Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910)

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter VIII - Little Sammy: The Civil War - 1859-1864; aet. 40-44

There came indeed an hour of fate
By bitter war made desolate
When, reading portents in the sky,
All in a dream I leapt on high
To pin my rhyme to my country's gown.
'Tis my one verse that will not down.
Stars have grown out of mortal crown.

J. W. H.

I honour the author of the "Battle Hymn," and of "The Flag." She was born in the city of New York. I could well wish she were a native of Massachusetts. We have had no such poetess in New England.

Emerson's Journals.

In the winter of 1859 the Doctor's health became so much impaired by overwork that a change of air and scene was imperative. At the same time Theodore Parker, already stricken with a mortal disease, was ordered to Cuba in the hope that a mild climate might check the progress of the consumption. He begged the Howes to join him and his wife, and in February the four sailed for Havana. This expedition is described in "A Trip to Cuba."

The opening chapter presents three of the little party during the rough and stormy voyage:—

"The Philanthropist has lost the movement of the age,—keeled up in an upper berth, convulsively embracing a blanket, what conservative more immovable than he? The Great Man of the party refrains from his large theories, which, like the circles made by the stone thrown into the water, begin somewhere and end nowhere. As we have said, he expounds himself no more, the significant forefinger is down, the eye no longer imprisons yours. But if you ask him how he does, he shakes himself as if, like Farinata,—

'avesse l'inferno in gran dispetto,'—
he had a very contemptible opinion of hell."

Several "portraits" follow, among them her own.

"A woman, said to be of a literary turn of mind, in the miserablest condition imaginable. Her clothes, flung at her by the Stewardess, seem to have hit in some places and missed in others. Her listless hands occasionally make an attempt to keep her draperies together, and to pull her hat on her head; but though the intention is evident, she accomplishes little by her motion. She is being perpetually lugged about by a stout steward, who knocks her head against both sides of the vessel, folds her up in the gangway, spreads her out on the deck, and takes her upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady's chamber, where, report says, he feeds her with a spoon, and comforts her with such philosophy as he is master of. N.B. This woman, upon the first change of weather, rose like a cork, dressed like a Christian, and toddled about the deck in the easiest manner, sipping her grog, and cutting sly jokes upon her late companions in misery;—is supposed by some to have been an impostor, and, when ill-treated, announced intentions of writing a book.

"No. 4, my last, is only a sketch;—circumstances allowed no more. Can Grande,[46] the great dog, has[175] been got up out of the pit, where he has worried the Stewardess and snapped at the friend who tried to pat him on the head. Everybody asks where he is. Don't you see that heap of shawls yonder, lying in the sun, and heated up to about 212° Fahrenheit? That slouched hat on top marks the spot where his head should lie,—by treading cautiously in the opposite direction you may discover his feet. All between is perfectly passive and harmless. His chief food is pickles,—his only desire is rest. After all these years of controversy, after all these battles, bravely fought and nobly won, you might write with truth upon this moveless mound of woollens the pathetic words from Père La Chaise: Implora Pace."

The trip to Cuba was only the beginning of a long voyage for the Parkers, who were bound for Italy. The parting between the friends was sad. All felt that they were to meet no more. Parker died in Florence fifteen months later.

"A pleasant row brought us to the side of the steamer. It was dusk already as we ascended her steep gangway, and from that to darkness there is, at this season, but the interval of a breath. Dusk too were our thoughts, at parting from Can Grande, the mighty, the vehement, the great fighter. How were we to miss his deep music, here and at home! With his assistance we had made a very respectable band; now we were to be only a wandering drum and fife,—the fife particularly shrill, and the drum particularly solemn.... And now came silence, and tears, and last embraces; we slipped down the gangway into[176] our little craft, and looking up, saw bending above us, between the slouched hat and the silver beard, the eyes that we can never forget, that seemed to drop back in the darkness with the solemnity of a last farewell. We went home, and the drum hung himself gloomily on his peg, and the little fife shut up for the remainder of the evening."

