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, 1863–1864Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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THE AMERICAN FLAG.
TO COL. ROBERT G. SHAW AND THE 54TH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEERS.
At last, at last, each flowing star In that pure field of heavenly blue, On every people shining far, Burns, to its utmost promise true.
Hopes in our fathers' hearts that stirred, Justice, the seal of peace, long scorned, O perfect peace! too long deferred, At last, at last, your day has dawned.
Your day has dawned, but many an hour Of storm and cloud, of doubt and tears, Across the eternal sky must lower, Before the glorious noon appears.
And not for us that noontide glow, For us the strife and toil shall be; But welcome toil, for now we know Our children shall that glory see.
At last, at last, O Stars and Stripes! Touched in your birth by Freedom's flame, Your purifying lightning wipes Out from our history its shame.
Stand to your faith, America! Sad Europe listen to our call! Up to your manhood, Africa! That gracious flag floats over all.
And when the hour seems dark with doom, Our sacred banner, lifted higher, Shall flash away the gathering gloom, With inextinguishable fire.
Pure as its white the future see! Bright as its red is now the sky! Fixed as its stars the faith shall be, That nerves our hands to do or die.
- Note on the text: The text in red, which is obscured in the newspaper printing represented here, is supplied by [Unsigned], "The Flag," Harper's Weekly, 13 June 1863, 371.
- Robert Gould Shaw (1837–July 18, 1863) was colonel of 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. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts received War Department authorization to raise the first Northern regiment of African American volunteers in January 1863. Determined to form a model regiment, Andrew took care to select advisers, officers, and recruiters with antislavery convictions or connections; he offered Shaw the regiment's colonelcy at the end of January, on the basis of the young captain's military record and his wealthy family's influence in reform circles. Shaw turned Andrew down; he did not have abolitionist principles to trump his strong attachment to the Second Massachusetts Infantry. His mother persuaded him to think again.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, ; editorial, Anglo-African, March 7, 1863, ). 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 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 U.S. 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 Fort Wagner in South Carolina. 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 Fort 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: University of Illinois Press, 1998], 257n).
- The 1860 census describes writer and lecturer George William Curtis (1824–1892) as an "author" with a young family and little in the way of a personal estate. Curtis married Anna Shaw, Robert Gould Shaw's sister, in 1856—three years after joining Putnam's Monthly Magazine as an associate editor. When Putnam's folded in 1857, Curtis shouldered its financial obligations. At this time he began to write regular columns for Harper's Weekly (he had been contributing to Harper's New Monthly Magazine since 1853). He continued to write for Fletcher Harper throughout the war. From 1863 onward, he also served Harper's Weekly as its political editor. The appointment of Curtis, a staunch Republican whose thinking had been shaped by reformers and transcendentalists, was a new direction for the title.In his editorial columns and on the lecture platform, Curtis supported Lincoln's policies. A week after printing "The American Flag," the National Anti-Slavery Standard noticed that Curtis's lecture on "Political Infidelity" had been well received at New York's Cooper Institute: "It was only at the end of his lecture, when he bestowed unqualified praise upon the President, that he failed to carry with him the judgment of the entire audience, and the majority seemed to go with him even then, if we may judge from the hearty cheers which followed his eloquent sentences" (National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 12, 1864). He played an active part in New York's Republican Party during Reconstruction.
- In the Harper's Weekly text, "flowing" reads "glowing."
- "The American Flag" appeared in the June 13, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly, under the title "The Flag." The date "May 1863" appended to the poem in its Standard printing highlights that the poem was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard almost a year after its composition. In the Standard, the date serves to mark the piece as a posthumous memorial; since the poem's original dedication, Shaw and members of the Fifty-Fourth had been killed in battle.