On May 23 and 24, 1865, the 150,000 men who had made up Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac, William Tecumseh Sherman's Army of Georgia, and O.O. Howard's Army of the Tennessee gathered in Washington, D.C., for a grand review. The troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue past President Andrew Johnson and their commanding generals and were wildly cheered by crowds of onlookers who lined both sides of the street. Following the lavish spectacle, the armies were disbanded and sent home.

Although those who had fallen in battle were memorialized by banners of black crepe and ambulances that trailed along behind each brigade, the poet evidently felt that the review paled in comparison with the sacrifices of those who had given their lives on the battlefield.

The "dusky martyrs of Pillow's fight" referred to in the sixth verse were the soldiers of the 11th U.S. Colored Troops, who died in the battle for Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864. Northern and Southern accounts of the battle differ dramatically. The Committee on the Conduct of the War maintained that the Confederates, under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, murdered most of the garrison following its surrender because of the presence of black troops. Southern accounts claimed that the garrison had not surrendered and that the black soldiers were killed in combat. Most modern scholars have concluded that a massacre did take place; how much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Forrest himself is difficult to assess.

"A Second Review of the Grand Army"