"A Trip to Cuba" appeared first serially in the "Atlantic Monthly," then in book form. Years after, a friend, visiting Cuba, took with her a copy of the little volume; it was seized at Havana by the customs house officers, and confiscated as dangerous and incendiary material.

On her return, our mother was asked to write regularly for the New York "Tribune," describing the season at Newport. This was the beginning of a correspondence which lasted well into the time of the Civil War. She says of it:—

"My letters dealt somewhat with social doings in Newport and in Boston, but more with the great events of the time. To me the experience was valuable in that I found myself brought nearer in sympathy to the general public, and helped to a better understanding of its needs and demands."

To her sister Annie

Sunday, November 6, 1859. The potatoes arrived long since and were most jolly, as indeed they continue to be. Didn't acknowledge them 'cause knew other people did, and thought it best to be unlike the common herd. Have just been[177] to church and heard Clarke preach about John Brown, whom God bless, and will bless! I am much too dull to write anything good about him, but shall say something at the end of my book on Cuba, whereof I am at present correcting the proof-sheets. I went to see his poor wife, who passed through here some days since. We shed tears together and embraced at parting, poor soul! Folks say that the last number of my Cuba is the best thing I ever did, in prose or verse. Even Emerson wrote me about it from Concord. I tell you this in case you should not find out of your own accord that it is good. I have had rather an unsettled autumn—have been very infirm and inactive, but have kept up as well as possible—going to church, also to Opera, also to hear dear Edwin Booth, who is playing better than ever. My children are all well and delightful....

I have finished Tacitus' history, also his Germans.... Chev is not at all annoyed by the newspapers, but has been greatly overdone by anxiety and labor for Brown. Much has come upon his shoulders, getting money, paying counsel, and so on. Of course all the stories about the Northern Abolitionists are the merest stuff. No one knew of Brown's intentions but Brown himself and his handful of men. The attempt I must judge insane but the spirit heroic. I should be glad to be as sure of heaven as that old man may be, following right in the spirit and footsteps of the old martyrs, girding on his sword for the weak and oppressed. His death will be holy and glorious—the gallows cannot dishonor him—he will hallow it....

[178]On Christmas Day, 1859, she gave birth to a second son, who was named Samuel Gridley. This latest and perhaps dearest child was for three short years to fill his parents' life with a joy which came and went with him. His little life was all beautiful, all bright. We associate him specially with the years we spent at No. 13 Chestnut Street, Boston, a spacious and cheerful house which we remember with real affection. The other children were at school; little Sam was the dear companion of our mother's walks, the delight of our father's few leisure hours. For him new songs were made, new games invented: both parents looked forward to fresh youth and vigor in his sweet companionship. This was not to be. "In short measures, life may perfect be": little Sam died of diphtheritic croup, May 17, 1863.

This heavy sorrow for a time crushed both these tender parents to the earth. Our father became seriously ill from grief; our mother, younger and more resilient, found some relief in nursing him and caring for the other children; but this was not enough. She could not banish from her mind the terrible memory of her little boy's suffering, the anguish of parting with him. While her soul lifted its eyes to the hills, her heart sought some way to keep his image constantly before her. Her sad thoughts must be recorded, and she took up, for the first time since 1843, the habit of keeping a journal.

The first journal is a slender Diary and Memorandum Book. On May 13, the first note of alarm is sounded. Sammy "did not seem quite right." From[179] that date the record goes on, the agonizing details briefly described, the loss spoken of in words which no one could read unmoved. But even this was not enough: grief must find further expression, yet must be repressed, so far as might be, in the presence of others, lest her sorrow make theirs heavier. This need of expression took a singular form. She wrote a letter to the child himself, telling the story of his life and death; wrote it with care and precision, omitting no smallest detail, gathering, as it were a handful of pearls, every slightest memory of the brief time.

