John Brown, an abolitionist determined to destroy the slavery system in America, led 21 supporters across the Potomac river from Maryland to Virginia, in October 1859. The aim was to seize weapons held at an arsenal in Harper’s Ferry that would help further their cause to rid America of slavery. Brown’s mission came to an end two days later when the arsenal was stormed by U.S. troops, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Ironically,the first person killed by Brown’s men was a free black man named Heywood Shepherd and, of interest to us here in Ireland, the second person to die was an Irishman,Thomas Boerly, a native of County Roscommon who had arrived in the USA in 1844 in search of a better life. John Brown was seriously wounded in the fray and he was tried, found guilty of treason and hanged on December 2 1859. Very soon after his death his memory was preserved by the addition of new lyrics to an already established popular tune that became known as the John Brown Song. The John Brown Song was played in public for perhaps the first time on May 12, 1861 at a flag raising ceremony at Fort Warren, near Boston, very shortly after the start of the American Civil War. The song, better known as ‘John Brown’s Body‘, quickly became a hit in the Union army. New verses were added as its popularity grew, some of which were full of humour and mockery – such as:
”We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples/’til he gets the diarhee ” was a sung version, which in print became ‘We’ll hang old Jeff Davis /from a sour apple tree”. Apparently social niceties of the time meant that hanging was much more acceptable than mention of bodily functions.
In November 1861, Julia Ward Howe, a writer, poet and herself a social reformer and abolitionist, visited Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. While there, she attended a public review of troops at which the John Brown Song was sung. Julia’s companion asked her if she could improve on the rather ‘coarse’ lyrics and pen some words that would be more appropriate for fighting men.
‘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. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper‘.
And so, on the night of November 18th 1861, the words of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, full of biblical references, were composed by Julia in a room in the Willard Hotel, Washington D.C . They were first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February of the following year. The song was highly acclaimed and quickly became the anthem of the Union army and the best known song of the Civil War. It has survived down the years as a very stirring and moving patriotic hymn of the United States, and much loved by people beyond their shores.
Julia had witnessed first hand the horrors of the civil war. As a member of the Sanitary Commission, set up to promote healthy and clean conditions in the camps of the Union Army in an attempt to reduce the numbers dying from infection, she had witnessed the terrible results of conflict – death, disease, maiming, bereavement, poverty, destruction of towns and infrastructure. She also worked to support and raise funds to help the widows and orphans on both sides.
At the same time, Ann Jervis, a devout church goer and social activist, was also actively involved in bringing relief of suffering to those affected by the war. She had worked tirelessly to try to mend the rift between both sides of the conflict, and when the war ended the tensions between the returning Confederate and Union soldiers in Virgina where she lived were running high. In 1865 she organized a Mothers Friendship Day to bring together soldiers and families of both sides. The event, to the surprise of many who had expected fighting to break out, was a great success and was repeated on an annual basis for some years.
Julia meanwhile used her celebrity status to promote pacifism and women’s suffrage. As a much sought after speaker she had a forum for the promotion of peace. In 1870 at the outbreak of another war between France and Prussia and influenced by the work of Ann Jarvis, she called on women everywhere to come together to oppose war and to seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. Julia issued her Mother’s Day Proclamation and proposed an annual Mother’s Day, honouring Peace, Motherhood and Womanhood. The idea was taken up and the day was celebrated in some cities across the nation for many years, but it was not the great success that she had hoped.
After the death of Ann Jarvis, her daughter Anna Jarvis decided to commemorate her own mother’s memory and began a crusade to have a national day for all mothers. The first such day was celebrated in a church in 1907 where Anne Jarvis as a young woman, had taught Sunday school. The idea spread and soon was being celebrated in 45 states.
Julia died in 1910, at the age of 91. While she is best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she is also recognized as a significant contributor to the establishment of a Mother’s Day.
Just a few years after her death, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first National Mother’s Day and signed a Congressional Resolution declaring that the second Sunday in May would henceforth be a day to honour all mothers.
James Fould, 2000. The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk