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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 (20 June 1863)
[Unsigned], "A Negro-Volunteer Song" The Anglo-African (20 June 1863): [1]View Poem Image
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      Air—"Hoist up the Flag!"[1]       [The following song was written by a private
in Co. A, 54th (colored) Regiment Massachusetts
Volunteers,[2] and has been sent to us for publica-
by a friend of the regiment:—
Fremont[3] told them when the war it first begun, How to save the Union, and the way it should be done; But Kentucky swore so hard, and old Abe he had his fears, Till every hope was lost but the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, all free without a slave, We'll fight to defend it as our Fathers did so brave, The gallant Comp'ny A will make the rebels dance, And we'll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.
McClellan went to Richmond[4] with two hundred thousand brave, He said "keep back the niggers," and the Union he would save. Little Mac he had his way, still the Union is in tears, Now they call for the help of the colored volunteers. Chor.—O, give us a flag, &c.
Old Jeff says he'll hang us[5] if we dare to meet him armed, A very big thing, but we are not at all alarmed, For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear, And "that's what's the matter"[6] with the colored volunteer. Chor.—O, give us a flag, &c.
So rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past, We had a hard road to travel but our day is coming fast, For God is for the right and we have no need to fear, The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer. Chor.—O, give us a flag, &c.
[Boston Transcript.[7]


  1. A Civil War song composed by Billy Holmes. Christian McWhirter notes that members of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment adapted Septimus Winner's lyrics, and transformed conservative unionist sentiments ("We'll fight for the Union, but just as it was") into radical statements of support for emancipation and African American enlistment (Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012], 162).Go back
  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" (Yacovone, A Voice of Thunder, 257n).
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  3. John Charles Frémont (1813–1890) made his name in the 1840s as an explorer of the West. He ran as the Republican Party's first presidential candidate in 1856. Frémont was defeated by James Buchanan, but his campaign "set the stage for Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860" (Pamela Herr, "Frémont, John Charles," in American National Biography Online). Lincoln gave him the command of the Department of the West when the Civil War broke out. In an attempt to subdue Confederate opposition and regain standing in divided Missouri, Frémont issued an edict to free the slaves of rebels in the state (August 30, 1861). The move alarmed proslavery Unionists and threatened to undermine Lincoln's efforts to keep slave-state Kentucky in the Union. The president ordered his general to revoke the proclamation. As a result of the episode, Frémont "gained . . . a large following, particularly among radical Republicans critical of Lincoln's management of the war" (Herr).Go back
  4. George B. McClellan (1826–1885) took over the command of the Army of the Potomac after its crushing defeat at Bull Run (July 21, 1861). He built a formidable army and won the esteem of his soldiers, but his reluctance to attack the enemy caused consternation in Washington. In the spring of 1862 delay ruined his plans to capture the Confederate capital. McClellan moved further away from Richmond during the Seven Days' Battles (June 25–July 1); in spite of his successes, the campaign looked like defeat. Lincoln gave his general one more chance after McClellan failed to deliver a decisive victory at Antietam (September 17, 1862). General Lee's army escaped from the Shenandoah Valley in early November; McClellan was removed from his command. A proslavery Democrat, he won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in August 1864.Go back
  5. Jefferson Davis (1808?–1889), president of the Confederate States of America. In late December 1862 Davis issued a proclamation in response to both Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and General Butler's "outrages and atrocities" in New Orleans and the surrounding region. Davis ordered that Butler's commissioned officers be treated as "robbers and criminals deserving death" and that "all negro slaves captured in arms" and "all commissioned officers of the United States . . . found serving in company with armed slaves in insurrection" be punished according to state laws (James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy: Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861–1865 [Nashville: United States Publishing Company, 1906], 1:271, 274). In effect, Davis defined African American soldiers and their officers as insurrectionists and condemned them to death.Go back
  6. A catchphrase from Stephen Foster's "That's What's the Matter" (1862), associated with (minstrel representations of) fugitive slaves or "contrabands." Dan Bryant's minstrel troupe incorporated it into "How Are You Green-Backs!" (1863). "The Colored Brigade" included the line "We'll show dem what's de matter in de colored brigade." The phrase also circulated on Unionist ephemera: one Union envelope displayed a contraband caricature with the words "Massa can't have dis chile, dat's what's de matter" (see Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001], 153).Go back
  7. Boston Evening Transcript, established as the Daily Evening Transcript in 1830, edited throughout the war by Daniel N. Haskell, with regular editorial contributions from Thomas Bayley Fox, "an earnest anti-slavery man and an early Republican" who advocated the aggressive prosecution of a war to put down rebellion (Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, The Boston Transcript: A History of Its First Hundred Years [1930; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969], 122). Fox's eldest son, Charles Barnard Fox, held a command in the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Regiment.Go back