A few extracts show the tenor of this letter:—

"My dearest little Sammy,— "It is four weeks to-day since I saw your sweet face for the last time on earth. It did not look like your little face, my dear pet, it was so still, and sad, and quiet. But Death had changed it, and I had to submit, and was thankful to have even so much of you as that still face, for some days. Everybody grieved to part from you, dear little soul, but I suppose that I grieved most of all, because you belonged most to me. You were always with me, from the time you began to exist at all. The time of your birth was a sad one. It was the time of the imprisonment and death of John Brown, a very noble man, who should be in one of the many mansions of which Christ tells us, and in which I hope, dear, that you are nearer to Him than any of us can be....

"You arrived, I think, at three in the morning, very red in the face, and making a great time about it. You[180] were a fine large Baby, weighing twelve pounds.... I have some of your baby dresses left, and shall hunt them up and lay them with the clothes you have worn lately.... I gave you milk myself.... I used to lay you across my breast when you cried, and you liked this so well that you often insisted upon sleeping in that position after you were grown quite large. It hurt me so much that I finally managed to break you of the habit, but not until you were more than a year old.... I had a nice crimson merino cloak made for you, trimmed with velvet, and lined with white silk. I bought also a very nice crochet cap, of white and crimson worsted, and in these you were taken to drive with me....

"During this first year of your life I had some troubles, and your Baby ways were my greatest comfort. I used to think: this Baby will grow up to be a man, and will protect me when I am old. For I thought, dear, that you should have outlived me many years. But you are removed from us to grow in another world, of which I know nothing but what Christ has told me....

"You used to keep me awake a good deal at night, and this sometimes made me nervous and fretful, though I was usually very happy with you. I would give a good deal for one of those bad nights now, though at the time they were pretty hard upon me....

"... Your second summer brings me to the winter that followed. It was quite a gay winter for us at old South Boston. Marie, the German cook, made very nice dishes, and I had many people to dine, and one[181] or two pleasant evening parties. You still slept in my room, and when I was going to a party in the evening, Annie[47] used to bring my nice dress and my ornaments softly out of the room, that I might dress in the nursery, and not disturb your slumbers. I was always glad to get home and undress, and it was always sweet to come to the bed, and find you in it, sound asleep, and lying right across.... I learned to sleep on a very little bit of the bed, you wanted so much of it. This winter, I bought you a pair of snow-boots, of which you were very proud....

"We all got along happily, dear, till early in April (1863), when your father desired me to make a journey with Julia, who needed change of scene a little. So I had to go and leave you, my sweet of sweets....

"We were glad enough to see each other again, you and I, and I felt as if I could never part with you again. But I was only to have you for a few days, my darling....

"Thursday I sat up in your nursery, in the afternoon, as I usually did, with my book—you having your toys. When I had finished reading, I built houses with blocks for you, and rolled the balls and dumbbells across the floor to you. You rolled them back to me and this amused you very much. I go to sit up in your nursery in the afternoon now, with my book—the light shines in now as it used to do, and I hear the hand-organ and children's voices in the street. It seems to bring you a little nearer to me, my dear lost one, but not near enough for comfort."

The child's illness and death are described minutely, every symptom, every remedy, every anguish noted. Then follows:—

"It gives me dreadful pain to recall these things and write them down, my dearest. I don't do it to make myself miserable, but in order that I may have some lasting record of how you lived and died. You left little by which you might be remembered, save the love of kindred and friendly hearts, but in my heart, dear, your precious image is deeply sculptured. All my life will be full of grief for you, dearest Boy, and I think that I shall hardly live as long as I should have lived, if I had had you to make me happy. Perhaps it seems very foolish that I should write all this, and talk to you in it as if you could know what I write. But, my little darling, it comforts me to think that your sweet soul lives, and that you do know something about me. Christ said, 'This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise': and he knew that this was no vain promise. So, believing the dear Christ, I am led along to have faith in immortal life, of which, dear, I know nothing of myself.

"Your little funeral, dear, was bitter and agonizing. The good God does not send affliction without comfort, but the weeping eyes and breaking heart must struggle through much anguish before they can reach it...."

There was no hearse at this little funeral. The small white casket was placed on the front seat in the carriage in which she rode.

