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While the controversy over prisoners of war raged, the U.S. government was using the Militia Act of 1862 to justify paying all black soldiers—whom it regarded as laborers—less than half the monthly wages of white soldiers. African Americans earned ten dollars a month, from which three dollars was deducted for clothing. White soldiers of the same rank received $13 a month plus clothing or cash worth more than three dollars. The Militia Act primarily applied to former slaves who worked as laborers for the Union Army, and many free blacks who had enlisted to serve their country deeply resented treatment that equated them with slaves. In September 1863, Cpl. James Henry Gooding wrote to President Lincoln to state the case of his comrades as clearly as possible:

Now the main question is. Are we Soldiers, or are we LABOURERS. We are fully armed, and equipped, have done all the various Duties, pertaining to a Soldiers life, have conducted ourselves, to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who, were if any, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us al the encouragement, and honour due us … have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy … We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay?

The men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry continued to serve, but refused to accept any pay at all until the U.S. government—the institution they were fighting to preserve—treated them as equal to their white comrades. What could be more absurd than accepting demeaning wages and treatment based on their race, while sacrificing their lives to end race-based slavery? In response, the governor of Massachusetts convinced the state legislature to make up the difference between the black and white soldiers' pay, but the soldiers refused it. It was a matter of pride. As one declared: "We did not come to fight for money … [but for the principle] that made us men when we enlisted."

In November 1863 Sgt. William Walker of the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers led a group of men to lay down their arms in Jacksonville, Florida, and resign from the Army in protest, arguing that they had been promised equal treatment when they enlisted. Walker's case prompted increased public discussion of the issue, and in December Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asked that the pay of all soldiers be equalized. The families of black soldiers suffered as opposition and long debates in Congress delayed the action. In February 1864 Sergeant Walker was court-martialed and shot for mutiny.

Finally, in June 1864 Congress passed legislation giving black soldiers equal pay, retroactive to January 1, 1864, for all soldiers and to the time of enlistment for those who had been free men when they joined. The question of just how the military would determine who was and wasn't a free man upon enlistment was solved creatively by officers who wanted to provide fair compensation for as many as possible. They accepted each man's personal oath about whether he had been free or not and encouraged a "Quaker oath," in which soldiers could declare that by God's law (even if not by human law) they had been free men. By December 1865 the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery throughout the United States.

 

Related Links

Freedmen and Southern Society Project
This site offers a selection of key documents related to the transition from slavery to freedom during the Civil War. Since 1976 Freedmen's Project historians have collected and annotated some 50,000 documents that bring the story of emancipation to life. You'll also find an extensive time line created by the project's editors.

African American Civil War Memorial
This new memorial and museum is developing a wide array of exhibits, online forums, historical resources, and information for teachers and students. You'll also find photo galleries and a newsletter providing updates on special projects and events.

Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System
For more details about the soldiers themselves, there's no better place to look than the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. In addition to a database of facts about those who served and histories of regiments, the site offers a section devoted to African-American contributions to the war, including Medal of Honor recipients, as well as a section with the names of approximately 20,000 African American sailors in the Union Navy.

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