Category Archives: Union

A Negro Volunteer Song

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston

Today I found the following poem as a news clipping in a scrapbook contained in the Norwood P. Hallowell Papers, 1850-1914 at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  It’s titled, “A Negro Volunteer Song” and was written by a private in Co. A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Fremont told them when the war it first begun,
How to save the Union, and 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 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.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c.

Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,
A very big thing, but we are not all alarmed,
For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear,
And “that’s what’s the matter” with the colored volunteers.
Chorus—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.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c

Thinking About the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

James Monroe Trotter, 55th Massachusetts

Dear Barbara,

Yesterday I spent the day at the Massachusetts Historical Society examining materials related to the 55th Massachusetts as you suggested.  I’m glad I did.  As you noted in our conversation last week, no one has written a regimental history of the unit, which is surprising given the incredibly rich written record left by these men.  It didn’t take long for me to begin to get a sense of the profile of these men and it certainly didn’t take long for me to grow attached to their story.  I guess that is the question: What exactly is their story?

Well, whatever it is, their story is not a traditional narrative framed around bloody battles and popular campaigns.  The 55th Mass. saw very little heavy fighting apart from the battle of Honey Hill outside of Charleston in 1864.  At the center of their story is the pay crisis, which lasted for over a year.  One of the things I want to explore is just how close the men came to mutinying over the pay crisis.  Their published newspaper accounts and letters to public officials are very careful to distinguish between their disappointment over not being paid the promised monthly wage and the level of discontent in the unit.  The relationship between enlisted men and white officers needs to be examined as well.  The letters concerning unequal pay are quite eloquent in the way they frame the overall meaning of the war for these men.  This story is as much a battle for civil rights within the United States as it is about a war to preserve the Union and end slavery.

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We Must Not Give Way To This

Melvin Memorial by Daniel Chester French

It’s always nice to have a decent writing session given how rare they are for me.  I am close to finishing up a magazine article that explores how veterans from Massachusetts framed the war in what I would like to think were fairly local places.  For example, I am looking at private reminiscences, unit histories, some G.A.R. events, and monument dedications as opposed to more high profile events such as reunions between Confederate and Union veterans and other public events involving political leaders and other national figures.  It seems to me that when you focus on the former there are far fewer expressions of reunion and reconciliation.  In fact, you will find some powerful examples of individuals who explicitly see themselves as standing up against the broader trend of reconciliation that had taken hold by the beginning of the twentieth century.  This is a narrative that has all but been lost in a collective memory that prefers stories of former enemies embracing one another at Appomattox and beyond.  I haven’t decided where I am going to send it, but I hope you have a chance to read it at some point soon.

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The Limits of Reunion and Reconciliation in Massachusetts

One of the things that I hope my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory does is find a place in a growing literature that challenges the reunion and reconciliation school of Civil War Memory.  It’s beautifully expressed by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memoryand suggests that white northerners and southerners eventually brushed aside a memory of emancipation for one that embraced a shared history as well as a set of values that allowed for a swift and relatively painless sectional reconciliation.  There is a certain amount of truth to this story.  The story of the Crater, however, simply does not follow this broad narrative outline.  The veterans of the Virginia brigade engaged in bitter feuds relating to the battle and the role of William Mahone during the few short years of Readjuster control.  Mahone learned that there were limits to which he could utilize his military career to advance a political agenda that advanced the cause of the state’s black population.  And while numerous meetings between former enemies took place on the battlefield, white southerners never adopted a language of reconciliation when commemorating the battle.  This was a decisive Confederate victory that highlighted the fighting prowess and character of their own.  The presence of a black division was simply too much for many of the veterans to forget even at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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