Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 1
From the 1901 book Candle-Lightin’ Time by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, photographer Leigh Richmond Miner, and illustrator Margaret Armstrong. The book is available at Archive.org.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who gained national prominence in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in 1872, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lone black student in his high school. His father was an escaped slave from Kentucky who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

In 1901, Dunbar published Candle-Lightin’ Time. The book was an artistic calloboration, featuring poems by Dunbar, photographs by Leigh Richmond Miner of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and illustrated decorations by Margaret Armstrong. The work includes an ode to African American Civil War soldiers titled When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers, which is presented further below along with photographs from the book. The poem was no doubt inspired by his father.

The poem is interesting in that, while centering on the suffering and loss of a black mother for her son, it also speaks to the suffering of a white Confederate family. The poem’s narrator is the mother of a black Union soldier, but also, has a slave master who served in the Confederacy, along with the master’s son. Both master and son would feel the pain and anguish of war. In this, the slave mother and her mistress would share a bond that transcended race, section, and politics.

Candle-Lightin’ Time features other, non-Civil War content and makes for a fine read not only for its poetry but for its photographs.

Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers

Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,
Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.
But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –
Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 2

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 3
But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;
Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.
For his buttons was a-shinin’, an’ his face was shinin’, too,
An’ he looked so strong an’ mighty in his coat o’ sojer blue,
Dat I hollahed, “Step up, manny,” dough my th’oat was so’ an’ raw,-
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.
Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,
‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,
For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.
Den dey tol’ me dey had laid him some’r’s way down souf to res’,
Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin’ daih acrost his breas’.
Well, I cried, but den I reckon dat’s what Gawd had called him for
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 4

 



This video excerpt, from the 1990 video “The Eyes of the Poet,” features Herbert Woodward Martin performing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dr. Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works.
University of Dayton; Published on Oct 14, 2014

Mississippi Blue Flood Blues

The Colored Volunteer Marching Into Dixie
The Colored Soldier, Marching into Dixie; 1863; hand-colored lithograph; from New York: Published by Currier & Ives, New York; Originally part of a McAllister, Hart, Phillips Civil War scrapbook
Description: Portrait of an earnest African American Union soldier dressed in his blue uniform, a “U.S.” belt buckle, and a cap. He holds his rifle over his shoulder and carries a sleeping mat on his back.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

The Mississippi Blue Flood Blues
By Alan Skerrett

There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
They’re wearin’ eagles on their buttons [1]
Tellin’ us it’s Jubilee [2]

There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg [3]
I hope my baby found a cave
There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg
Sure hope my baby’s in a cave
But that blue flood is surely coming’
And I know my baby will be saved

There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where there used to be crying on the block [4]
There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where my baby was crying on the block
But when that blue flood comes to Natchez
We’ll take the keys and break the locks

There’s a horn blown’ in Jackson [5]
Blowing just like Jericho
Lord, there’s a horn blowin’ in Jackson
Strong and loud like Jericho
When you hear that horn a wailing,
Pack your bags, child, time to go!
—————

[1] African Americans soldiers were a vital part of the Union forces in the Mississippi Valley. Almost 18,000 black men from Mississippi enlisted in the Union army; only Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee provided more African descent troops to the Union cause. During the war, Frederick Douglass famously said “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Earnest McBride, in his essay “Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War,” writes that “the most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi black troops to liberate themselves, their families and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864.”
Continue reading

The Union Line

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Virginia, August 1862
African Americans, fleeing bondage, ford the Rappahannock River and enter Union lines, circa July-August 1862; near Rappahannock, Virginia, close to the site of the Second Battle of Bull Run (AKA Second Manssass).
During the American Civil War, tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand and more – African Americans escaped enslavement and sought refuge in Union occupied territory. Before the war, they might have been captured by slave patrols, groups of men who guarded their neighborhoods against runaway or wayward slaves. The presence of Union troops in the South, and the loss of white southern men to Confederate military service, gave slaves the opportunity to free themselves from captivity. The Union gave refuge to the runaways in return for their labor and other support. Many of the African American men in these groups become Union soldiers or sailors.

Image Source: Library of Congress; see also here.

The Union Line
by Alan Skerrett

Baby girl is crying so loud
Maybe mother’s milk isn’t right
If she’s too loud, a patroller might hear
And if we get taken back to massa
Lord knows what he’ll do to us
But we’ll be free
If we can make it
to the Union line

Young son is shivering
It’s not always this cold in November
Is it bad luck? Or a warning?
But I made up my mind
I heard the Yankees have tents and blankets
We’ll be warm
If we can make it
to the Union line

Where are you mama? Where are you papa?
They sent me down that river so long ago
You told me never to forget you
And to be a good nigger
I guess I can do one
And maybe not the other
Maybe I won’t be a nigger at all
If we can just make it
To the Union line

I’m holding my wife and children’s hands so hard
I’ll never let them go
The road, it whips us
The rain, it whips us
The hunger is whipping us
Well, we’ve been whipped before
But we ain’t whipped yet!
Our hands are strong
Strong enough to push and pull ourselves to freedom
Once we make it
To the Union line