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 SECOND LOUISIANA.MAY 27TH, 1863.
Dark as the clouds of even, Ranked in the western heaven, Waiting the breath that lifts All the dread mass, and drifts Tempest and falling brand Over a ruined land;— So still and orderly, Arm to arm, knee to knee, Waiting the great event, Stands the black regiment.
Down the long dusky line Teeth gleam and eyeballs shine; And the bright bayonet, Bristling and firmly set, Flashed with a purpose grand, Long ere the sharp command Of the fierce rolling drum Told them their time had come, Told them what work was sent For the black regiment.
"Now," the flag-sergeant cried, "Though death and hell betide, Let the whole nation see If we are fit to be Free in this land; or bound Down, like the whining hound— Bound with red stripes of pain In our old chains again!" Oh! what a shout there went From the black regiment!
"Charge!" Trump and drum awoke; Onward the bondmen broke; Bayonet and saber-stroke Vainly opposed their rush. Through the wild battle's crush, With but one thought aflush, Driving their lords like chaff, In the guns' mouths they laugh; Or at the slippery brands Leaping with open hands, Down they tear man and horse, Down in their awful course; Trampling with bloody heel Over the crashing steel, All their eyes forward bent, Rushed the black regiment.
"Freedom!" their battle-cry— "Freedom! or leave to die!" Ah! and they meant the word, Not as with us 'tis heard, Not a mere party-shout: They gave their spirits out; Trusted the end to God, And on the gory sod Rolled in triumphant blood. Glad to strike one free blow, Whether for weal or woe; Glad to breathe one free breath, Though on the lips of death. Praying—alas! in vain!— That they might fall again, So they could once more see That burst to liberty! This was what "freedom" lent To the black regiment.
Hundreds on hundreds fell; But they are resting well; Scourges and shackles strong Never shall do them wrong. O, to the living few, Soldiers, be just and true! Hail them as comrades tried; Fight with them side by side; Never, in field or tent, Scorn the black regiment!
- The First and Third Regiments of Louisiana Native Guards bravely attacked Port Hudson on May 27, 1863. Some newspaper correspondents mistakenly reported that it was the Second Regiment which had taken part in the assault. In the summer of 1863 Boker's poem circulated in the antislavery press under the title "The Second Louisiana" (see also "The Second Louisiana" in the Christian Recorder, June 13, 1863, and "The Second Louisiana" in the Anglo-African, June 27, 1863). Boker probably wrote the poem in response to early reports, then changed the title to "The Black Regiment" when the mistake became apparent."Col. Daniel's Second Louisiana negro regiment distinguished itself . . . especially in charging upon the enemy's siege guns, losing killed and wounded over 600," reported the Boston Daily Evening Transcript of June 6, 1863 (quoted by James G. Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience during the Civil War [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995], 63). "Nobly done, Second Regiment of Louisiana," proclaimed the Liberator a fortnight later. General Nathaniel Banks's official report praised the First and Third Regiments. The Anglo-African of June 13, 1863, brushed aside reporters' confusion as to which Louisiana regiments had taken part in the battle: "It is immaterial which statement is true, so long as the great fact remains; that no such fighting has been seen since the war began."
- Here—and at several other points in the poem—Boker all but quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854). These deliberate references situate the Louisiana soldiers as an African American "Light Brigade" of equal and indisputable bravery. Boker's contemporaries drew the same parallel: a "special" for the Boston Journal reported that "We never saw a more literal rendering of Tennyson's famous 'Charge of the Light Brigade' [than] on the upper works of Port Hudson" (reprinted in the Anglo-African, June 27, 1863).
- Philadelphian George Henry Boker (1823–1890) gave up the law for a literary life in the 1840s. He wrote several plays, but success on the stage proved elusive; nevertheless, his household included several servants by 1860 (census records list his occupation as "Gent"). When the war broke out, Boker turned from drama to patriotic verse. He also cofounded Philadelphia's Union League in the winter of 1862; in addition to serving as the league's secretary, he used public poetry to promote Unionist sentiment in and beyond the city. His tribute to the "The Second Louisiana" was probably part of this larger mission. The poem was a hit in abolitionist circles. Oliver Wendell Holmes went into ecstasies: "I thank God, dear Mr Boker, that he has disposed you to consecrate your fine gifts to the cause of freedom and humanity" (quoted in Edward Sculley Bradley, George Boker: Poet and Patriot [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1927], 211).