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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
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Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (30 May 1863)
[Unsigned], "To the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers" The Anglo-African (30 May 1863): [1]View Poem Image
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From the Commonwealth.[1]


America has owned you Men at last![3] Plough that confession in by noble deed, And reverence for your race shall from the seed Grow up to grandeur strong, and rooted fast. O ye have high incitement! Hear the Past Implore you by its sorrow, wrong and shame The Future, that will blossom in your fame, Attends your act. Behold a concourse vast, The unborn myriads of your race are there, Are tented with you; hands unseen reach out Innumerable, the soldier's gun to share; While angels of man's destiny about Your standards throng, and with a secret shout, When ye are noble, fill to heaven the air.


  1. A Boston-based weekly, established in August 1862 "as the semiofficial organ of the Emancipation League" (James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964], 438). The Commonwealth had particularly strong connections with abolitionist communities in New England. George Luther Stearns provided the fledgling title with financial support, and Franklin Sanborn became editor-in-chief when Moncure Conway left for England in April 1863 (438). Both Stearns and Sanborn supported John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid in 1859.
    In 1863 the Commonwealth advertised itself as "an independent journal devoted to the cause of Free Democratic Government; government by the whole people without respect of race, nativity, or sect." The paper advocated "the utter extinction of Slavery" and "insist[ed] upon the full employment of Liberty as the legitimate and specific weapon against the rebellion of Slavery" ("The Commonwealth," Commonwealth, May 22, 1863, 3) Here, the Civil War offered an opportunity to realize the Constitution's antislavery spirit and fulfill the intentions of the nation's founders. In mid-1863 the Commonwealth's list of contributors included the likes of Lydia Maria Child, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing, Caroline A. Mason, the Reverend Octavius Brooks Frothingham, and James Redpath.
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  2. 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).
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  3. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter (April 12–13 1861), African American men from Northern cities "rushed to volunteer for military duty. . . . But black hopes for [interracial] unity against the slave power quickly vanished. Throughout the North, whites rebuffed black patriotism" and rejected their offers of military service (Donald Yacovone, A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier's Civil War [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998], 14). The federal government's policy reversal was widely perceived as an official—if implicit and begrudging—acknowledgment of African American manhood.
    In the opening line of the Commonwealth sonnet, the verb "owned" presents this acknowledgment as a reluctant confession on the part of the nation. Perhaps "owned" also gestured to a contrast between men owned as slave property and men recognized as American soldiers. If the line also articulated the uncomfortable possibility of continued ownership, such ambiguity was unlikely to surface when readers encountered the poem in the Anglo-African, as part of the Hamilton brothers' enlistment campaign.
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