Friday, January 20, 2012

Two Songs That United States Civil War Black Soldiers Sang

Edited by Azizi Powell

[updated September 22, 2014: Former title "Two Songs That Civil War Colored Soldiers Sang]

This post showcases two songs that were sung by Black soldiers during the United States Civil War. The term "Colored people" was used to refer to Black people in the United States during that time and afterwards until the 1960s. However, I changed that title to "Black" because I wanted to make sure that readers realized that "Colored people" was no longer the appropriate referent for Black Americans.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the composers and collectors of these songs, and thanks to all those who fought and died so that Black people could receive our freedom.

Give Us A Flag

uploaded by rexlibris99 on Sep 4, 2008

The person who wrote the song is unknown. He obviously had very strong feelings on the subject. An obviously non-PC word has been left in since it reflects the feelings of the times.

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'US,' let him get an eagle upon his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."
—Frederick Douglass

Vocalist: Richie Havens
*"Give Us A Flag" includes one brief mention of what is now called "the n word". In spite of my real distaste for that word, I'm posting this song because of its historical importance.

Here's another video about United States Colored Soldiers ("Colored" was the referent of respect for African Americans during that time). The video uploader also provides lyrics & footnotes to "Give Us A Flag".

United States Colored Troops - African American US Army Soldiers

United States Colored Troops - African American US Army Soldiers

Uploaded by rmorecook on Oct 5, 2008

From about the time of the American Civil War until shortly after World War II ended, Black American troops served in segregated units, usually led by white officers. [There were some exceptions.] They distinguished themselves well in combat during the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and World Wars I and II. In this video, the march of the Massachusetts 54th U.S. Colored Troops plays in the background. The tune is alternately titled Oh Give Us a Flag and The Colored Volunteer. The lyrics are below. [Thanks to another Youtuber for much of the video]

Verse 1
Fremont [Footnote 1] he told them when the war it first begun
How to save the Union and the way it should be done.
But Kentucky swore so hard [2] and old Abe [3] he had his fears
Til every hope was lost but the colored volunteers

[chorus follows]
O give us a flag, all free without a slave.
We'll fight to defend it as our fathers [4] did so brave.
The Gallant Compn'y A [5] will make the rebels dance
And we'll stand by the Union if we only have the chance

Verse 2
McClellan [6] went to Richmond with two hundred thousand brave.
He said, "keep back the niggers [7]," and the Union he would save.
Little Mac [8] he had his way -- still the Union is in tears --
NOW they call for help of the colored volunteers.
[repeat chorus]

Verse 3
Old Jeff [9] says he'll hang us if we dare to meet him armed.
A very big thing, but we are not at all alarmed.
For he has first got to catch us before the way is clear[10].
And "that is what's the matter with the colored volunteer."
[repeat chorus]

Verse 4
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.
[repeat chorus]

Verse 5
Then here is to the 54th [11], which has been nobly tried,
They were willing, they were ready, with their bayonets by their side,
Colonel Shaw [12]led them on and he had no cause to fear,
About the courage of the colored volunteer.
[repeat chorus]

[1] John C. Fremont, Republican candidate for President in 1856, Army general officer, and best known explorer to that date, except for Lewis and Clark.
[2] Kentucky was a border [Northern] state during the war. She threatened to join the South if the Union used African American troops
[3] President Abraham Lincoln at first hesitated to use African American soldiers.
[4] The first man to fall in the American Revolution was an African American, Crispus Attucks, who died in the "Boston Massacre".
[5] Company A of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers [Colored]
[6] Major Gen McClellan commanded Union troops at the start of the war.
[7] This term was widely used at the time as a sign of disrepect. Proper usage at the time was 'colored'.
[8] See Footnote 6 above.
[9] Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederated States of America [the South]
[10] Meaning, they would "die before being taken prisoner."
[11] 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored)
[12] Commanding Officer of the Regiment

1. Oh, we're the bully soldiers of the “First of Arkansas,”
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law,
We can hit a Rebel further than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.

Chorus: Glory, glory hallelujah.
Glory, glory hallelujah.
Glory, glory hallelujah.
As we go marching on.

2. See, there above the center, where the flag is waving bright,
We are going out of slavery; we're bound for freedom's light;
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight,
As we go marching on!


3. We have done with hoeing cotton, we have done with hoeing corn,
We are colored Yankee soldiers, now, as sure as you are born;
When the masters hear us yelling,
they'll think it's Gabriel's horn,
As we go marching on.


4. They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin,
They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin,
They will have to give us house-room, or the roof shall tumble in!
As we go marching on.


5. We heard the Proclamation, master hush it as he will,
The bird he sing it to us, hoppin' on the cotton hill,
And the possum up the gum tree, he couldn't keep it still,
As he went climbing on.


6. They said, “Now colored brethren, you shall be forever free,
From the first of January, Eighteen hundred sixty-three.”
We heard it in the river going rushing to the sea,
As it went sounding on.


7. Father Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent,
The prison doors he opened, and out the pris'ners went,
To join the sable army of “African descent,”
As we go marching on.


8. Then fall in, colored brethren, you'd better do it soon,
Don't you hear the drum a-beating the Yankee Doodle tune?
We are with you now this morning, we'll be far away at noon,
As we go marching on. (Chorus)

Lyric source:

Here's some information about that song from that same site:
"Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment" is one of the few Civil War-era songs inspired by the lyrical structure of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the tune of "John Brown's Body" that is still performed and recorded today. The "Marching Song" has been described as "a powerful early statement of black pride, militancy, and desire for full equality, revealing the aspirations of black soldiers for Reconstruction as well as anticipating the spirit of the civil rights movement of the 1960s." The song's lyrics are attributed to the regiment's white officer, Captain Lindley Miller. An almost identical song, “The Valiant Soldiers,” is attributed to Sojourner Truth in post-Civil War editions of her Narrative. Recent scholarship supports Miller as the original author, or at least compiler, of the “Marching Song.”...

There is no question that Truth sang the song; Painter cites a newspaper account of Truth singing a variation of "The Valiant Soldiers" in 1879 to the black settlers in Kansas known as Exodusters. But there is no evidence Truth composed the lyrics before Lindley Miller's "Marching Song" was published and widely distributed.


Here's a link to a song file of "Sojourner's Battle Hymn": Sweet Honey in the Rock - Sojourner's Battle Hymn.wmv
[embedding disabled upon request]

Editorial note: I was inspired to publish this post as a result of this verse from a South Carolina dance song entitled "Old Lady Booster":

Well, who’s been here since I been gone
Two little boys with their blue caps on.
Hang them on a hickory stick
Ranky tanky, button my shoes.
ranky tanky
Bufflalo boy gonna buy me a bag

My theory is that the lines about "two boys in the blue caps" and the "Buffalo boy" refer to Union soldiers (but probably not "Colored" Union Soldiers").

Here's a link to a short form of that post that I published on Pancocojams: What Ranky Tanky Means

Here are two websites that contain information about African Americans in The Civil War:

African American Odyssey
The Civil War
Part 1: "Contrabands of War

African American Odyssey
The Civil War
Part 2: Fighting for Freedom | "Behold the Shackles Fall"

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