Recruitment poster for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, African Descent. Note that payment of $13 per month is advertised.
Image Source: John Banks Civil War Blog, from the Massachusetts Historical Society
Military necessity prompted the enlistment of Africans Americans as soldiers and sailors in the Union military during the American Civil War. But it did not necessarily prompt white men to treat black enlisted men with respect. This lack of respect is made clear in an infamous talk by a white officer to black soldiers of the majority black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (54th Mass Regiment), which has become famous due the movie Glory!
Although organized in Massachusetts, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment consisted of black men from as south as Philadelphia, and some further south of that; and also black men from as far west as Indiana, and even west of that. The men were literate, relatively well educated, and highly motivated. Most important, they were free black men. Their pride, and manhood, dictated they they would not allow themselves to be treated as members of a degraded race.
So it was that Union policy concerning salaries for back soldiers raised the ire of the men of the 54th Mass Regiment. Per the US government’s reading of the July 1862 Militia Act, which authorized black enlistment into the Union army, African American soldiers were to be paid “$7 (per month), in comparison to the significantly raised $13 that white soldiers received.” Apparently, this separate pay schedule for black soldiers was set on the idea that initial black recruits would serve as military laborers, not as combat soldiers.
But African Americans did serve in combat. Indeed, the 54th Mass gained its fame for its actions in July 1863, when it attacked Fort Wagner, a heavily guarded site in Charleston Harbor. Many men were injured or killed in that unsuccessful battle, including white officer Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who lost his life in the battle.
The unequal pay schedule made a sham of what the soldiers believed were promises that they would be treated fairly and equally (see the recruitment poster above). The issue was discussed in a letters written by George E. Stephens, a private in the 54th Mass. From his regiment’s camp in South Carolina, Stephens wrote the letter, dated October 3, 1863, to Robert Hamilton of the Anglo-African newspaper:
You have also heard I suppose of this matter of pay, it has caused a great deal of trouble, and if it is not adjusted one of the best regiments that ever left the Massachusetts will become utterly demoralized. …an offer (has been) made to pay us ten dollars per month less three for clothing, in other words pay us seven dollars per month. The men were enlisted as a part of the Mass. State quota of troops and never dreamed that any other pay but that of other Massachusetts soldiers would be given them. We have been urged and urged again to accept seven dollars a month, all, sergeant-major down to the humblest private to get no more. There are respectable and well to do men in this regiment, who have accepted positions. It is insulting to them to offer them about half the pay of a poor white private.”
Many of the men in the regiment refused the unequal pay, choosing to serve for nothing rather than be paid less than white soldiers. Some white officers saw the refusal to take the pay as insubordination. Stephens wrote about the pointed comments of Col. James Montgomery, a former Bleeding Kansas antagonist, in a talk he gave to the 54th Mass:
To give you an idea of the feelings of some of the officers here with regard to us on this point, I will give you a short speech made Sept. 30th by Col. James Montgomery, 2d South Carolina Vols., of Kansas fame, and Commander of the Brigade to which we have been recently joined. Col. Montgomery was not in command of the brigade. He has been sick some time past. The paymaster was in Col. Littlefield’s tent. Some ten or twelve officers of our own and other regiments were present. The men had not accepted their pay and the well men were on fatigue duty, at Battery Shaw and Wagner. Col. M. had those who were left in camp drawn up in line and addressed them as follows:
“I want to speak to you. You want plain talk and I shall give it to you. I am your friend. I made the first anti-slavery speech ever made in Kansas. I was the first man that employed negroes in the United States service. I fought six years in Kansas for nothing and I do not come here for pay. I can make $5,000 a year. I get only $2,200 here. I sacrifice my ease and comfort (for I enjoy myself at home).
“There is a General now in the Rebel service whom I fought, killed his horse from under him and took him prisoner when in the United States service. I would have been hung long ago if I had held still. Old Jimmy Buchanan (James Buchanan, 15th US president, Lincoln’s predecessor) offered a reward for my head. It was a very mean one to be sure, and I was very indignant. He offered only a yearling nigger worth about two hundred and fifty dollars. If he had offered a full-grown nigger I would not have cared so much.
“You ought to be glad to pay for the privilege to fight, instead of squabbling about money. A great many of you are fugitive slaves, and can by law be returned to your masters. The government by its act in setting you free has paid you a thousand dollars bounty.
“I know what the trouble is: the noisy Abolitionists have been telling you you are better than anybody else. They are your worst enemies. You have two classes of friends: those who tell you what you are and those who sees in the Ethiopian a symbol of injured innocence. I have seen a hundred regiments but I never saw one so fully equipped as this. Look at your tents and cooking stoves. You want to be placed on the same footing as white soldiers. You must show yourselves as good soldiers as the white. For all anybody knows you did very well here. You must show it by bravery in battle. I should be glad to make you as good soldiers as the white.
“You are a race of slaves. A few years ago your fathers worshipped snakes and crocodiles in Africa. Your features partake of a beastly character. Your religious exercises in this camp is a mixture of barbarism and Christianity.
