Soldiers and Spirituals: South Carolina US Colored Troops

Photo Exhibit: The Black South of Dorothea Lange
• These Depression-era images are by the renowned American photographer Dorothea Lange. During the 1930s she and other photographers were part of a Farm Security Administration project that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people. These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.
Image Source: The photographs can be found in the Library of Congress  Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
• The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.” As noted in the text below, a version of this song (under the title “THIS WORLD ALMOST DONE”) was sung by African American soldiers in Civil War South Carolina, as follows:
“Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
For dis world most done.”
Audio Source: From


As both a man of God and a man of letters, Union army colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson had an ear for spiritual music. He got earfuls of it listening to the black southern soldiers under his command during the Civil War.

As noted by Wikipedia, Higginson (1823 – 1911), born and raised in Massachusetts, “was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment, from 1862–1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples.” The 1st South Carolina Volunteers were later reorganized as the 33rd Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In literary circles, Higginson is known as “a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment… (He was the) co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems…” (per the online site for the The Emily Dickinson Museum)

In his book Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869, Higginson recounted army life among the former South Carolina slaves who made the stunning transformation into Union soldiers. One aspect of black soldier life that touched him greatly was their singing of spirituals. Higgins devotes a whole chapter of his book to those songs, and to describing the spirit in which they were sung. A partial excerpt from the book follows.

Of note is that, the spirituals were revised by the black soldiers to reflect their status as soldiers and participants in war. One song speaks of “One more valiant soldier here”; another says “We’re marching through Virginny fields, old Secesh done come and gone!” In their spirit, the soldiers seem to be saying, we are not just soldiers of the Union, or even soldiers of freedom; we are soldiers in God’s army.

Higginosn and Black Veterans
Left: Army Col Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Right: Unidentified veterans of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, USCT
Image Source: Dr. Bronson’s St. Augustine History

FROM: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, chapter 9, “Negro Spirituals”:

The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days. For instance, the present writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones. It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.

This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years heard of this class of songs under the name of “Negro Spirituals,” and had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina. I could now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before seen as in museums alone. True, the individual songs rarely coincided; there was a line here, a chorus there,—just enough to fix the class, but this was unmistakable. It was not strange that they differed, for the range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.

Often in the starlit evening, I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river, or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.

Writing down in the darkness, as I best could,—perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,—the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by… The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there were others that occurred only once or twice. The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer.

The favorite song in camp was the following, sung with no accompaniment but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet. It was sung perhaps twice as often as any other. This was partly due to the fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses of other songs might be combined at random.

"Hold your light, Brudder Robert,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore.
"What make ole Satan for follow me so?
Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.
Hold your light,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore."

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William Wells Brown’s Fugitive Slave Lament: “Where art thou, mother?”

“The author and his mother arrested and carried back into slavery.” From Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself., first edition published 1847, in London, England. The image shows the capture of Brown and his mother after their unsuccessful escape from bondage in 1833.
Image Source: from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. The book is online at and is available for all users.

by William Wells Brown, from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself.

I’ve wandered out beneath the moonlit heaven,
Lost mother! loved and dear,
To every beam a magic power seems given
To bring thy spirit near;
For though the breeze of freedom fans my brow,
My soul still turns to thee! oh, where art thou?

Where art thou, mother? I am weary thinking;
A heritage of pain and woe
Was thine, — beneath it art thou slowly sinking,
Or hast thou perished long ago?
And doth thy spirit ‘mid the quivering leaves above me,
Hover, dear mother, to guard and love me?

I murmur at my lot: in the white man’s dwelling
The mother there is found;
Or he may tell where spring-buds first are swelling
Above her lowly mound;
But thou, — lost mother, every trace of thee
In the vast sepulchre of Slavery!

Long years have fled, since sad, faint-hearted,
I stood on Freedom’s shore,
And knew, dear mother, from thee I was parted,
To meet thee never more;
And deemed the tyrant’s chain with thee were better
Than stranger hearts and limbs without a fetter.

Yet blessings on thy Roman-mother spirit;
Could I forget it, then,
The parting scene, and struggle not to inherit
A freeman’s birth-right once again?
O noble words! O holy love, which gave
Thee strength to utter them, a poor, heart-broken slave!

Be near me, mother, be thy spirit near me,
Wherever thou may’st be;
In hours like this bend near that I may hear thee,
And know that thou art free;
Summoned at length from bondage, toil and pain,
To God’s free world, a world without a chain!

“My child, we must soon part, to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a free man. Now try to get your liberty!” — William Wells Brown’s Narrative

William Wells Brown may never have forgiven himself. All he could was lament.

Wells, enslaved in Missouri in 1833, had just lost his sister to the slave trade. Perhaps angered by this loss, he convinced his mother to join him in fleeing north to “liberty.” An escape party of two would make things more difficult than if he had fled alone, but he did not want to leave his mother behind. But Brown and his mother were captured; and as a consequence, she too was “sold down the river.” That was when Brown was 19 or 20; he lived to be 70, and never saw his mother again. Continue reading

What if Slaves Wrote the History of Georgia?

A slave family in Georgia, circa 1850. How would they write the history of Georgia?
Source: New York Historical Society

As the historian Melvyn Stokes has observed, “the traditional focus” of American history has been “on the centers of political, economic, and social power and the doings of elite white men.” He also observed that in the last several decades, historical study has turned its eyes on groups that had largely been “ignored and misinterpreted.”

The history of the United States with respect to the role of enslaved people is a case in point. Much of US history, in our schoolbooks and popular culture, has been told from the perspective of white slaveholders and nonslaveholders; the viewpoint of slaves themselves was often ignored. There has been, though, a sea change in this since the 1950s, thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the growth of an educated African American middle class, and modern historians of all races and backgrounds.

