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Popularity of Lincoln's Favorite Hymn Endures

This original copy of Julia Ward Howe's lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is expected to sell for around $350,000. (VOA/J. Taboh)

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," originally written as a Civil War anthem, was President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite, according to historians.

The appeal of the hymn continues today. The original manuscript of the song's lyrics will be sold at auction in New York next month and is expected to fetch between $250,000 and $350,000.

Inspiration at twilight

In the early morning hours of Nov. 19, 1861, poet and anti-slavery activist Julia Ward Howe woke up from a powerful dream and quickly scribbled down some words.

Those verses, written during the early years of the Civil War at the Willard hotel in Washington, D.C., were inspired by a skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers she'd witnessed just hours earlier.

The previous day, she and her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, also met President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. In her memoir, published in 1899, Howe wrote of being struck by "the sad expression of Mr. Lincoln’s deep, blue eyes."

In the carriage on the way back to the hotel, which is located near the White House and only a few miles from the Confederate advance posts, she and a few members of her party started singing snatches of popular army songs, including the rousing folk tune, "John Brown’s Body," about the famed abolitionist John Brown.

Her friend, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, suggested she write new words to the song, which had become popular in the Union Army during the Civil War.

And Howe did just that.

Lincoln's favorite

"I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly," wrote Howe. "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.’"

Julia Ward Howe penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in November 1861.
Julia Ward Howe penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in November 1861.

Howe’s visions of "Lincoln and battles and marching troops" resulted in "this rather remarkable series of verses," says Chris Coover, senior specialist in American historical documents at Christie's auction house in New York.

With the verses set to the tune of "John Brown’s Body," it quickly became a resounding success with the Union soldiers, and even President Lincoln himself.

"Lincoln loved this piece and asked for it to be performed on many occasions," Coover says.

Lasting legacy

Since the Civil War, the hymn has become an iconic anthem, part of the traditional choir repertoire, and a standard at major political events.

Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted parts of the hymn in several of his speeches, including his rousing 1968 address in Memphis, Tennessee, delivered the night before his assassination. King’s last spoken words at a public event were taken from the hymn's first verse.

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Words that carried deep emotional impact more than a century after they were first written, and which continue to resonate in the American consciousness today.