We Are Coming from the Cotton Fields
Entire families sometimes escaped slavery together, particularly once the Emancipation Proclamation confirmed that the US Army would help defend their freedom. This January 1863 Harper’s Weekly engraving based on a drawing by the prolific war correspondent Alfred Waud shows a group of African Americans of all ages as they arrive in a US Army camp. Harper’s described this scene to readers as, “The beginning of the effect of the President’s Proclamation of Freedom.”
The final two verses of the 1864 song We Are Coming from the Cotton Fields anticipate the end of slavery and freedmen’s preparation to serve as soldiers:
We will leave our chains behind us, boys,
The prison, and the rack;
And we’ll hide beneath a soldier's coat.
The scars upon our backs;
And we'll teach the world a lesson soon.
If taken by the hand,
How the night shall come before tis noon,
Upon old Pharoah's land.
By the heavy chains that bound our hands
Thro' centuries of wrong,
We have learn'd the hard bought lesson well,
How to suffer and be strong;
And we only ask the power to show,
What Freedom does for man;
And we'll give sign to friend and foe,
As none beside us can.
Click the Play button to hear this song.
This striking before-and-after illustration of the same man—first shown as an escaped slave and then as a solider in the US Army—underscores both the strategic importance of black troops who fought for the United States and the dignity of this particular individual. In the accompanying text, Harper’s Weekly editors explained that this man had traveled from Montgomery, Alabama, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to enlist. Now standing tall, the former slave was “endowed for the first time with his birth-right of freedom.” Harper’s praised the courage of black troops for risking death to gain their freedom.