Julia Ward Howe at Legg Hall


Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is today remembered primarily for writing the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and for delivering, in Skaneateles, the first lecture of the Library Course of 1883.

Mrs. Howe was inspired to write “The Battle Hymn” during a trip to Washington in 1861. With her husband and friends, she rode out in a carriage to watch a Union army review, which was suddenly disrupted by a Confederate attack. On the sooner-than-expected return journey, among a host of retreating troops, the Howe party sought to lift spirits by singing patriotic songs, including “John Brown’s Body.” A friend suggested to Mrs. Howe that she could compose better words to the tune. Late that night, in her hotel room, the words came to her. Careful not to wake her children, she groped in the dark for a pencil and paper and wrote down the new lyrics. In February of 1862, The Atlantic magazine published “The Battle Hymn,” paid Mrs. Howe five dollars, and made her famous.

Described by one writer as “very well-read and frighteningly intelligent,” Mrs. Howe went on to become a prominent feminist, suffragette, abolitionist, playwright and poet. Her public life was driven by a passion to end slavery and uplift the place of women. She was also driven by necessity: Her husband had taken control of her money when they married, and lost most of it. And so she toured and lectured.

In November of 1883, the Syracuse Daily Courier published this report from Skaneateles:

“The first lecture of the Library Course was delivered by Julia Ward Howe on Tuesday evening. Her subject, ‘Men’s Women and Women’s Women,’ which attracted many by its oddity, pleased and benefited all who heard it.”

And how did she appear to her audience in Legg Hall? A niece described her Aunt Julia thusly:

“A small woman of no particular shape or carriage, clothes never quite taken care of, her bonnets never quite straight on her head; and yet there was about her presence an unforgettable distinction and importance. Her speaking voice was very beautiful, and her face had a sensitive gravity, a look of compassionate wisdom, until a twinkle of fun rippled over it and a naughty imp laughed in her eyes.”

Mrs. Howe had been giving the “Men’s Women and Women’s Women” lecture since 1872, when she returned home from a tour and found her next lecture already advertised under that title, but “not one line of it written.” She set to work, finished by morning, delivered the lecture that afternoon, and went on giving it all over the country. After an 1877 appearance in Minnesota, a reporter noted, “Speaking simply, and strictly from her varied experiences, her power over her hearers is complete without any attempts at oratorical effect, which she entirely ignores. At the close of the lecture, she recited two or three poems, closing with her stirring ‘Battle Hymn.’”

And what of the content? A student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, George L. Collie, heard the lecture in 1876, and wrote, “Julia Ward Howe spoke on the subject ‘Men’s Women and Women’s Women.’ She praised the latter for they are the true women who labor for the welfare of their sex, while she scorned the former for wasting their time trying to attract men and for using their charms and talents to please the other sex.”

That was an apt summation, especially for a college freshman. A journal entry by Mrs. Howe, from October 1881, underscores the theme of her talk and also gives us a glimpse of what life on the lecture circuit was like:

“Left Schenectady yesterday. Drawing-room car. Read Greek a good deal. At Syracuse I took the tumbler of the car and ran out to get some milk, etc., for supper. Spent 25 cents, and took my slender meal in the car, on a table. After this, slept profoundly all the evening; took the sleeper at Rochester, and slept like the dead, having had very insufficient sleep for two nights past. Was awakened early to get out at Cleveland – much detained by a young woman who got into the dressing-room before me, and stayed to make an elaborate toilet, keeping every one else out. When at last she came out, I said to her, ‘Well, madam, you have taken your own time, to the inconvenience of everybody else. You are the most selfish woman I ever travelled with.’”

Probably a man’s woman.

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