Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)
Title of Song: The Invalid Corps
Composer: Wilder, Frank
Illustrator: Bufford, J. H.
Publisher: Henry S. Tolman
Year & Place: 1863; Boston, Massachusetts
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-1084
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasm.b1084
This lithograph depicts six male soldiers standing in a row. While these soldiers occupy the center of the pictorial space, a flag waves in the background and there are trees etched faintly. Four out of six men suffer from a physical injury either to a leg or an arm. Two play drums on the far sides of the composition while a man in wearing a sling on his right arm engages in conversation with knock-kneed soldier to his right. Some carry bayonet guns while others have swords. Whereas most of the men wear official army garments, two wear clothing that is undifferentiated from that which a civilian might wear.
The visual strategy here in combination with the song’s title attempts to create a logical rationalization for the supposed disability of blackness. In other words, to convey the handicap of being a Negro, the object’s creator rendered a situation that would unequivocally signal weakness or lack of ability. It is almost as if, the simple presence of whites in blackface would not communicate this message in clear nor a funny manner. Here, the artist visually conflates the disability of the body with blackness, implying that a black regiment literally cannot fight in a war. They are literally, in-valid.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was a group of black soldiers of African that served in the civil war. One of the first black regiments to be recruited in the North, its incipience was the result of the urgings of Frederick Douglas. Under Governor John Andrew, the regiment was created in February of 1863 with twenty-one officers and four-hundred men. It was led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white male who was the son of New York abolitionists. The group was dominated by free black males who had been, as civilians, printers, blacksmiths, mechanics and carpenters. They came from states in the South, the North and Canada. Depicted here are first sergeant Jeremiah Rolls of Ohio; corporal Abram Simms, George Lipscomb of Ohio, Sergeant Thomas Bowman of Ohio, Corporal Isom Ampey; and Sergeant Major John H. Wilson of North Carolina. The group received notice to report to battle in South Carolina in May of 1863 and these men were just a few of those who fought in the noted battle at Fort Wagner. During this fight Wilson was wounded. Bowman was wounded later in a battle in Florida in 1864.
Greene, Robert Ewell. Swamp Angels : A Biographical Study of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment : True Facts about the Black Defenders of the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: BoMark/Greene Pub. Group, 1990.
Burchard, Peter. “We’ll Stand by the Union” : Robert Gould Shaw and the Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. New York: Facts on File, 1993.