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Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

PREJUDICIAL TREATMENT

Black soldiers rapidly discovered that donning the Union uniform was an uplifting experience, but the sensation was transitory. Black soldiers needed proof positive that the Federal government would treat them the same as white soldiers. They hoped that this crisis and the overwhelming response to it would convince the government to treat all soldiers alike, regardless of skin pigmentation. Yet men of African descent had experienced the extraordinary power of prejudice. They needed some demonstration of good faith on the part of their government. Unfortunately, such equal treatment was slow in coming.

At the time of their enlistment, the very first black recruits received assurance that they would earn the same pay as white soldiers. That quickly proved false. The War Department, after consultation with legal counsel, announced on June 4, 1863, that the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, which authorized the enlistment of black men into the army, specified that pay was to be $10 per month regardless of rank, $3 of which was for clothing, the same pay as black government laborers. This decision touched off a firestorm of controversy.

BLACK SOLDIERS RECEIVING THEIR PAY AT HILTON HEAD, SOUTH CAROLINA. (FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER)

Men in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts launched the protest by refusing to accept inferior pay for equal work. Over the course of eighteen months the government mustered the men for pay seven times. On each occasion they declined it. When Governor Andrew of Massachusetts proposed to provide the difference, they rejected the offer. It was not the money, soldiers explained. It was the principle.

Black soldiers wrote to family, friends, newspapers, government officials—anyone who would listen—complaining of this blatant discrimination. In a letter to the editor of a prominent black newspaper, an outraged soldier, fresh from the battlefield, demanded equal pay for equal duty: "Do we not fill the same ranks? Do we not cover the same space of ground? Do we not take up the same length of ground in the grave-yard that others do? The ball does not miss the black man and strike the white, nor the white and strike the black. But sir, at that time there is no distinction made, they strike one as much as another."

White officers in the USCT joined the chorus of protests. Powerful Democrat and Major General Benjamin Butler could see no justification for such discrimination: "The colored man fills an equal space in the ranks while he lives and an equal grave when he falls." One lieutenant even announced that if Congress did not address the pay inequality question, he intended to resign: "I did not enter this service from any mercenary motive but to assist in removing the unreasonable prejudice against the colored race; and to contribute a share however small toward making the negro an effective instrument in crushing out this unholy rebellion."

When soldiers refused pay, their families suffered most. At least the soldiers received meals and shelter. The family lost a primary wage earner in the adult male. Frustration among black troops mounted quickly, and grumbles progressed into mutinous words and occasionally deeds. Officers tried their best to defuse the tense situation, explaining the consequences of mutiny to their soldiers and urging them to remain patient and work through the proper channels.

UNION OFFICERS WITH BLACK SOLDIERS IN THE BACKGROUND AT BRANDY STATION, VIRGINIA. (LC)

Once supporters of equal pay mobilized their forces, they were able to mount heavy pressure on national politicians. And in addition to strong lobbying, important government officials began to side with the black soldiers. The provost marshal general concluded that if the government hired black men exclusively as laborers, then they could not serve as substitutes for drafted white men. Attorney General Edward Bates advised the president to pay black soldiers equal wages. Lincoln had a constitutional obligation to apply all laws equally, Bates argued, and in a court of law the government would most likely lose its case for unequal pay.

In June 1864, Congress finally authorized equal pay for all soldiers from January 1, 1864. But only African Americans free before the war could receive equal pay before then. The furor resumed. It took another nine months before Congress compensated all the victims of pay discrimination. Even the euphoria over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, did not remove all the sting from such blatant inequality.

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