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Arm to arm, knee to knee,
Down the long dusky line
"Now," the flag-sergeant cried,
Free in this land; or bound
"Charge!" Trump and drum awoke, Onward the bondmen broke ;
Bayonet and sabre-stroke
Vainly opposed their rush.
Through the wild battle's crush,
Or at the slippery brands
"Freedom!" their battle-cry,
Not a mere party shout:
Rolled in triumphant blood.
Glad to breathe one free breath,
That they might fall again,
This was what "freedom lent
Hundreds on hundreds fell;
Never, in field or tent,
Scorn the black regiment!
George H. Boker, Poems of the War (Boston, 1864), 99-103.
131. Contrabands (1864)
BY CHARLES CARLETON COFFIN (1866)
Coffin, as a war correspondent of the Boston Journal, witnessed many battles in both the eastern and the western campaigns. He wrote under the name of "Carleton," and after the war gathered his records into a series of books written under the same name. Many of these are for juvenile readers, for whom he has also written other books dealing with interesting periods of American history. — Bibliography as in No. 124 above.
URING the march the next day towards the North Anna, I halted at a farm-house. The owner had fled to Richmond in advance of the army, leaving his overseer, a stout, burly, red-faced, tobaccochewing man. There were a score of old buildings on the premises. It had been a notable plantation, yielding luxuriant harvests of wheat, but the proprietor had turned his attention to the culture of tobacco and the breeding of negroes. He sold annually a crop of human beings for the southern market. The day before our arrival, hearing that the Yankees were coming, he hurried forty or fifty souls to Richmond. He intended to take all, - forty or fifty more, but the negroes fled to the woods. The overseer did his best to collect them, but in vain. The proprietor raved, and stormed, and became violent in his language and behavior, threatening terrible punishment on all the runaways, but the appearance of a body of Union cavalry put an end to maledictions. He had a gang of men and women chained together, and hurried them toward Richmond.
The runaways came out from their hiding-places when they saw the Yankees, and advanced fearlessly with open countenances. The first pleasure of the negroes was to smile from ear to ear, the second to give everybody a drink of water or a piece of hoe-cake, the third to pack up their bundles and be in readiness to join the army.
"Are you not afraid of us?"
"Afraid! Why, boss, I's been praying for yer to come; and now yer is here, thank de Lord."
"Are you not afraid that we shall sell you?"
"No, boss, I is n't. The overseer said you would sell us off to Cuba,
to work in the sugar-mill, but we did n't believe him."
Among the servants was a bright mulatto girl, who was dancing, singing, and manifesting her joy in violent demonstration.
"What makes you so happy?" I asked.
"Because you Yankees have come. I can go home now." "Is not this your home?"
"No. I come from Williamsport in Maryland." "When did you come from there?"
"Last year. Master sold me. army. He ran away last year. away, and he sold me."
I spect my brother is 'long with the Master was afraid that I should run
The negroes came from all the surrounding plantations. Old men with venerable beards, horny hands, crippled with hard work and harder usage; aged women, toothless, almost blind, steadying their steps with sticks; little negro boys, driving a team of skeleton steers, mere bones and tendons covered with hide, or wall-eyed horses, spavined, foundered, and lame, attached to rickety carts and wagons, piled with beds, tables, chairs, pots and kettles, hens, turkeys, ducks, women with infants in their arms, and a sable cloud of children trotting by their side. "Where are you going?" I said to a short, thick-set, gray-bearded old man, shuffling along the road; his toes bulging from his old boots, and a tattered straw hat on his head,— his gray wool protruding from the crown.
"I do'no, boss, where I's going, but I reckon I'll go where the army goes."
"And leave your old home, your old master, and the place where you have lived all your days?"
"Yes, boss; master, he 's gone. He went to Richmond.
went mighty sudden, boss, when he heard you was coming. Thought I'd like to go along with you."
His face streamed with perspiration. He had been sorely afflicted. with the rheumatism, and it was with difficulty that he kept up with the column; but it was not a hard matter to read the emotions of his heart. He was marching towards freedom. Suddenly a light had shined upon him. Hope had quickened in his soul. He had a vague idea of what was before him. He had broken loose from all which he had been accustomed to call his own, his cabin, a mud-chinked structure, with the ground for a floor, his garden patch,-to go out, in his old age, wholly unprovided for, yet trusting in God that there would be food and raiment on the other side of Jordan.
It was a Jordan to them. It was the Sabbath-day, - bright, clear, calm, and delightful. There was a crowd of several hundred colored people at a deserted farm-house.
"Will it disturb you if we have a little singing? You see we feel so happy to-day that we would like to praise the Lord."
It was the request of a middle-aged woman.
In a few moments a crowd had assembled in one of the rooms. A stout young man, black, bright-eyed, thick-wooled, took the centre of the room. The women and girls, dressed in their best clothes, which they had put on to make their exodus from bondage in the best possible manner, stood in circles round him. The young man began to dance. He jumped up, clapped his hands, slapped his thighs, whirled round, stamped upon the floor.
"Sisters, let us bless the Lord. Sisters, join in the chorus," he said, and led off with a kind of recitative, improvised as the excitement gave him utterance. From my note-book I select a few lines:
"We are going to the other side of Jordan."
"So glad! so glad! Bless the Lord for freedom,
So glad! so glad!
We are going on our way,
To the other side of Jordan,
So glad! so glad!
Sisters, won't you follow?
So glad! so glad!
Brothers, won't you follow?"
And so it went on for a half-hour, without cessation, all dancing, clapping their hands, tossing their heads. It was the ecstasy of action. It was a joy not to be uttered, but demonstrated. The old house partook of their rejoicing. It rang with their jubilant shouts, and shook in all its joints....
It was late at night before the dancers ceased, and then they stopped, not because of a surfeit of joy, but because the time had come for silence in the camp. It was their first Sabbath of freedom, and like the great king of Israel, upon the recovery of the ark of God, they danced. before the Lord with all their might.
We had a hard, dusty ride from the encampment at Mongohick to the