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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It’s Never Too Late To Reconcile

Here is an interesting story from my neck of the woods.  The Worcester Grand Army of the Republic Board of Trustees voted recently to return three captured Confederate flags to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C. The flags were captured at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina on March 14, 1862, by two Union divisions manned with residents of Central Massachusetts. This latest story follows a much longer trend of reconciliation gestures between the descendants of Civil War veterans.  [I will be speaking at the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable on October 11.]

This past Friday I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Framingham History Center located in the Edgell Memorial Library, which was built after the war to honor Union veterans. The center’s director, Annie Murphy, was kind enough to give me a personal tour of their new Civil War exhibit.  It’s not the most elaborate exhibit around, but they do a nice job of highlighting was is clearly an extensive collection of artifacts and documents.  It includes General George H. Gordon’s coat, a buts of the general sculpted by Daniel Chester French and a battle worn flag of the 13th Massachusetts.  If you are in the area you should make it a point to check it out.

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Northern Slavery, Public History, and Memory

A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade.  I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply.  Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history.  Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.

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