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

Walter Everette Hawkins, "The Black Soldiers" (1909)

The Black Soldiers. 

Have you heard the story of the conflict? 
Has the song of poet told it true— 
How the Blacks have fought to win their freedom, 
How they died with those who wore the blue? 
All the rhyme and measures of the poet 
Fail to add true lustre to his name, 
Nothing save the flashes of his musket 
Justly light his hidden scroll of fame. 
   It was in the struggle of the sixties. 
When the chains of thraldom held him tight, 
Must he wear oppression's stripes forever? 
Shall he seek his freedom in the fight? 
Came the message "Men of might are needed, 
Dark Rebellion creeps upon the land; 
No blacks need apply,” the orders stated,
“Only whites are suited to command.”
But the conflict deepened at Manassas, 
And "disunion" stared them in the face, 
Foes of freedom struck a blow of triumph, 
Stained the nation's banner with disgrace. 
And like forest fire raging onward, 
East to West Rebellion led the van, 
Leaving in its pathway grim destruction— 
A country found her slave was more than man. 
Gladly beating plowshares into swords, 
Beating hooks for pruning into spears, 
He became the Demon of the battle,
Dreading not the battle's burning fears. 
Thus he plunged into the bloody conflict, 
Still undaunted by its death and heat, 
Wrote the name of "Freedom" 'cross the heavens 
Saved the Union from a dread defeat. 
   Who will say the black man is no soldier? 
Who will say he is not brave to fight? 
Stript of every chance of fair distinction, 
With no armor save his naked might— 
Thrown upon the belching breech at Pillow, 
Atlas-like the nation's load he bore; 
And at blazing Hudson still a martyr, 
Dying with the banner at the fore. 
In the sternest struggle e'er recorded 
Torch and ax were laid upon the tree— 
He was first in dying for his country. 
Freeing it and, yet, himself not free.
O, could pen of poet paint the story, 
How amid the dread, uoquenching flood, 
Caring naught for fame and less for glory, 
With his musket wrote his name in blood. 
   Listen to the story told at Wagner, 
Before whose guns like leaves brave heroes fell, 
How the Fifty-fourth of Massachusetts 
Conquered and outbraved the fires of hell. 
Day and night they march and falter never. 
Hungered and aweary from the strife, 
Knowing naught of comfort nor of shelter, 
Counting not the priceless boon of life. 
Down upon them rained the shells of Wagner, 
In their tracks the blood was streaming down—
Who will bear the flag upon the ramparts?" 
Did the black man falter with a frown? 
Forward sprang the gallant sergeant Carney, 
With a brave resolve to do or die— 
"I will bear it up," the Sergeant shouted, 
“Or else report to God the reason why!" 
Fearlessly he grasped the starry standard,
Only as a god or demon could, 
And upon the bloody heights he pinned it, 
Fixed it fast and sealed it with his blood. 
Wounded thrice they bore him from the conflict, 
Bleeding, torn, his comrades gathered round. 
As they cooled his bleeding brow he murmured: 
“The old flag never touched the ground."

Published in Chords and Discords, 1909

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