This storied hotel is often referred to as the “residence of presidents,” because every American president from Franklin Pierce to George W. Bush has either stayed or attended events there. President Barack Obama, who stayed at the Hay-Adams prior to his inauguration, definitely needs to visit the Willard to uphold the tradition.
An eclectic list of guests stayed there over the years, including P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, Gloria Swanson, Harry Houdini, Buffalo Bill, the Duke of Windsor, Mark Twain (who wrote two books there), and Walt Whitman (who referenced the hotel in his verses), Nathaniel Hawthorne once said the hotel was more the center of Washington than the Capitol Building or the White House.
Inspiration must live inside the Willard’s walls. Martin Luther King stayed there when he led the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. One can imagine him going over the unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech there before he delivered it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
A plaque on the hotel’s front façade commemorates another famous set of verses written there. In November 1861, Julia Ward Howe came to Washington because she had heard that the Union Army troops’ morale was notoriously low. Many soldiers had joined the army believing the conflict would be over after a skirmish or two, but after the Battle of Bull Run in the spring of that year, it became clear the war would be prolonged. New recruitment had become a serious problem. Howe was worried that the army’s disintegration would defeat efforts to end slavery forever.
While she was staying at the Willard, Howe heard soldiers from her open window, singing “John Brown’s Body” and thought it a shame that such a good marching tune didn’t have more inspiring words. When she woke up in the middle of the night, she “scribbled the verses almost without looking at the paper,” she said later.
Howe sold her “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” verses to the Atlantic Monthly for $5, and the powerful anthem went on to become one of America’s most beloved patriotic songs, serving as a rallying call for the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. In the 1860’s, however, when it was sung around “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps,” the song led Union troops into battle through the next four long years, until they were, as the hymn promised, victorious.
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