The African American Experience and Memorial Day

May 22nd, 2013

Many cities claim to be the progenitor of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day. The best claim might be made by Charleston, South Carolina, where, in 1865, 10,000 Charlestonians—many of them former slaves—re-buried the Union dead who had been buried in a mass grave and paraded around the city, with the procession led by 3,000 black children carrying flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body.” 

To celebrate Memorial Day’s forgotten roots, our selection today is the Marching Song of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This song, taken from our Memorial Day collection, is a personal favorite of the WSPWH editors, who find it a supreme expression of human dignity.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, signed January 1, 1863, newly freed black slaves were urged to join the Union Army. Almost immediately, the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent) was organized, and it saw action that year and the next in Mississippi and Louisiana. This marching song, sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” was written for this regiment by Lindley Hoffman Miller (1834–64), lawyer, orator-poet, son of a United States Senator, and Union officer who requested assignment to a colored unit, joining the First Arkansas Regiment in November 1863. 

What is the spirit of the song and its singers? Why, according to the different verses, are these ex-slaves fighting? How do their reasons differ from those expressed in “We Are Coming, Father Abraham”? Can you imagine the scene of the last stanza, as the Regiment, proudly bedecked in Union blue beneath the Stars and Stripes, passes other “colored brethren,” inviting them to join their ranks? Does it move you? If so, how and why?

For a musical rendition, listen to Tennessee Ernie Ford perform the Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: , , ,