Book Review: The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Julia CivilWars
The Broadway play Hamilton has set me off on a frenzy of books about First Lady Louisa Adams (wife of John Quincy), Alexander Hamilton, and Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”).  I was exceedingly distressed to be reminded that the issues which vex us today ~ racism, sexism, and state’s rights ~ are as old as our country.  Alas, we haven’t come a long way after all, baby.

Louisa and Alexander Hamilton (the 731 page tome which inspired the musical) were far too tedious to complete.  Yet, they perfectly set the stage for The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

Remember the ladies.
– Abigail Adams

In Louisa:  The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas, I learned:

The Adamses were more enlightened. . .but they were not feminists.  Assumptions of Abigail Adams’s political power, in fact, tend to be anachronistic.  John Adams spoke to her frequently and openly about his work, and he took into account her advice, but she was not the power behind the throne.  Nor did she want to be.  She did not see herself as effaced by her husband.  Believing that her proper place was in the home, she never questioned her supportive role.  When Abigail famously told her husband to “remember the ladies,” she was not calling for voting rights but for legal protections against abuse, and even then John laughed her off. . .she was in charge of the children and the chickens, not the capital.

Julia Ward Howe did see herself as effaced and abused by her tyrannical husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.  She was far more vested in her writing than in her children.  And, she was livid that her husband squandered her considerable fortune and disinherited her in his will.  Dr. Howe developed a method for educating blind children at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston where Annie Sullivan was trained and taught Helen Keller.  After his death, Mrs. Howe eclipsed his success.

The Howes traveled extensively and knew and worked with many Civil War era celebrities:  Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Florence Nightingale, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Booth (his brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln), etc.  I was intrigued to discover that celebrities were as vocal and involved in politics as they are today.

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe

“Battle Hymn” would change the balance of power
in their marriage.
– Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Mrs. Howe was paid just $5 for the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which was first published in February, 1862.  It was later rejected as our national anthem due to its exclusive reference to the Christian religion.

In 1865, she expressed her feminist views in an unpublished essay, “Polarity.”  A few days after Pres. Lincoln’s funeral, she reflected on the domestic civil war that was her marriage on their 22nd wedding anniversary:

I have never known my husband to approve any act of mine which I myself valued.  Books ~ poems ~ essays ~ everything has been contemptible or contraband in his eyes, because it was not his way of doing things.

Bird GildedCage

My conversion was instant. . .
I embarked on the good ship, woman suffrage.
– Julia Ward Howe

Mrs. Howe saw herself as a bird in a gilded cage long before the term became fashionable.  Although the Howes secretly and partially funded John Brown’s uprising which ignited the Civil War, they were ambivalent about the abolition of slavery in public.  In 1868, Mrs. Howe took flight from her gilded cage:

She was escaping from his control, and control was his major weapon of power.  He had played his strongest hand, and it had failed.

Mrs. Howe was also ambivalent about the suffrage movement until she met Lucy Stone in 1869:

The suffrage movement offered a solution to this split between mind and spirit and united all her gifts in a grand public role.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had left the Republican Party to organize a women’s party campaigning for suffrage, but their insistence on women’s entitlement to the vote brought them into a conflict with black rights, a conflict that would evolve into racism.



For the first time in her life, Mrs. Howe found herself in a sisterhood of intellectual equals who shared her values. Ms. Stone was married to Henry Blackwell, and the couple had a rare equal partnership. His sister Elizabeth was the first female to earn a medical degree, and his sister-in-law Antoinette Brown was the first female ordained minister in the US.

One of the most intriguing facts I learned about Mrs. Howe was that she wanted June 2 to be a Mother’s Day for peace:

Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters and prevent the waste of that human life which they alone bear and know the cost?

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.  Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. . .The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession.

Mrs. Howe was born three days after Queen Victoria.  She died on October 17, 1910.  She was ninety-one.

Related Post:

Seneca Falls:  Have We Come A Long Way, Baby?  7/20/09


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