55th Massachusetts Singing "John Brown's March" in Streets of Charleston, Feb. 21, 1865

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  1. This image must have been white Charlestonians’ worst nightmare times three: first, US troops in their city, once the home of secession; second, armed African Americans parading through their streets – the fear of slave uprising come true; and third, singing the song about the man who started the “Late Unpleasantness”, John Brown.

    • It was definitely not a good day for white Charlestonians. That said, I am more interested in the extent to which those soldiers understood this moment as an end or beginning. Many of the men in the unit had been active in politics before the war and this continued after 1865. The regiment was stationed in Orangeburg, SC until August 1865, where it assisted the Freedmens Bureau and newly freed slaves.

      It is also important to remember that the regiment had only recently settled its pay dispute with the federal government. This is certainly a joyous scene and the defeat of the Confederacy would have surely been a sufficient reason to celebrate, but it’s hard to imagine that these men were under any illusion about what they expected from their own government.

  2. Is there any mention of which variant of “John Brown’s Body” was sung? I wouldn’t be shocked if the men of the 55th mixed familiar verses with improvised ones, as their music-culture was one that celebrated improvisatory skill. Lyrics might provide one clue to how they felt about that moment, although interpreting song is rarely served well by analyzing the words alone. I suspect the melody by itself, because of the new meanings it had acquired during the war (because of the new sets of words married to it, because of the different groups who made use of it, and because of its performance contexts), inspired powerful emotions in these soldiers.
    For white Charlestonians, whether they were familiar with the melody or any version of the words (I wouldn’t make that assumption automatically), simply hearing a group of armed black men singing would be alarming. If the local white population did know this piece of music, then I suspect it would have intensified any dread, fear, and anger they felt.

    • Hi Kirsten,

      Now that is a great question and comment, which I will keep in mind as I look into this more closely. Thanks.

  3. By whom was the picture drawn? It expresses an aspect of the ACW as powerfully as photos such as raising the red flag over the Reichstag.

    • I can’t find any attribution but it looks like the style of sketch artist A.R.Waud who worked for Harpers

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