[183]"We came near the gate of Mount Auburn, when I began to realize that the parting was very near. I now opened the casket, took your dear little cold hand in mine, and began to take silent farewell of you. And here, dearest child, I must stop. The remembrance of those last moments so cuts me to the heart, that I cannot say one word more about them, and not much about the life of loneliness and desolation which now began for me, and of which I do not see the end. God knows why I lost you, and how I suffer for you, and He knows how and when I shall see you again, as I hope to do, my dearest, because Christ says we are to live again after this life, and I know that if I am immortal, God will not inflict upon me the pain of an eternal separation from you. So, we shall meet again, sweet Angel Sammy. God grant that the rest of my life may be worthy of this hope, more dear than life itself....

"I must finish these words by saying that I am happy in believing that my dear Child lives, in a broader land, with better teaching and higher joys than I could have given him. I hope that the years to come will brighten, not efface, my mind's picture of him, and that among these, the cipher of one blessed year is already written, in which the picture will become reality, and the present sorrow the foundation of an eternal joy."

The following stanzas are chosen from among many poems on little Sammy's life and death:—


So thou art hid again, and wilt not come For any knockings at the veilèd door; Nor mother-pangs, nor nature, can restore The heart's delight and blossom of thy home.

And I with others, in the outer court, Must sadly follow the excluding will, In painful admiration, of the skill Of God, who speaks his sweetest sentence short. At this time she writes to her sister Annie:—

"I cannot yet write of what has come to me. Chev and I feel that we are baptized into a new order of suffering—those who have lost children, loving them, can never be like those who have not. It makes a new heaven and a new earth. The new heaven I have not yet—the blow is too rough and recent. But the new earth, sown with tears, with the beauty and glory gone out of it, the spring itself, that should have made us happy together, grown tasteless and almost hateful. All the relish of life seems gone with him. I have no patience to make phrases about it—for the moment it seems utterness of doubt and of loss.

"No doubt about him. 'This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise' was said by one who knew what he promised. My precious Baby is with the Beautiful One who was so tender with the children. But I am alone, still fighting over the dark battle of his death, still questioning whether there is any forgiveness for such a death. Something must have been wrong somewhere—to find it out, I have tortured myself almost out of sanity. Now I must only say, it is, and look and wait for divine lessons which follow our bitter afflictions.

"God bless you all, darling. Ask dear Cogswell to write me a few lines—tell him that this deep cut[185] makes all my previous life seem shallow and superficial. Tell him to think of me a little in my great sorrow.

"Your loving "Julia." She had by now definitely joined the Unitarian Church, in whose doctrines her mind found full and lasting rest; throughout this sorrowful time the Reverend James Freeman Clarke was one of her kindest helpers. Several years before this, she had unwillingly left Theodore Parker's congregation at our father's request. She records in the "Reminiscences" his views on this subject:—

"'The children (our two oldest girls) are now of an age at which they should receive impressions of reverence. They should, therefore, see nothing at the Sunday service which militates against that feeling. At Parker's meeting individuals read the newspapers before the exercises begin. A good many persons come in after the prayer, and some go out before the conclusion of the sermon. These irregularities offend my sense of decorum, and appear to me undesirable in the religious education of my family.'"

It was a grievous thing to her to make this sacrifice; she said to Horace Mann that to give up Parker's ministry for any other would be like going to the synagogue when Paul was preaching near at hand; yet, once made, it was the source of a lifelong joy and comfort.

Mr. Clarke was then preaching at Williams Hall; hearing Parker speak of him warmly, she determined to attend his services. She found his preaching "as unlike as possible to that of Theodore Parker. He had not the philosophic and militant genius of Parker, but he had a genius of his own, poetical, harmonizing. In after years I esteemed myself fortunate in having passed from the drastic discipline of the one to the tender and reconciling ministry of the other."

She has much to say in the "Reminiscences" about the dear "Saint James," as his friends loved to call him. The relation between them was close and affectionate: the Church of the Disciples became her spiritual home.

These were the days of the Civil War; we must turn back to its opening year to record an episode of importance to her and to others.

