Song of the First of Arkansas

This photograph, from a lovingly framed tintype in the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum archives, has long been thought to be of one of Lindley Hoffman Miller’s beloved soldiers “of African descent.”

Shortly after arriving in Goodrich’s Landing, Louisiana, Morristown’s Civil War hero began writing home to his mother, Mary Louisa Macculloch Miller, to tell of taking up his duties as Captain to a regiment of newly empowered “colored” troops. In his letter of January 20, 1864, he says, “I wrote a song for them to the tune of “John Brown” the other day, which the whole regiment sings.” Soon it was printed and widely disseminated as the “Song of the First of Arkansas.”

A rousing rallying call, indeed, the first verse hails,

Oh we’re de bully soldiers of de “First of Arkansas”
We are fightin’ for de Union, we are fightin’ for the law;
We can hit a rebel furder dan a white man eber saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory hallelujah, &c.

We are unclear why Lindley chose to pen his song in dialect, which is today recognized as offensive. Some scholars have suggested Lindley used dialect to make clear his collaboration in writing the song with the troops under his command, while others dismiss this interpretation noting that the dialect used “seems much closer to the blackface minstrel interpretation of Negro dialect than the real thing.” Lindley was silent about his song’s composition, other than to voice concern that he was afraid his mother would not like it, so we will never know.

“Song of the First of Arkansas” was popular at the time it was written. The song was used for recruitment during the war and Sojourner Truth, the famous female African-American abolitionist of the 19th century, adopted Lindley’s song, even adding another verse. She performed it so often on her travels across the country that she was often mistaken as its author. Nearly 100 years after it publication, Irwin Silber edited “Song of the First of Arkansas” into standard English to include in Songs of the Civil War, which he published in 1960 in celebration of the Civil War Observance.

Macculloch Hall Historical Museum is pleased to conserve one of Lindley’s original printed versions of “Song of the First of Arkansas” in its archives.