|Julia Ward Howe was born into a wealthy family in New York City in 1819. Descended from Roger Williams and two governors of Rhode Island, she mixed socially with such luminaries as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Dickens. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) counted himself as her friend.
In 1843 she married Samuel Gridley Howe, eighteen years her senior. An autocratic husband, he sharply limited her activities and took charge of her money, which he managed ruinously. When he died in 1876, she wrote in her diary, “Start my new life today.”
Howe used her writing and speaking skills to promote a number of causes, to include women’s rights, education reform, and the abolition of slavery.
In 1861, she traveled to Washington D.C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House. She also visited a Union army camp, where she heard soldiers singing, “John Brown’s body lies a’molderin’ in the grave”—a song honoring John Brown, a prominent abolitionist who had been hanged for treason against the state of Virginia in 1859.
Howe’s pastor, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, asked her to consider writing new words to that tune. That night, in her hotel room, the words came to mind as she tried to sleep. She got up and wrote them hastily on an old piece of paper. She then offered her poem to The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which published it in February 1862, sending her a check for five dollars.
Chaplain C.C. McCabe of the Union army heard the song, and began to teach it to the soldiers in his command. It soon spread to soldiers in other units—and finally to ordinary citizens of the Union States. It became incredibly popular, making Howe famous.
The song is couched in the language of Christ’s Second Coming—a time when Christ will “sift out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.” Howe’s “grapes of wrath” in the first verse alludes to the passage in Revelation 14:19, which speaks of “the great winepress of the wrath of God.”
Howe’s mention of “the trumpet that shall never sound retreat” might allude to the trumpets of Revelation 8, where seven angels sound seven trumpets. However, that phrase spoke loudly to soldiers who, in the confusion of battle, received their commands from trumpet sounds. A “trumpet that shall never sound retreat” was an inspiring image for those soldiers.
Howe’s song continues to enjoy great popularity. Lyndon Johnson had it sung at his inauguration in 1965. Andy Williams sang it at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968.
But the loveliest story comes from James Humes, a presidential speechwriter. Humes interviewed General Eisenhower a few weeks after Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965. He asked Eisenhower to talk about the most moving moment of that funeral—and Eisenhower mentioned this song. He noted that Churchill had learned this song at his American mother’s knee. It was one of his favorites.
Eisenhower said, “We all know the first verse, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory’—but do you know the third verse? Because there I was seated with heads of state—Charles de Gaulle of France, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. King Olav of Norway, King Baudoin of Belgium, heads of nations whose freedom had been redeemed by the warrior who lay in state only yards before us:
“And I could see feelings of gratitude and reverence mist their eyes as they did my own as we all sang:
‘He sounded forth the trumpet that never called retreat.
His will goes marching on.'”
(From Humes’ book, Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter)
The World War II generation has largely passed now, so we need to be reminded that Winston Churchill single-handedly kept Britain in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis through the darkest hours of the war. He never sounded retreat! To quote one of his speeches, “Never! Never! Never!”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan