Fortnightly logo

“No one gave African Slaves in the United States their freedom. African American Soldiers in the Union Armed Forces fought and died for the liberty of themselves, their families, their friends, and their country.”

Battle Hymn of a Freedman: African-American Soldiers in the Civil War
C. ANTHONY BUSH '76, composer/author, drums
DAVID MURRAY, tenor saxophone
SAMUEL REECE '74, narrator
GREGORY COOKE, director, actor
SISSEL BAKKEN, mezzo-soprano
TIM BUSH, bass
VON BUSH, singer

The Origins of Battle Hymn of a Freedman
By C. Anthony Bush, Ph.D.

As a child my father often told me about his family’s survival of the Great Depression in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Father took pride in the fact that his grandfather’s pension from the U.S. Civil War provided resources for his grandmother, his mother, and his mother’s children to live a good life even in the misery of the Depression. Great Grandfather Franklin was, however, never discussed even though he was the source of silent pride. My father, who was born in 1925, lived with Great Grandfather Franklin until Great Grandfather died. The family practiced oral history. But, my aunt and my father never discussed details of Richard Franklin’s life. Great Grandfather Franklin was a source of pride, but a complete mystery. What I did know and what I could feel was the preacher, and the determination, the discipline, and a martial spirit in all his descendants. I did not pry. I let my Grandfather and Great Grandfather rest.

This rest came to an end with the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of African American Men, I was determined to bring their memories to life in me. What kind of men were my paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfathers? In 1996 this question took me to Pine Bluff, Arkansas which was the place of my father’s birth. Because I wanted knowledge of my African roots, I began investigating Great Grandfather Richard Franklin who had also lived in Pine Bluff. Still silence and mystery surrounded Richard Franklin.

In the summer of 2011, the fog surrounding Richard Franklin began to clear. In preparation for a family reunion a cousin had the U.S. Civil War Pension Application of Richard Franklin. The application revealed that Richard Franklin was not my Great Grandfather’s real name. Richard Franklin was really Frank Wells, who had been a boy soldier during the United States Civil War. Frank Wells was 11 years old when he joined the 2nd Regiment, Light Artillery, Company H, United States Colored Troops. He was a powder boy, and he had been wounded in the U.S. Civil War. After the war and in an act of self-defense, Frank Wells had mortally wounded his white assailant. After fleeing Louisiana, Frank Wells changed his name. The family fell silent for reasons of self-preservation. We were unable to celebrate a man, at the time of the Civil War a boy, who fought to liberate Black People from the bonds of Chattel Slavery!

I felt a powerful need to tell the story of Frank Wells and African American Soldiers in the Civil Wars. I put lyrics to previously written songs and wrote a few new songs. I wrote Frank’s story. After researching history, African American Heroes of the Civil War were incorporated into the Musical/Jazzical “Battle Hymn of a Freedman” (2011). This work celebrates African American Soldiers’ fight for liberty and celebrates their Christian Faith. The play gives African American Soldiers voices, songs, motives, and emotions as they fought at Fort Pillow, Tennessee; New Market Heights, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia. The play rests on the silent pride that Frank Wells instilled in his family. This pride was from certain knowledge that “no one gave African Slaves in the United States their freedom. African American Soldiers in the Union Armed Forces fought and died for the liberty of themselves, their families, their friends, and their country.”

January 1, 2013 was the 150th Anniversary of the Effective Date of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, without identifying States in rebellion. Because of the Dred Scott Decision and the success of Confederate Armies, the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in no one being freed, but 220,000 African American Soldiers were recruited. The War was settled through arms, and tens of thousands African Americans died in the War. I am grateful to Claremont McKenna College for celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Students will hear songs, words, and voices of United States Colored Troops in musical Battle Hymn of a Freedman. Grammy Winner and Tenor Saxophonist Dr. David Murray will perform in the play and CMC alumnus Samuel Reece ’74 will narrate.