Flag, Freedom, and Fury: African American Soldier Tells his Wife “the black man is… coming… with all the terrible trappings of war.”

22nd-Infantry-USCT
Regimental flag of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, circa 1863-1865. Art by David Bustill Bowser, an African American artist who designed several USCT flags. The motto at the top of the flag is “Sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants,” and sometimes translated as “death to tyrants” or “down with the tyrant.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-23096; see here for more information.

Among academic and layman historians, there is sometimes a debate about why the common soldier fought in the Civil War. Menomine Maimi, an African American Union soldier, left no doubt about his motivations in a letter to his wife: “Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free.”

Menomine Maimi, AKA Meunomennie Maimi, was an African American who first enlisted in a white regiment in Connecticut, and then was transferred to the famed 54th Massachusetts. In April 1863, he wrote a poignant letter to his spouse that was published in the Weekly Anglo-African, a black-audience newspaper in New York. He had been sick or injured, perhaps near death; but he was now well, and wanted to assure his wife that he was OK, and still spurred to service. Maimi was, to use a modern term, a man on a mission. Eventually, he left the army with a medical discharge.

Maimi’s letter is in equal parts profoundly patriotic, scathingly anti-slavery, aggressively assertive of his manly responsibilities, and undergirded by his belief in God. Apparently, his wife had urged him to leave the army — perhaps even desert — because he was mistreated by his fellow soldiers, probably because of his race. But his mission would not allow him to abandon his duty.

Maimi told his wife, emphatically, that he was a solider, and was duty bound to be true to his country, his fellow soldiers, and also, his “enslaved brothers.” His service had its rewards: the secessionists/Confederates who “denied that God made the black man a man at all” would now see “the black man… coming… with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war.” By his actions, and those of the “black (and)… white sons” of the Union, “the (American) flag which so long has defended their institutions (i.e., slavery)” would become an “emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white.”

And if he suffered and even died while doing his duty, that was a price that he – and his wife – would have to pay.

This is a remarkable piece of writing; delve in. From the Weekly Anglo-American, New York, NY, April 18, 1863:

My Dear Wife

When I wrote you the last letter I was quite sick, And I did not to know as I should ever be able to write to you again; but I am much better now and write to relieve your mind… I shall come home, if permitted to come home, but as soon as my health will admit, will return to duty.

Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid for farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free. The government has torn down the only barrier that existed against us as a people. When slavery passes away, the prejudices that belonged to it must follow. The government calls for the colored man’s help and, if he is not a fool, he will give it.

… The white man thought again how to get his money without his own dear self having to broil beneath a hot sun or see his wife or delicate child stoop to the labor of picking the cotton from the field or gathering rice from its damp bed. The Indian had failed him; the few captives they took died when they came to forced labor upon them, that’s proving the red man unable to do the labor in those climes. His fiend-like eyes fell upon the black man. Thought he, “I have it. We will get some of the states that cannot grow these plants and do not need as many hands to help them as we do, to raise blacks for us, and we will purchase these of them, and they will keep their mouths shut about this liberty that was only meant for us and our children.”

They denied that God made the black man a man at all, and brought their most learned judges and doctors of the gospel and laws to attempt to prove by them that the sons of Africa were not even human. They try to convince the world that the black man sprang from the brute creation; that the kings and princes and noble sons of the sunny land sprang from the loins of monkeys and apes, who made the war with each other and slaves of each other in their mother country and it was but right to buy and steal the children of apes or monkeys and to enslave them.

How do you fancy, wife, the idea of being part ape or monkey? I have often heard our grandmother tell what a noble man your great-grandfather was, how much he knew and was respected by his neighbors and the white man that owned him, and how her own father, who followed the condition of his father, who died a slave, suffered before he bought his freedom; how she and her little sisters and brothers were robbed of her hard-earned a property by one who cared not for the rights of the black child. Tell grandmother that Maimi will strike for her wrongs as well as for those of others.

They shall see these gentle monkeys, that they thought they had so fast in chains and fetters, coming on a long visit to them, with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war. Not one at a time cringing like whipped hounds as we were, but by the thousands and if that doesn’t suffice, by millions. Like Pharaoh’s lice, we shall be found in all his palaces, will be his terror and his torment; he shall yet wish he had never heard of us. We will never forsake him, until he repents in sackcloth and ashes his crime of taking from us our manhood and reducing us to the brute creation. Continue reading

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Union officer scolds US Colored Troops: “It is mutiny to refuse to take your pay, and mutiny is punishable with death.”


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.”

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