This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
Given the dreadful reality of the Civil War, there was little use for songs that accurately reflected the duties and risks of soldiering when it came to recruiting civilians to fight. The danger involved in the war was high for all men, but black soldiers faced additional, unique threats. The particular hostility of Confederates to armed black men and distrust from their white Union comrades meant that they were especially vulnerable targets of wartime atrocities. Possibly written by a private in Company A of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first official African American units, “The Colored Volunteers” (also referred to as “Give Us a Flag”) was a song used as recruitment propaganda to encourage black men to enlist during the Civil War. The song’s lyrics sanitize many very serious issues and threats soldiers faced, offering a romanticized representation of the challenges a black enlistee would face.
The Colored Volunteers
Fremont told us, when this war was first begun,
How to save the Union, and the way it should be done,
But Kentucky swore so hard, and old Abe he had his fears,
So that’s what’s the matter with the Colored Volunteers.
John C. Frémont, famed explorer of the West and Army officer during the Mexican-American War, was appointed by President Lincoln to command the Department of the West in 1861. On August 30 of that year he issued an edict without permission of Lincoln stating among other things that slaves of Missourian rebels would be emancipated. However, “old Abe he had his fears” and worried that Frémont’s edict would lead Missouri and Kentucky to join the Confederacy. So Lincoln publicly revoked the edict, an act that hindered emancipation from becoming a war aim.
CHORUS.—Give us a flag all free without a slave,
We will fight to defend it as our fathers did so brave;
Onward boys, onward, it’s the year of jubilee,
God bless America, the land of liberty.
The optimistic tone of the chorus channels pride in the ability of black men to serve their country as their fathers did before restrictions were put in place on black military service. For the men who actually joined the USCT, of course, the celebratory tone of the chorus would prove to give less than a full picture of war.
Little Mack went to Richmond with three hundred thousand brave —
Said keep back the negroes and the Union he would save;
But Mack he was defeated, and the Union now in tears,
Is calling for the help of the Colored Volunteers.
The following stanza, however, reminds listeners of the hostility faced by black soldiers. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, was no abolitionist and openly expressed his belief that whites were superior to blacks. McClellan, a conservative, also sought to win the war with minimal changes to the fabric of American society and discouraged Lincoln and Congress from embracing emancipation. This verse is a reminder that Union leadership resisted employing black soldiers in the early years of the war, but would eventually call for their enlistment when more help was needed.
Old Jeff he says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed —
It’s a very big thing, but we are not at all alarmed:
He has first got to catch us before the way is clear,
And that’s what’s the matter with the Colored Volunteers.
The most direct threat to black soldiers’ well-being came from Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. On December 24, 1862, he released General Order No. 111 including the declaration that “All negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” The statement suggested that runaway slaves who enlisted in the Union Army would be executed as punishment, but the song makes light of the situation and attempts to minimize its threatening implications. In reality, these threats were not empty. Confederates did indeed target black soldiers during brutal acts of retaliation, such as the massacre at Fort Pillow and the slaughter at the Battle of the Crater.
Here’s to the gallant Fourth which has not yet been tried,
They are willing and are ready with their brothers to divide;
General Birney leads us on, so we have no right to fear,
And that is the making of the Colored Volunteers.
This song encouraged black men to enlist and fight for the Union with its catchy tune, downplayed depiction of war’s horrors, and patriotic tone. Over time, however, as more black men joined the army, the singing of such enthusiastic songs quickly gave way to a more sober understanding of the war for freedom.
“A Negro-Volunteer Song.” Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing. Accessed March 14, 2017.
“Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed March 14, 2017.
“Proclamation by the Confederate President.” Jefferson Davis’s Proclamation Regarding Captured Black Soldiers, December 23, 1862. Accessed March 14, 2017.