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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 (22 August 1863)
W. M. F., "On Seeing the 54th and 55th Massachusetts (Black) Regiments" The Anglo-African (22 August 1863): [4]View Poem Image
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I saw a gathering cloud—light shone upon it— Rising portentous, black with threatening power, A thousand thunderbolts seemed hid within it, Ready to strike and signalize the hour.
Long had we waited, dallied with the foe, And seen the thousands of our country falling, Nor dared to strike the fierce effective blow[3] For what th' eternal God seemed ever calling.
At last we rallied! Fate-like, just and awful, Pouring along our streets the solemn host— No longer in derision spoke the scornful, The serried columns came—stern Freedom's boast!
From many a Southern field they trembling came, Fled from the lash, the fetter, and the chain; Return they, now, not at base Slavery's claim,[4] To meet th' oppressor on the battle plain.
They lift the flag—the starry banner waves From out that throng of Afric's darkened van; Thousands of bayonets foretell the graves Where they must lie who spurn the rights of man!
Ah! never yet was Justice seen more fitting, Her whips, scorns, terrors, more divinely sent; And never yet her graceful form found sitting In more poetic sense of punishment.
And ne'er before, in all our history, Has truer glory from that banner shone, Of manlier sons, with high toned minstrelsy, Exultant in the march to honor gone.
It is the hour, the dread, foretelling hour, O the great trial of the nation's heart: From Afric's self, perchance, shall spring a power From which, at last, the guilty foe shall start!
Contagious, dreadful, spreading far and wide, Ere long this cloud, so threatening in our wake, O'er the South heavens shall spread, and woe betide The base-born minions where its thunders break!


  1. Note on the text: The text in red, which is obscured in the newspaper printing represented here, is supplied by W. M. F. "On Seeing the 54th and 55th Massachusetts (Black) Regiments," The Living Age,  15 August 1863, 290.
  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).
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  2. Sister regiment to the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, organized at Readville, Massachusetts, and mustered into service on June 22, 1863. More volunteers arrived at Camp Meigs than could be accommodated in the ranks of the Fifty-Fourth; the first men enlisted in the newly formed Fifty-Fifth regiment on May 12, 1863 (Charles B. Fox, Record of the Service of the Fifty-Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry [Cambridge, MA: Wilson, 1868], 1). At the end of May, the Fifty-Fourth left Massachusetts for active service in the region of South Carolina's Sea Islands. To mark the occasion of their departure, they paraded through Boston: cheering crowds lined the streets. Meanwhile, the Fifty-Fifth continued to train at Camp Meigs as new recruits filled its ranks. In mid-July the regiment received orders to leave for the South. The authorities intended the Fifty-Fifth to sail from New York City, but the outbreak of the draft riots prompted a change of plan; the men embarked at Boston on July 21, 1863 (Fox, 7). Like the Fifty-Fourth, the Fifty-Fifth paraded through streets filled with spectators. They reached New Bern, North Carolina, at the end of July, and from there moved to South Carolina's Sea Islands, where they took part in General Quincy Gillmore's operations against Charleston.
    The men also contended with the government's prejudiced policies regarding promotion, protection, and pay. The government's injustice drove Private Wallace Baker to mutinous protest, for which he was executed; almost a month after Baker's execution, more than seventy members of Company D wrote to Lincoln, with a demand for pay and immediate discharge. (See Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 125).
    The Fifty-Fifth fought on James Island in May and July 1864, and took part in battles at Honey Hill and Deveaux Neck later in the year. The regiment was disbanded after the men returned to Boston in late September 1865.
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  3. At once the abolition of slavery and the enlistment of African American soldiers; a reference to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) is implicit in the next stanza ("At last we rallied").Go back
  4. A reference to the notorious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Part of the Compromise of 1850, it provided for the enforcement and extension of the 1793 law that "authorized slaveowners to cross state lines to recapture their property and bring it before any local magistrate or federal court to prove ownership," while denying the "fugitive" legal rights (James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The American Civil War [London: Penguin, 1991], 78). The law of 1850 swept aside personal liberty laws enacted by free states and rewarded federal commissioners for ruling in favor of claimants seeking to return fugitives to slavery. It gave US marshals the power to enlist citizens in the work of capture and threatened to fine marshals and deputies who refused to assist slaveowners.
    The law also criminalized those who aided fugitives—and thus struck at the network of conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists were foremost among those Northerners who insisted that the government had no right to dictate to conscience; declaring their allegiance to a "higher law," they resisted attempts to seize fugitives. In spite of their efforts, more than three hundred alleged fugitives were returned during the decade of the 1850s (McPherson, 80). By contrasting the southward journey of powerless fugitives with that of empowered citizen-soldiers, the poem triumphantly declares that war has transformed the federal government's proslavery stance—and predicts the ultimate destruction of a "foe" yet "guilty" of the sin of slavery.
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  5. William Lloyd Garrison's weekly antislavery newspaper. Launched in January 1831, the Boston-based Liberator quickly gained a reputation for agitation and controversy. Garrison (1805–1879) was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (est. 1833) and served as its president from 1843 until 1865. He proposed to disband the Anti-Slavery Society after the abolition of American slavery; when the motion was voted down, he resigned the presidency. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Garrison closed the Liberator at the end of December 1865.
    In late November 1864, Garrison's good friend and long-time colleague Oliver Johnson urged him to merge the Liberator with the National Anti-Slavery Standard (the official organ of the American Anti-Slavery Society). Garrison resisted, maintaining that each paper was "distinctive" and that a merger was impracticable at a moment when Lincoln's reelection foretold the imminent destruction of "the whole slave system." He went on to outline what he saw as the Liberator's strengths. In addition to its unique "historic position" and "moral prestige," the title possessed "completeness" as a journal: "If the Liberator has been at all effective in the past, it has been owing to its completeness, as a whole, from week to week, and not to what I have written. This is the true value of every journal. My selections have cost me much labor, and they have been made with all possible discrimination as to their interest, ability, and appositeness. The amount of communicated original matter has always been much larger than that of the Standard; and though not always of special interest or value, it has made the Liberator less a transcript, and more readable on that account" (The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, ed. Walter M. Merrill [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979], 5:240–241).
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  6. Unidentified.Go back