In the autumn of 1861 she went to Washington in company with Governor and Mrs. Andrew, Mr. Clarke and the Doctor, who was one of the pioneers of the Sanitary Commission, carrying his restless energy and indomitable will from camp to hospital, from battle-field to bureau. She longed to help in some way, but felt that there was nothing she could do—except make lint, which we were all doing.

"I could not leave my nursery to follow the march of our armies, neither had I the practical deftness which the preparing and packing of sanitary stores demanded. Something seemed to say to me, 'You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone: you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.' Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word[187] was given me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison."

Returning from a review of troops near Washington, her carriage was surrounded and delayed by the marching regiments: she and her companions sang, to beguile the tedium of the way, the war songs which every one was singing in those days; among them—

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!" The soldiers liked this, cried, "Good for you!" and took up the chorus with its rhythmic swing.

"Mrs. Howe," said Mr. Clarke, "why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?"

"I have often wished to do so!" she replied.

Waking in the gray of the next morning, as she lay waiting for the dawn, the word came to her.

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord—" She lay perfectly still. Line by line, stanza by stanza, the words came sweeping on with the rhythm of marching feet, pauseless, resistless. She saw the long lines swinging into place before her eyes, heard the voice of the nation speaking through her lips. She waited till the voice was silent, till the last line was ended; then sprang from bed, and groping for pen and paper, scrawled in the gray twilight the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She was used to writing thus; verses often came to her at night, and must be scribbled in the dark for fear of waking the baby; she crept back to bed, and as she fell asleep she said to herself, "I like this better than most things I have written." In the morning, while recalling the incident, she found she had forgotten the words.

The poem was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for February, 1862. "It was somewhat praised," she says, "on its appearance, but the vicissitudes of the war so engrossed public attention that small heed was taken of literary matters.... I knew and was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung in chorus by the soldiers."

She did not, however, realize how rapidly the hymn made its way, nor how strong a hold it took upon the people. It was "sung, chanted, recited, and used in exhortation and prayer on the eve of battle." It was printed in newspapers, in army hymn-books, on broadsides; it was the word of the hour, and the Union armies marched to its swing.

Among the singers of the "Battle Hymn" was Chaplain McCabe, the fighting chaplain of the 122d Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He read the poem in the "Atlantic," and was so struck with it that he committed it to memory before rising from his chair. He took it with him to the front, and in due time to Libby Prison, whither he was sent after being captured at Winchester. Here, in the great bare room where hundreds of Northern soldiers were herded together, came one night a rumor of disaster to the Union arms. A great battle, their jailers told them; a great Confederate victory. Sadly the Northern men gathered together in groups, sitting or lying on the floor, talking in low tones, wondering how, where, why. Suddenly, one of[189] the negroes who brought food for the prisoners stooped in passing and whispered to one of the sorrowful groups. The news was false: there had, indeed, been a great battle, but the Union army had won, the Confederates were defeated and scattered. Like a flame the word flashed through the prison. Men leaped to their feet, shouted, embraced one another in a frenzy of joy and triumph; and Chaplain McCabe, standing in the middle of the room, lifted up his great voice and sang aloud,—

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" Every voice took up the chorus, and Libby Prison rang with the shout of "Glory, glory, hallelujah!"

The victory was that of Gettysburg. When, some time after, McCabe was released from prison, he told in Washington, before a great audience of loyal people, the story of his war-time experiences; and when he came to that night in Libby Prison, he sang the "Battle Hymn" once more. The effect was magical: people shouted, wept, and sang, all together; and when the song was ended, above the tumult of applause was heard the voice of Abraham Lincoln, exclaiming, while the tears rolled down his cheeks,—

"Sing it again!"

(Our mother met Lincoln in 1861, and was presented to him by Governor Andrew. After greeting the party, the President "seated himself so near the famous portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart as naturally to suggest some comparison between the two figures. On the canvas we saw the calm presence, the serene assurance of the man who had successfully accomplished[190] a great undertaking, a vision of health and of peace. In the chair beside it sat a tall, bony figure, devoid of grace, a countenance almost redeemed from plainness by two kindly blue eyes, but overshadowed by the dark problems of the moment....

