May 27, 2013

O, what a shout there went

The North authorized its first black regiment during the Civil War in March 1863. For the recruiting effort, poet/soldier George Henry Boker wrote a poem, "The Black Regiment," which was published on May 27, 1863 for the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Port Hudson, Louisiana — which was then under siege by the Union Army. The 2nd Louisiana Infantry, a "colored regiment," was instrumental in the siege. In his poem, Boker sees the approaching black regiment as a well-organized storm about to charge through the calm sky:

Dark as the clouds of even,
Ranked in the western heaven,
Waiting the breath that lifts
All the dread mass, and drifts
Tempest and falling brand
Over a ruined land;—
So still and orderly,
Arm to arm, knee to knee,
Waiting the great event,
Stands the black regiment.

Down the long dusky line
Teeth gleam and eyeballs shine;
And the bright bayonet,
Bristling and firmly set,
Flashed with a purpose grand,
Long ere the sharp command
Of the fierce rolling drum
Told them their time had come,
Told them what work was sent
For the black regiment.

"Now," the flag-sergeant cried,
"Though death and hell betide,
Let the whole nation see
If we are fit to be
Free in this land ; or bound
Down, like the whining hound, —
Bound with red stripes of pain
In our old chains again!"
O, what a shout there went
From the black regiment!
"Charge!" Trump and drum Swoke,
Onward the bondmen broke;
Bayonet and sabre-stroke
Vainly opposed their rush.
Through the wild battle's crush,
With but one thought aflush,
Driving their lords like chaff,
In the guns' mouths they laugh;
Or at the slippery brands
Leaping with open hands,
Down they tear man and horse,
Down in their awful course;
Trampling with bloody heel
Over the crashing steel,
All their eyes forward bent,
Rushed the black regiment.

"Freedom!" their battle-cry,—
"Freedom! or leave to die!"
Ah! and they meant the word,
Not as with us 'tis heard,
Not a mere party shout:
They gave their spirits out;
Trusted the end to God,
And on the gory sod
Rolled in triumphant blood.
Glad to strike one free blow,
Whether for weal or woe;
Glad to breathe one free breath,
Though on the lips of death.
Praying — alas! in vain!—
That they might fall again,
So they could once more see
That burst to liberty!
This was what "freedom" lent
To the black regiment.

Hundreds on hundreds fell;
But they are resting well;
Scourges and shackles strong
Never shall do them wrong.
O, to the living few,
Soldiers, be just and true!
Hail them as comrades tried;
Fight with them side by side;
Never, in field or tent,
Scorn the black regiment!


  1. The First South Carolina Volunteers under Thomas Wentworth Higginson were formed in 1862. Their success is what led to wider scale recruitment.

  2. The courage, on all kinds of levels, of those black faces in Civil War uniforms....

    Hard to imagine.

  3. Peter, this particular poem was recruiting specifically in Louisiana during the siege and really had nothing to do with Col. Higginson's regiment.

  4. this is a very interesting poem, showing that there is always tension between military groups- despite them all fighting for the same goal, they fail to consider one another as equals.

  5. I would only add, however, that here Higginson is clearly promoting the idea of considering all soldiers as equals. It's an important, if not the most important, message to the poem: "Soldiers, be just and true! / Hail them as comrades tried; / Fight with them side by side; / Never, in field or tent, / Scorn the black regiment!"