Song of the 1st of Arkansas (1864)

This rewrite of Julia Ward Howe’s immensely popular “Battle-Hymn of the Republic” puts the agency of social and economic upheaval squarely on the shoulders — or rather, under the boot-heels — of Colored Troops recruited from occupied Southern territories:


The songsheet attributes these lyrics to Captain Lindley Miller, a white officer of the regiment.  Most likely, the lyrics represent an effective collaboration between Miller and the enlisted men —  although Miller transcribes the lyric in fairly standard minstrel-style dialect.

We should note especially the revolutionary nature of verses like this one:

Dey will hab to pay us wages, de wages ob their sin,
Dey will hab to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin,
Dey will hab to gib us house-room, or de roof shall tumble in,
As we go marching on.

The song also poetically references the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on New Year’s Day, 1863:

Dey said, “Now colored bredren, you shall be forever free,
From the first of January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three;
We heard it in de riber goin’ rushin’ to de sea,
As it went sounding on.

Father Abraham has spoken, and de message has been sent,
De prison doors he opened, and out de pris’ners went,
To join de sable army of de “African descent,”
As we go marching on.

Significantly, where the abolitionist civilian Julia Ward Howe saw the great changes effected during the war as proof that “Our God is marching on,” these enlisted former slaves and freemen proudly carry their arms and voices into rebel-held territory with the assertion that change happens because “WE go marching on”.

For more about the song’s history, see the Wikipedia article, “Marching Song of the First Arkansas”.

For more about the song’s authorship, see David Wall’s article, “Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment: A Contested Attribution”
More on Captain Lindley Miller >>

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas features an overview page on “Black Union Troops”.

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