“I am disgusted with the mean, low habits you have learned from the low whites. I hear them say to you, ‘bully boys, bully boys, don’t take this pay’ What do they mean by this? Do you mean to bully the government out of your money or that you are stubborn as bulls? You would rather go out here and dig in the trenches than stay here in camp and be paid off.
“Gov. Andrew (John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts) advises you to take this money and Frederick Douglass (African American leader, publisher, writer) also. I have a letter here from Fred. He has been on a tour to Washington and had an interview with Sec. Stanton (Edwin Stanton, US Secretary of War) on the subject of enlistments. He advised that all that was needed was to treat the negro as a man. There are two classes of colored men: the indolent and careless; the industrious and ambitious. He (Douglass) called on Senator Pomeroy (Samuel Pomeroy, US Senator, Kansas), but did not call on Jim Lane. He perhaps had found Lane out. There are two Senators from Kansas. Pomeroy is a pretty fair sort of man, but Jim Lane is at present a noisy Abolitionist. Some time ago he wanted to buy some lands, utensils and niggers, but not having any money had to do without the niggers. He will buy and sell a nigger as quick as anybody else, but since the majority are in favor of liberty, he is very loud-mouthed.
“Fred Douglass is far above the mass of his race; but he is not equal to the great men of this country, such as Wendell Phillips, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sumner, and others. You can be improved by education. Irishmen come to this country and in a few years become the same as other white men. Education expands the brain and improves the features.
“Your features can be improved. Your beauty cannot recommend you. Your yellow faces are evidences of rascality. You should get rid of this bad blood. My advice to you is the lightest of you must marry the blackest woman.
“You owe your sutler nearly $2,000 and your refusing to take your pay show that you intend to cheat him out of his goods. You went to his agent after he had gone away, and because he would not trust you broke open his place and robbed him. The men that robbed him should be hung. He had no right to trust you and could be handled for it.
“It is mutiny to refuse to take your pay, and mutiny is punishable with death.”
Needless to say, this demeaning screed was not taken well by the men of the 54th. Stephens went on to say
The Colonel spoke nearly an hour and I cannot stoop to give all the bad epithets directed to our regiment. We had not the remotest idea that he entertained such a spirit of hatred for our regiment. Had he scarcely left the bench on which he stood while addressing the men, when Col. Littlefield who was in command of the Brigade at the time stood up and said:
“Men, I cannot let this opportunity pass. The regiment has endeared itself to me. You have done your whole duty. You have written your names on the scroll of fame and any man who defames this regiment defames me. Such a man is my enemy and if I have any fighting to do I will defend you. I do not urge you to take this money, but I am willing to give you a pledge of my honor that you will get your full pay. I have made a promise of $1,000 to Gen. Saxton for a monument to Col. Shaw, and I would have you take this money and make up this sum to commemorate the name of your noble leader.”
This instantly dispelled the bad effects of Col. Montgomery’s remarks. I am astonished that some insubordinate demonstration was not made, but Col. M. is our superior officer and our boys respect their superior officers.
The speech of Col. M. has fixed the determination in the minds of the men to await calmly and patiently. If we thought that our enemies would make this course on our part a ground of assault against colored soldiers, I for one should go for taking $7 per month, nay $2 would be enough, but as the Colonel says, all the private soldiers here are vehement in urging us to refuse this paltry pay. They say if we take this money they will want to cut down their wages next. I have never yet heard a man say that we have failed to perform our duty. We have been complimented for our arduous labor in the trenches and whenever paraded have cleaner clothes, cleaner arms, better polished equipments than any other colored regiment on the Island. In truth there is no negro regiment compared to the 54th. In the last review the palm for martial bearing, accurate marching, and cleanliness is disputed with the 54th by the 100th New York Volunteers.
The crime that has unfortunately incurred the displeasure of our General is that we do not sign the pay rolls, and the pay-master will not give us money unless we sign and thus give him receipt in full for pay up to the ist of August. The words of Col. Montgomery fell with crushing effect on the regiment. We did not enlist for money but we feel that the men who enlisted us and those who accepted our service never intended that we should be treated different from other Massachusetts men. If the government had been too poor to pay us we would have been willing to give our services for nothing. But the government seems fully able to pay her soldiers, for just on the threshold of this great war she increased their pay.
The men of the 54th did continue to refuse the unequal pay. The US government finally reversed its salary policy in June 1864, giving black soldiers equal pay, and eventually provided retroactive back pay to men who had been unequally paid for their service. In the end, the men of the 54th Mass achieved pay equity with white men. As to whether they were perceived as equals in the hearts and minds of certain white officers… that, we cannot say.
Note: Col. James Montgomery gained some fame/infamy for leading black soldiers on raids, with the help of Harriet Tubman, that freed over 700 slaves from bondage in South Carolina. The raids gained some measure of controversy because Montgomery is said to have punitively destroyed civilian property on the way. He said such acts were needed so “that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war.”