“When dey listed colored soldiers an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.”


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 6, 2016
“Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,

Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.”

“Come and Join Us Brothers, by the Supervisory Committee For Recruiting Colored Regiments”
Recruiting Poster, January 1, 1865
(Public Domain)

“But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –

Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872. His father Joshua (no known date of birth estimated between 1818-1822) had escaped from his slave master in Kentucky via the underground railroad. Arriving in Canada, he returned to the United States in June of 1863 where he enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, Due to health issues he was discharged, but the determined man found his way back into the service of the Union Army when he re-enlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. He served in and around Petersburg at the end of the war, mustering out of service in October of 1865. On Christmas Eve of 1871 he married Matilda Murphy and in June of the following year Paul was born. He became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature.​

“Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight

For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.”


“African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas”
(LOC Photo - No Known Copyright Restrictions)

"So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –

W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.”

The ‘Candle-Lightin’ Time was published in 1901 and among the many poems, photographs and illustrations it contains the poem “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”. Believed to be inspired by his father whom had died when Paul was a young teenager it tells the story through the eyes of an enslaved woman and her beloved ‘Lias. It describes her fears and concerns as ‘Lias goes off to war.​

“But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;

Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.”


29th Regiment Colored Infantry Regiment from Connecticut
Beaufort, South Carolina.
(LOC Photo - No Known Copyright Restriction)

‘Lias joined the Union army with a desire to fight for his freedom. He sees his fighting as; “For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right”. The pride in her seeing the troops marching with their soldier blue coats is indicative of her seeing their bravery. Much like Joshua Dunbar came back from Canada to enlist to fight in a cause they believed was right and for perhaps the first time in many of those soldiers life they felt something that had been denied them - pride.​

“Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.

Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,

‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.”

The troops would discover that the cost of freedom is a high price to pay. During the last two years of the war the especially fought in Nashville, Chickamauga and Spotsylvania Courthouse. By war’s end they had suffered more than 68,000 casualties and eighteen Congressional Medals of Honor. As the woman in "Lias discovered there is an equalizer in life - death.​

“Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,

For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.”


Soldier's Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia
During the war approximately 3,500 soldiers were buried there,
over 250 are members of the USCT.

(LOC Photo - No Known Copyright Restrictions)

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1. https://jubiloemancipationcentury.w...nce-dunbars-when-dey-listed-colored-soldiers/
2. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/604333/joshua-dunbar
4. https://dro.dur.ac.uk/4441/1/4441.pdf?DDD11+dng0jat