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.”
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On Their High Horses: Black Cavalry Soldiers in Mississippi

image
“The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here

When the Civil War began, Mississippi was one of two states in which over half the population was of African descent. Enslaved Mississippians outnumbered free Mississippians by a count of 437,000 to 354,000. Given those numbers, the subjugation and control of slaves was an essential part of the social, legal, and security fabric of the state’s white-only polity and government.

The Union army unraveled white control of the slave population. Although the Union military suffered serious and numerous military setbacks in the East during the first half of the war, especially in Virginia, it was able to gain ground steadily along the Mississippi River and its adjacent states. A key event in the conquest of the River and its environs was the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. With that and previous victories, the Union was able to solidify its control and occupation of Confederate territory in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

From those occupied areas, the Union army garnered its most African American recruits. These four states provided the most black soldiers to the Union army:
o Louisiana 24,052
o Kentucky 23,703
o Tennessee 20,133
o Mississippi 17,869

The above image illustrates the momentous changes in the status of African Americans during the war. This sketch, from the December 19, 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, shows black men transporting Confederate prisoners in the face of a mostly white crowd. A description of the image by the University of Michigan’s Clements Library website notes that “Black soldiers now guard white prisoners and tower over onlookers.”

Also of interest is the way the soldiers are drawn. Many period renderings of African Americans depict them as caricatures, with huge lips and ape-like features. This image depicts black men as, well, men. It is a humane and dignified portrayal, befitting their new status as freemen and soldiers.

The army regiment in the picture was originally named the First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent). In its discussion of Mississippi’s black Union soldiers, Bernie McBride’s website bjmjr.net points out that

The National Park Services lists 10 black Union regiments organized in Mississippi. These are the First Regiment Cavalry; the First Regiment Mounted Rifles; the First, and Second heavy Artillery; the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment Infantry, all officially designated “African Descent.”

Lest We Forget Website master Bennie McRae expands that list to 16 regiments under the official designation “United States Colored Troops.” The First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent), for example, became the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment after the change to the USCT system. Ten infantry regiments, rather than the six listed above, were established at Vicksburg and Natchez. Two additional heavy artillery regiments and one of light artillery were established under Grant’s command by January 1864.

A discussion of the African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park is here.

The African American Soldier Memorial in Vicksburg, MS; and an Old(?) ‘Grey Curtain’/NPS Controversy


African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park
The inscription reads, “Commemorating the Service of the 1st and 3d Mississippi Infantry, African Descent and All Mississippians of African Descent Who Participated in the Vicksburg Campaign.”
Source: from Flickr

There are several hundred Confederate memorials and monuments throughout the South and the country. A partial list of them is here on Wiki; that list is certainly not complete, failing to include, for example, the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving, or the Confederate Memorial at Courthouse Square in Oxford, Mississippi.

By contrast, there are only two dozen or so memorials or monuments to the black soldiers of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the South or in the nation. {A list of monuments to USCT is here.} I have found a couple of monuments to faithful slaves, such as this one and this one. I’ve also found that there are almost half a dozen memorials to Buffalo Soldiers throughout the country.

One of the small number of memorials to US Colored Troops is the African American Monument in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1999, former Vicksburg Mayor Robert M. Walker, who is African American, proposed placement of a monument in Vicksburg National Military Park recognizing the contributions of African American soldiers during the Vicksburg campaign. With funding that included $25,000 from the city of Vicksburg, which is 60% black, groundbreaking for the monument was held on September 20, 2003, with dedication of the memorial on February 14, 2004.

(Mississippi provided 17,869 men to the United States Colored Troops. Only Louisiana (24,502), Kentucky (23,703), and Tennessee (20,133) had more men of African descent in the USCT. All told, just under 179,000 black men enlisted in the USCT, according to Wiki.)

A National Park Service (NPS) brochure for the monument notes that “of the more than 1,300 monuments in the park, this memorial is the first to honor black troops, and the first tribute of its type honoring African American soldiers placed on any of the Civil War battlefields administered by the National Park Service.” The brochure describes the monument:

The nine-foot tall sculpture depicts three figures – two Union soldiers representing the 1st and 3d Mississippi Infantry, African Descent, that participated in the Vicksburg campaign, and the third a civilian laborer. The soldier on the left looks toward the future that he helped secure through force of arms. The civilian looks to the past and the institution of slavery that he has left behind. Between them they support a wounded comrade, representing the sacrifice in blood made by African American soldiers on the field of battle.

The placement of the monument in Vicksburg National Military Park was not without controversy, and helps explain why African Americans have not shown the kind of interest in creating these types of monuments as one might think; the obstacles that get in the way can be very discouraging. These are excerpts from a 2004 article titled “Battle of Vicksburg being fought again over recognition of black Civil War troops” by Earnest McBride in the Jackson Advocate newspaper, from around the time the monument was being completed and dedicated:

Ironically, The First Mississippi USCT unit headed by Sgt. Major Norman Fisher of Jackson, the only group of black Civil War re-enactors connected to the Vicksburg campaign, is left out of nearly all [monument dedication] events staged by the National Park Service or other local sponsors. “Nobody’s notified me about going there and saying anything,” Fisher said in exasperation Monday evening.

Having met with Park officials in mid-August about Saturday’s groundbreaking, Fisher said he felt that park superintendent Bill Nichols and park historian Terry Winschel deliberately misled him regarding park responsibility for recognizing the black contribution to the Civil War. “They told me that the State of Mississippi was responsible for placing any monuments in the battlefield,” Fisher said. “I don’t like the idea of a state telling the federal government what to do in our national parks. I also suggested that instead of placing the proposed monument along the obscure location on Grant’s Avenue they should put it near the 7000 gravesites of the black troops buried in the cemetery. They said it would not be possible to place any statuary there. They also turned down my idea to rename the boulevard for the USCT soldiers.”

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