"When we had left the presence, one of our number exclaimed, 'Helpless Honesty!' As if Honesty could ever be helpless.")

The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Armenian. Written in the dark on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper, it has been printed in every imaginable form, from the beautiful parchment edition presented to the author on her seventieth birthday by the New England Woman's Club, down to the cover of a tiny brochure advertising a cure for consumption. It has also been set to music many times, but never successfully. It is inseparably wedded to the air for which it was written, an air simple, martial, and dignified: no attempt to divorce the two could ever succeed.

From the time of writing it to that of her death, she was constantly besieged by requests for autograph copies of part or the whole of the hymn. Sometimes the petitioners realized what they asked, as when Edmund Clarence Stedman wrote:—

"I can well understand what a Frankenstein's monster such a creation grows to be—such a poem as the 'Battle Hymn,' when it has become the sacred scroll of millions, each one of whom would fain obtain a copy of it."

Reasonable or unreasonable, she tried to meet every[191] such request; no one can ever know how many times she copied the hymn, but if a record had been kept, some one with a turn for multiplication might tell us whether the lines put together made up a mile, or more, or less.

She wrote many other poems of the war, among them "The Flag," which is to be found in many anthologies. As the "Battle Hymn" was the voice of the nation's, so this was the expression of her own ardent patriotism:—

There's a flag hangs over my threshold Whose folds are more dear to me Than the blood that thrills in my bosom Its earnest of liberty.

And dear are the stars it harbors In its sunny field of blue, As the hope of a further Heaven That lights all our dim lives through. This was no figure of speech, but the truth. The war and its mighty issues filled her heart and mind; she poured out song after song, all breathing the spirit of the time, the spirit of hope, resolve, aspiration. Everything she saw connected itself in some way with the great struggle. Seeing her daughters among their young friends, gay as youth must be gay, even in war-time, she cries out,—

Weave no more silks, ye Lyons looms, To deck our girls for gay delights! The crimson flower of battle blooms, And solemn marches fill the night.

Weave but the flag whose bars to-day Drooped heavy o'er our early dead, And homely garments, coarse and gray, For orphans that must earn their bread![48] "The Jeweller's Shop in War-Time," "The Battle Eucharist," "The Harvard Student's Song," all reveal the deep feeling of her heart; we remember her singing of "Left Behind" (set to her own music, a wild, mournful chant) as something so thrilling that it catches the breath as we think of it.

Being again in Washington in the spring of 1863, she visited the Army of the Potomac, in company with the wife of General Francis Barlow, and wrote on her return a sketch of the expedition. She carried "a fine Horace, which repeatedly annoyed me by tumbling in the dirt, a volume of Sully's Memoirs, and a little fag end of Spinoza, being his Tractat upon the Old Testament."

She saw the working of the Sanitary Commission; saw "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who looked like "the man who can tell nineteen secrets and keep the twentieth, which will be the only one worth knowing"; and William H. Seward, "looking singularly like a man who has balanced a chip on the fence, and who congratulates himself upon its remaining there"; saw, too, from the heights above Fredericksburg (within the danger line!), an artillery skirmish.

Departing, she writes:—

"Farewell, bristling heights! farewell, sad Fredericksburg! farewell, river of sorrows; farewell, soldiers death-determined, upon whose mournful sacrifice we must shut unwilling eyes. Would it were all at end! the[193] dead wept and buried, the living justified before God. For the deep and terrible secret of the divine idea still lies buried in the burning bosom of the contest. Suspected by the few, shunned by the many, it has not as yet leapt to light in the sight of all. This direful tragedy, in whose third dreary act we are, hangs all upon a great thought. To interpret this, through waste and woe, is the first moral obligation of the situation.... This terrible development of moral causes and effects will enchain the wonder of the world until the crisis of poetical justice which must end it shall have won the acquiescence of mankind, carrying its irresistible lesson into the mind of the critics, into the heart of the multitude."


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