale: women needed discipline. He stated, “The pains of childbirth are meant by a beneficent creator to be the means of leading them back to lives of temperance, exercise and reason.” In 1847, Howe confided to her sister that her life had become unspeakable and unbearable saying that “You cannot know the history, the inner history of the last four years.” Secretly, she began writing a novel, “The Hermaphrodite.” She never sought publication, knowing full well her husband, as well as antebellum America, would not approve. However, in 1854 she anonymously published a volume of poetry, “Passion-Flowers,” without her husband’s consent. In thinly veiled prose, it revealed marital misery. Nathaniel Hawthorne declared Julia “ought to have been soundly whipt for publishing them.” Samuel raged that the poems “border on the erotic” and the couple engaged in a period of estrangement. Finally, Samuel demanded his wife resume sexual relations or he would initiate divorce. Faced with the prospect of losing her children, Julia acquiesced. She confessed, “I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make.” 

     In 1861, the couple was in Washington, where Julia met the President and observed, “the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep blue eyes.”  It was four months since the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, and from her room at the Willard Hotel, she spied an advertisement for a business that embalmed and forwarded the bodies of the dead. That evening, the words to a song drifted into her mind. Fearful she would forget the lines by the morning, she wrote down the verse that compared the sacrifices of the Northern soldiers to the crucifixion of Christ, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

    Samuel, no doubt, rolled his eyes at his wife’s latest literary endeavor-the Battle Hymn of the Republic -that she sent to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and she received a remuneration of five dollars for its publication in February 1862. The ethereal poem became one of the world’s most beloved hymns and showered upon her the recognition she had always sought.

      Sadly, this success did not heal the fabric of their marriage. Julia commented, “I have been married 22 years today, and in the course of this time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued…everything has been contemptible or contraband in his eyes.” But he had not succeeded in silencing her spirit. In 1876, the day after her husband’s funeral, Julia wrote, “Began my new life today.” She had been married for 33 years and would live another 34, where she struggled alongside Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony for women’s rights.

     Howe’s hymn was destined to become an intrinsic fabric of the world’s tapestry. In 1939, at his wife’s suggestion, Steinbeck used one of its lines for the title The Grapes of Wrath. In 1965 it was the oration at the funeral of Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last public address, delivered the night before his assassination, ended with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” In 1968 as the 21-car funeral bearing the body of Robert F. Kennedy crept through Baltimore, thousands of people lining the tracks sang the century old lyrics, “Glory, glory hallelujah…” Its haunting memory was also heard at the Washington National Cathedral after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Less reverently, in 2016 George W. Bush swayed to its accompaniment at the memorial for five slain Dallas police officers.

      A week before Julia’s passing in 1910 at age 90, Smith College conferred upon her an honorary degree with a chorus of 2,000 white-clad girls singing her hymn at the ceremony. Although she had engaged in a three decade long civil war with her husband, she was vindicated through literary immortality; despite everything, her eyes had “seen the glory.”