Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4
Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (10 October 1863)
Frances E. W. Harper, "The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth" The Anglo-African (10 October 1863): [1]View Poem Image
Full size in new window
FOR THE ANGLO-AFRICAN.

THE MASSACHUSETTS FIFTY-FOURTH.[1]

           
Where storms of death were sweeping, Wildly through the darkened sky, Stood the bold but fated column, Brave to do, to dare, and die.
With cheeks that knew no blanching, And brows that would not pale; Where the bloody rain fell thickest, Mingled with the fiery hail.
Bearers of a high commission To break each brother's chain; With hearts aglow for freedom, They bore the toll and pain.
And onward pressed though shot and shell Swept fiercely round their path; While batteries hissed with tongues of flame, And bayonets flashed with wrath.
Oh! not in vain those heroes fell, Amid those hours of fearful strife; Each dying heart poured out a balm To heal the wounded nation's life.
And from the soil drenched with their blood, The fairest flowers of peace shall bloom; And history cull rich laurels there, To deck each martyr hero's tomb.
And ages yet uncrossed with life, As sacred urns, do hold each mound Where sleep the loyal, true, and brave In freedom's consecrated ground.

Notes

  1. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment; the first regiment of African American volunteers raised in the North, authorized in late January 1863 and mustered into the US service on May 13. Black leaders called on men to enlist and thereby seize their "golden opportunity" and "first best chance" to establish an undeniable claim to the full rights of American citizens (Frederick Douglass, "Men of Color, to Arms!" reprinted in the Anglo-African, March 7, 1863, [2]; editorial, Anglo-African, March 7, 1863, [2]). The Fifty-Fourth quickly filled with men "from virtually every black community in the North" (Donald Yacovone, A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier's Civil War [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998], 31). A number of the new recruits would provide the Anglo-African and the Christian Recorder with correspondence from the front during their term of service. Both titles served as a channel of communication between distant volunteers and the folks at home.
     
    Under Robert Gould Shaw's command, the regiment took shape at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. On May, 28, 1863, after weeks of training, the men paraded through Boston's cheering streets and then embarked on the steamer De Molay, bound for South Carolina's Sea Islands and the theater of war. (A sister regiment, the Fifty-Fifth, had already begun to form by the time members of the Fifty-Fourth departed for South Carolina.) In the Department of the South, the Massachusetts volunteers had to contend with the prejudiced policies of the US government as well as the Confederate enemy.
     
    On July 18, 1863, Shaw and the Fifty-fourth courageously led a frontal attack on Morris Island's (South Carolina) Fort Wagner. Their bravery could not compensate for General Quincy Gillmore's poor planning; the assault failed, and 272 members of the regiment were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner (Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999], 52). Northern newspapers reported that Wagner's Confederate garrison had buried Shaw in a mass grave with his men. Abolitionists reinterpreted the Confederate gesture of contempt as a mark of distinction.
     
    The charge on Fort Wagner established their Northern reputation as heroes, yet Lincoln's administration refused to pay them as soldiers, at the basic rate of thirteen dollars per month. For more than a year, the Fifty-Fourth and the Fifty-Fifth protested against the injustice by refusing to accept any pay at all. In July 1864, Congress finally passed a law to equalize pay and to reimburse free black soldiers for their full terms of service. Only in January 1865 did the War Department promote Sergeant Stephen A. Swails of the Fifty-Fourth to a commissioned post, making him the army's "first black commissioned officer" (Donald Yacovone, A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier's Civil War [Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998], 257n).
    Go back
  2. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), activist, orator, and writer. Born Frances Ellen Watkins in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper was raised by her aunt and schoolmaster uncle after the death of her parents. She received a rigorous education at the Reverend William Watkins's Academy for Negro Youth and took part in antislavery activities with his family. In her midtwenties, she taught in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She pledged herself to the antislavery movement in response to the death of a free black man whom Maryland authorities had arrested and sent into slavery for the crime of entering the state. In 1854, she began to lecture for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Her Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects appeared in the same year (the first of ten volumes of poetry published between 1854 and 1901). In November 1859 she championed militant abolitionist John Brown as "the hero of the nineteenth century" (William Still, The Underground Rail Road [Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872], 762).
     
    Harper continued to lecture with great success until late 1860, when she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. The family moved to a farm in Grove City, Ohio, where Harper managed their domestic life and wrote for the antislavery press. The Christian Recorder of September 27, 1862, printed her criticisms of Lincoln in late September 1862: "The President's dabbling with Colonization just now, suggests to my mind the idea of a man almost dying with a loathsome cancer, and busying himself about having his hair trimmed according to the latest fashion." The Emancipation Proclamation raised her hopes, and she returned to the platform to speak on "the President's Proclamation." "I know that all is not accomplished," she told William Still, "but we may rejoice in what has been already wrought,—the wondrous change in so short a time" (766). Her poems appeared in the Anglo-African, the Free Nation, and other newspapers. As "a form of public speech addressed to concrete, empirically identifiable others" (Paula Bernat Bennett, Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800—1900 [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003], 5), these pieces represent a continuation of her mission as a lecturer. The newspaper served as another platform.
     
    Fenton Harper's death precipitated a financial crisis in May 1864: the contents of the family home were seized by creditors. Harper returned to the lecture circuit and "turned her attention to Reconstruction, temperance, education, moral reform, and women's rights" (Shirley Wilson Logan, 'We Are Coming': The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999], 48). She and Edmonia Highgate were the only women to address the National Convention of Colored Men in the fall of 1864. After the war, she lectured throughout the South. Her first serialized novel, Minnie's Sacrifice, appeared in 1869. After the publication of Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), she helped found the National Association of Colored Women (1896).
    Go back