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.”