The Grand Review of the Troops, November 20, 1861
The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in November 1861 was the culmination of months of recruitment, training, and effort. Recently, we spoke with National Portrait Gallery historian James Barber concerning the massive parade of troops.
Q: What was the significance of the Grand Review of the Troops on November 20, 1861?
A: In an effort to rebuilt the shattered Union army after its demoralizing defeat and chaotic retreat during the First Bull Run campaign, President Abraham Lincoln in the late summer and fall of 1861 appointed General George B. McClellan general and chief of all Federal armies, replacing the venerable Winfield Scott.
Energetic and supremely self-confident, McClellan, 34, set to work, and after nearly four months he was ready to show the president and the nation the fruits of his organizational prowess. On the afternoon of November 20, McClellan presided over a Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in the northern Virginia countryside near Bailey’s Crossroads.
For three hours some 70,000 polished troops marched passed the reviewing stand, where the president, members of his cabinet, and Washington dignitaries were in attendance. It was the largest military assemblage up to that time in North America. “The Grand Review went off splendidly,” wrote McClellan that night in a letter to his wife, “not a mistake was made, not a hitch. I never saw so large a Review in Europe so well done—I was completely satisfied & delighted beyond expression.”
Q: How does Julia Ward Howe tie into this event?
A: Among the 20,000 spectators to witness the Grand Review was the poet and social activist Julia Ward Howe of Boston, Massachusetts, who was visiting the Washington area with her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.
After leaving the review, during the carriage ride back to Washington, she heard troops singing the song “John Brown’s Body.” A companion suggested that she should write new lyrics to the song, the melody of which lingered in her mind that night in her room at Willard’s Hotel in Washington. She awoke “in the gray of the morning twilight” with the song still in her head and “the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind.” She arose quickly and in the dimness of the early hour she began scribbling the verses on stationery “almost without looking at the paper.”
Her poem, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was first published in The Atlantic Monthly on February 1862; the magazine paid her five dollars. Soon thereafter her verse was set to music and her inspirational song became a wartime favorite, and is still popular today.
Julia Ward Howe / Sarah Choate Sears / Photogravure, 1907 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Champions of the Union / Currier & Ives Lithography Company / Lithograph with tintstone on paper, 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution