Monday, March 18, 2013

Paul Laurence Dunbar's USCT Connection

Noted African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) left a lasting legacy in his brief thirty-three years on this earth. His amazing poems brought him a recognition that few black men could accomplish during the era in which he lived. His artistic accomplishments are commemorated in the numerous streets in black neighborhoods and historically African American schools that are named in his honor. Not known though to most people who recognize his name, is his connection to the United States Colored Troops.

Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Joshua and Matilda Burton Murphy Dunbar. Joshua, born probably in the 1820s, had been a skilled slave plasterer in Kentucky, but made his escape to Canada before the Civil War. When African Americans were finally allowed to join the fight in 1863, Joshua joined the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, the sister unit to the famous 54th Massachusetts. He was apparently given a medical discharge from the 55th, but soon enlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (another black unit) where he attained the rank of sergeant.  Joshua served with the 5th until the end of the war, and mustered out in Clarksville, Texas, in October 1865.

After his service, Joshua moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he met and married Matilda, a former Kentucky slave from Shelby County. They married in 1871, and Paul was born the following year. Unfortunately, Joshua and Matilda's relationship was not a happy one. They apparently separated in 1873 and divorced in 1876. Joshua died of pneumonia in 1885 and was buried at the Soldier's Home in Dayton.

Paul began writing at an early age and took advantage of Dayton's public schools. He was the only African American in his high school class. Unable to attend college, a former teacher helped Paul publish his first collection of poetry, titled Oak and Ivy. Continued writing brought more acclaim and Dunbar moved to Washington D.C., where he met and married Alice Ruth Moore in 1898. The following year Paul was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Self medicating with alcohol, he became addicted, which ruined his marriage. Paul lived the last few years of his life in Dayton, where he passed away in 1906.

One of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poems, "The Colored Soldiers," honors those African American Civil War fighting men who served the United States; like his father.

The Colored Soldiers

If the muse were mine to tempt it
And my feeble voice were strong, 
If my tongue were trained to measures,
I would sing a stirring song.
I would sing a song heroic,
Of those noble sons of Ham,
Of the gallant colored soldiers
Who fought for Uncle Sam. 

In the early days you scorned them,
And with many a flip and flout
Said "These battles are the white man's,
And whites will fight them out."
Up the hills you fought and faltered,
In the valleys you strove and bled,
While your ears still hear the thunder
Of the foes' advancing tread.

Then distress fell on the nation,
And the flag was drooping low;
Should the dust pollute your banner?
No! the nation shouted, No!
So when War, in savage triumph,
Spread abroad his funeral pall--
Then you called the colored soldiers,
And they answered to your call.

And like hounds unleashed and eager,
For the life blood of the prey,
Spring they forth and bore them bravely
In the thickest of the fray.
And where'er the fight was hottest,
Where the bullets fastest fell,
There they pressed unblanched and fearless
At the very mouth of hell.

Ah, they rallied to the standard
To uphold it by their might;
None were stronger in their labors,
None were braver in the fight.
From the blazing beach of Wagner
To the plains of Olustee,
They were the foremost in the fight
Of the battles of the free.

And at Pillow! God have mercy
On the deeds committed there,
And the souls of those poor victims
Sent to Thee without a prayer. 
Let the fullness of Thy pity
O'er the hot wrought spirits sway
Of the gallant colored soldiers 
Who fell fighting on that day! 

Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom,
And they won it dearly too;
For the life blood of their thousands
Did the southern fields bedew.
In the darkness of their bondage, 
In the depths of slavery's night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning, 
And they fought their way to light.

They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less to-day?
They were good to stop the bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worthy, -
Ah! those virtues are not dead.

They have shared your nightly vigils,
They have shared your daily toil;
And their blood with yours comingling
Has enriched the Southern soil.
They have slept and marched and suffered
'Neath the same dark skies as you,
They have met as fierce a foeman,
And have been as brave and true.

And their deeds shall find a record
In the registry of Fame;
For their blood has cleansed completely 
Every blot of Slavery's shame.
So all honor and all glory
To those noble sons of Ham--
The gallant colored soldiers 
Who fought for Uncle Sam!

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