But it’s not as if, throughout history, African Americans have made no attempt at their own telling the story of America. One example of this is the 1890 book A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, written by Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944). Johnson was born enslaved, and grew-up to become an educator, historian, attorney, and politician. As noted by Andrew Leiter at the Documenting the American South website,

Edward Johnson wrote this book in 1890 to counteract the lack of African American representation in textbooks, or to correct, as he says, “the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors.” He offers sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies–northern and southern. He presents the accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves, including poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, as well as the mathematician and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the valorous roles African Americans played in America’s various wars…

The latter part of Johnson’s book is devoted to the progress of the African American race since Emancipation. He describes the early successes of reconstruction despite southern white resistance… Johnson includes this information on the progress of the race in his textbook “to inspire new zeal and fresh courage, that each one of you may add something more to what has already been accomplished.” Johnson concludes his book with a collection of sketches of notable secular and religious African Americans.

In his book, Johnson provides a brief history of the state of Georgia. Compare this to what you’ve learned and know about the state from school and other sources:


From the time of its settlement in 1732 till 1750 this colony held no slaves. Many of the inhabitants were anxious for the introduction of slaves, and when the condition of the colony finally became hopeless they sent many long petitions to the Trustees, stating that “the one thing needful” for their prosperity was Negroes.

It was a long time before the Trustees would give their consent; they said that the colony of Georgia was designed to be a protection to South Carolina and the other more Northern colonies against the Spanish, who were then occupying Florida, and if the colonists had to control slaves it would weaken their power to defend their colonies. Finally, owing to the hopeless condition of the Georgia colony, the Trustees yielded. Slaves were introduced in large numbers.

The famous minister, George Whitfield, referring to his plantation in this colony, said: “Upward of five thousand pounds have been expended in the undertaking, and yet very little proficiency made in the cultivation of my tract of land, and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands. Had a Negro been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which has been laid out.” He purchased a plantation in South Carolina, where slavery existed, and speaks of it thus: “Blessed be God! This plantation has succeeded; and though at present I have only eight working hands, yet, in all probability, there will be more raised in one year, and without a quarter of the expense, than has been produced at Bethesda for several years past. This confirms me in the opinion I have entertained for a long time, that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without Negroes are allowed.”

Prosperity came with the slaves, and, as in the case of Virginia, the colony of Georgia took a fresh start and began to prosper. White labor proved a failure. It was the honest and faithful toil of the Negro that turned the richness of Georgia’s soil into English gold, built cities and created large estates, gilded mansions furnished with gold and silver plate.

(James) Oglethorpe (who founded the colony) planned the Georgia colony as a home for Englishmen who had failed in business and were imprisoned for their debts. These English people were out of place in the wild woods of America, and continued a failure in America, as well as in England, until the toiling but “heathen” African came to their aid.

Cotton Plantations were numerous in Georgia under the slave system. The slave-owners had large estates, numbering thousands of acres in many cases. The slaves were experts in the culture of cotton. The climate was adapted to sugarcane and rice, both of which were raised in abundance.

As they say, this puts a whole different spin on things.

They are coming!

Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
This is one of many photographs of African Americans that was assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway. This picture is in the on-line archives of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-35752; click here for more details.

by Josephine Heard (1861-1921)

They are coming, coming slowly –
They are coming, surely, surely –
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners’ head.

They are coming, coming slowly –
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo’s ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start –
But the Slaves’ petition reach’d the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds’ bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming –
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers –
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers’ bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning –
It is liberty’s fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping’s steady,
And their power is felt already –
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!

Continue reading

New Book: “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”

Cover for the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. Book published by John Hopkins University Press.

Ronald Coddington has produced the third book in his “Faces of the Civil War” series. His books feature photographs of civil war soldiers, and provide an annotation about them – for example, soldier name, background, war experience, and post-war experience. His latest work is African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. 

African American Faces is notable for its exhibition of a large photographic record of “colored” Civil War participants. Over 75 African Americans are pictured and discussed. Most are Union soldiers, such as Sargent Major Lewis Henry Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who served in the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry; and Major Martin Delaney, the black activist, newspaper publisher, and soldier recruiter who was the highest ranking African descent field officer in the Union at the end of the War. But several non-Union soldiers are included, such as Confederate slave Silas Chandler; Robert Holloway, the personal servant of Union Colonel Ambrose Burnside who was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run; South Carolinian Robert Smalls, who became famous for leading a group of slaves out of Charleston harbor and into freedom on a stolen steamboat; and Navy seamen.

The brief biography that accompanies each photograph serves to “flesh out” each of these men, and helps us understand that for African Americans, this was not merely a war for Union or Southern independence, but rather, was a struggle for freedom, equality and dignity.

And this is a book about men; all the subjects noted are male. If I could have given one suggestion to the author it would have been to include Harriet Tubman in the book. Tubman, a noted conductor of the Underground Railroad helped to lead a union raid in South Carolina to disrupt Southern supply lines and free local area slaves. This story would have made for an interesting complement to the others in the book.

African American Faces is written to be accessible to a large group of readers, and would be a welcome addition to middle school libraries and above, as well as being a fine addition to any personal library. As an elementary and high school student in the 1960s and early 1970s, I never saw an image of a black civil war soldier, nor did I hear anything mentioned about them. Coddington’s book further illustrates that there is a rich record from which to draw concerning this previously (and some say currently) neglected aspect of the Civil War.