African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Paul Laurence Dunbar, "The Unsung Heroes" (1903)


A SONG for the unsung heroes who rose in the country's need,
When the life of the land was threatened by the slaver's cruel greed,
For the men who came from the cornfield, who came from the plow and the flail,
Who rallied round when they heard the sound of the mighty man of the rail.
They laid them down in the valleys, they laid them down in the wood,
And the world looked on at the work they did, and whispered "It is good!"
They fought their way on the hillside, they fought their way in the glen,
And God looked down on their sinews brown and said, "I have made them men!"
They went to the blue lines gladly, and the blue lines took them in,
And the men who saw their muskets' fire thought not of their dusky skin.

The gray lines rose and melted beneath their scattering showers,
And they said, "'Tis true, they have force to do, these old slave boys of ours."
Ah, Wagner saw their glory, and Pillow knew their blood,
That poured on a nation's altar a sacrificial flood.
Port Hudson heard their war-cry that smote its smoke- filled air,
And the old free fires of their savage sires again were kindled there.
They laid them down where the rivers the greening valleys gem,
And the sound of the thunderous cannon was their sole requiem,
And the great smoke wreath that mingled its hue with the dusky cloud
Was the flag that furled o'er a saddened world and the sheet that made their shroud.
O mighty God of Battles, who held them in thy hand,
Who gave them strength through the whole day's length to fight for their native land,
They are lying dead on the hillsides, they are lying dead on the plain,
And we have not fire to smite the lyre and sing them one brief strain.
Give thou some Seer the power to sing them 'in their might,
The men who feared the master's whip, but did not fear the fight;

That he may tell of their virtues as minstrels did of old,
Till the pride of face and the hate of race grows obsolete and cold.
A song for the unsung heroes who stood the awful test,
When the humblest host that the land could boast went forth to meet the best;
A song for the unsung heroes who fell on the bloody sod,
Who fought their way from night to day and struggled up to God!

Published in Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903)
Also published in The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920)

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