An Ode to the Color (Flag) Bearer at Port Hudson: “The Reason Why,” by George Clinton Rowe



A 1/6 figurine depicting a Civil Ware era African American color/flag bearer.
Source: This is from the Spanish language site Acción Uno Seis: foro español di figuras de acción a escala 1/6 (Action One Six: A Spanish Forum for 1/6 scale action figures). It shows a Union sergeant who holds the tattered, but surviving, United States flag in the wake of a battle.
Created by: “egonzinc.” His full name is not indicated, although he is shown as being from Puerto Rico.


In Civil War armies, no duty was more honorable, or more dangerous, than that of the color, or flag, bearer. As noted here at About.com,

The regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles as they marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield, which could often be a very confused place. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard. So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag.

Because the regimental flags had genuine strategic importance in battle, designated teams of soldiers, known as the color guard, carried them. A typical regimental color guard would consist of two color bearers, one carrying the national flag (the U.S. flag or a Confederate flag) and one carrying the regimental flag. Often two other soldiers were assigned to guard the color bearers.

Being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery. The job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, while unarmed and under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy and never break and run in retreat, or the entire regiment might follow. As the regimental flags were so conspicuous in battle, they were often used as a target for rifle and artillery fire. And, of course, the mortality rate of color bearers was high.


“Assault on the Rebel Works at Port Hudson, May 27,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, p. 216-217. (Courtesy of the House Divided Project); romanticized illustration of the Battle at Port Hudson, which included African-descent troops from the Louisiana Native Guards.
Source: Courtesy of the House Divided Project

George Clinton Rowe (1853-1903) was an African American minister, newspaper publisher (in Charleston, SC), and poet. In his poem “The Reason Why,” he writes an ode to a flag bearer for the African descent regiments that fought at the Battle of Port Hudson:

The Reason Why
by George Clinton Rowe

It is the eve of battle;
The soldiers are in line;
The roll of drum and bugle blast
Marshal that army fine.

The hour is fraught with mystery-
A hush pervades that throng,
And each one thinks of home and friends,
And says at heart, ‘How long?’

The colonel rides before his men,
His thoughtful brow is bare;
He calls the color-sergeant,
And tenders to his care

The nation’s pride, the dear old flag-
The loved red, white and blue,
And says, with earnest tones and grave:
‘I intrust this now to you.

‘Yes; color-bearer, take in charge
Your country’s flag to-day,
And to the conflict bear it-
The thickest of the fray.

‘Bear it with lofty courage,
And to it faithful be;
This flag has inspired thousands,
And led to victory.

‘Take it and never leave it,
‘Tis a solemn charge to thee;
Bring back to me this banner,
This ensign of the free!’

‘Colonel,’ the color-sargeant said,
Holding the flag on high;
‘I’ll bring it back or else report
To God the reason why!’

Away to the front he bears it,
Cheered on by comrades brave,
Anxious to liberate his race,
Bring freedom to the slave.

They charge upon Port Hudson {1},
Where, sheltered by a wall,
The foemen cut them down like grass,
They bravely charge-but fall.

Yes, on that field, where thousands
Unheeding the tumult lie,
He left the flag, reporting
To God the reason why. {2}

Another bears that flag along,
Holding it proud and high;
But the sergeant has reported
To God the reason why.

Oh, Christian soldier, going forth,
To battle for the Lord,
Be filled with manly courage,
And proudly bear God’s word.

It is the standard of your King,
Who rules the earth and sky;
You must win, through it, the vict’ry,
Or tell Christ the reason why.

The war will soon be ended;
In the dust you soon will lie;
Go forth and conquer, or report
To God the reason why.

NOTES:

{1} Port Hudson, Louisiana, was was a well fortified site that was used by Confederates to maintain control of the lower Mississippi River. In May 1863, the First and Third regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards, which consisted of former enslaved men and free African Americans from Louisiana, were part of a failed attack by the United States to capture the fort. Although unsuccessful, the black soldiers were lauded for their bravery; this was one of the first instances of black combat in the Civil War, and many whites wondered previously if negroes had the courage and  intellect to be good soldiers.

After the battle, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks reported that, “The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.” The bravery of the black troops was conspicuous; they charged repeatedly against heavy artillery and rifle fire. The two black regiments sustained nearly 170 casualties.


“Battle of Port Hudson: The Charge of the 2d Louisiana,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, p. 209: 2-4. Although referred to here only as as the 2d Louisiana regiment, the First and Third regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards were engaged in this horrific assault.
Source: Courtesy of the House Divided Project

{2} Rev. James Powell (1842-1887) was a member of the American Missionary Association, or AMA. As noted in Wiki,  “the AMA was a Protestant-based abolitionist group founded on September 3, 1846, in Albany, New York. Starting in 1861, it opened camps in the South for former slaves. It played a major role during the Reconstruction Era in promoting education for blacks in the South by establishing numerous schools and colleges, as well as paying for teachers.”

Powell presented a paper at the October 1884 Annual Meeting of the AMA in which he spoke about “the invaluable services which the negro rendered as a soldier to help save the Union.” The paper, printed in Missionary Zeal magazine, recalled the story of the flag-bearer at Port Hudson:

Missionary Zeal December 1884

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