A Black Soldier's Letter to President Abraham Lincoln
Written September 28, 1863
An appeal for equal pay for black soldiers
"We appeal to you, Sir, as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly Dealt with. The Regt. do pray that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated by paying them as American Soldiers, not as menial hirelings."
From the earliest days of the Civil War, free black men from the North tried to join the Union Army as soldiers. They cited two main reasons for wanting to fight. First, they wanted to help put an end to slavery. Second, they believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society.
But Federal law prohibited black men from joining the Union Army, and many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. Some whites claimed that the purpose of the Civil War was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. Another reason that many Northern whites did not want black men to join the army was deepseated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. Finally, some Northerners worried that allowing blacks to become soldiers would convince the border states—four states that allowed slavery but remained part of the Union anyway—to join the Confederacy.
Black leaders in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented them from fighting in the Civil War. Former slave and abolition leader Frederick Douglass (c.1818–1895) called it "a spectacle of blind, unreasoning prejudice" that government officials "steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men who have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels than all others. . . . This is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied." Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, thousands of blacks provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops.
In 1862, the Union Army suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Confederates. This led to low morale among the troops and difficulty attracting white volunteers. As a result, public opinion about allowing blacks to fight gradually began to change. On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two new laws that officially allowed black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army.
Black men finally got the opportunity to serve their country, but they still faced many forms of discrimination. For example, black soldiers were not allowed to be promoted to the rank of officer, meaning that they were stuck being followers rather than leaders. Black regiments (military units of organized troops) were always led by white officers. Black soldiers also performed more than their fair share of hard labor and fatigue duty, such as pitching tents, loading supplies, and digging wells and trenches.
In addition, black soldiers received lower pay than white soldiers of the same rank. Black soldiers with the rank of private were paid $10 per month, with $3 deducted for clothing. But white privates received $13 per month, plus an additional $3.50 for clothing. War Department officials claimed that black soldiers received lower pay because their regiments were used as laborers rather than as combat troops. In reality, however, thousands of black soldiers took part in battles and fought with great courage for the Union cause.
One of the most famous black regiments in the Civil War was the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. This regiment was organized by Massachusetts governor John Andrew (1818–1867) in January 1863. With the help of prominent black leaders and abolitionists, Andrew recruited free blacks from all over the North to represent his state. In July 1863, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The troops charged forward through heavy enemy fire and reached the walls of the fort, but were forced to retreat when reinforcements failed to arrive. The commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863), and nearly half of the six hundred members of the regiment were killed. But the regiment's bravery and determination in battle helped increase acceptance of blacks in the army and in society.
The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts led a protest against the government policies that gave unequal pay to Union soldiers based upon their race. They refused to accept any pay until they were treated equally with white soldiers. In response to protests from black soldiers and Northern abolitionists, members of the Republican Party in Congress sponsored a bill to equalize the pay of black and white soldiers. This bill proposed to make the equal wages retroactive (effective as of a date before the bill was actually passed), meaning that black soldiers would receive an extra $3 per month beginning from the time that they enlisted in the army. But members of the Democratic Party opposed equalizing the pay of black and white soldiers. Some Republicans questioned making the equal payments retroactive. Since the sides could not reach an agreement, the bill was not passed.
In some ways, being part of the Union Army was even more dangerous for black soldiers than it was for whites. Southerners were outraged when they learned that the North planned to allow black men to fight. They were especially angry that the Union Army would use former slaves—whom the Confederates considered to be stolen property—against them in battle. In May 1863, the Confederate government announced that it intended to ignore the usual rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war and deal with captured black soldiers in a harsh manner. The government issued a statement saying that captured black soldiers might be put to death or sold into slavery. Many people thought that the Confederacy was just trying to discourage blacks from joining the Union Army, but a few well-publicized incidents convinced other people that they were serious.
Confederate soldiers executed hundreds of captured black soldiers in the last years of the Civil War, as well as some white officers in charge of black regiments. One white Union soldier described what happened to black soldiers who were captured near Plymouth, North Carolina: "All the negroes found in blue uniform or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him was killed—I saw some taken into the woods and hung—Others I saw stripped of all their clothing, and they stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and then they were shot—Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the Rebels."
Northerners grew angry and defiant upon hearing about such incidents. Union officials threatened to strike back using Confederate prisoners of war. "For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war," President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) said in July 1863, "a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works." But Lincoln did not enforce this policy. One problem was that it would mean punishing innocent Confederate soldiers for the crimes of others. Another problem was that it would probably cause the Confederacy to retaliate in even more horrible ways. Instead, the Union Army stopped exchanging Confederate prisoners for Union soldiers who had been captured. These men remained in Union prisoner of war camps as a way of keeping the Confederacy from enforcing its policy of executing or enslaving captured black soldiers.
Under pressure from the U.S. government, the Confederates said that they would be willing to exchange captured black soldiers who had been legally free before the war began. But the head of prisoner exchanges for the Confederacy declared that the South would "die in the last ditch" before "giving up the right to send slaves back to slavery as property recaptured." Union officials would not accept this policy. The U.S. government refused to return Confederate prisoners until the Confederate government agreed to treat captured black Union soldiers—both freemen and former slaves—the same as captured white Union soldiers. In April 1864, Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) declared that "no distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners."
In general, black troops were pleased and relieved that the Union supported them in the prisoner of war issue. But some questioned how the government could consider them equal to white soldiers if they were captured by the enemy, but still deny them equal pay. This is one of many questions raised in the following letter. James Henry Gooding, a black soldier from the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment, wrote the letter to President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of his fellow black soldiers in order to make an argument about why they deserved to be paid the same as white soldiers. He explains that the black soldiers are doing the same work as their white counterparts. He mentions specific battles in which black soldiers have fought with honor and courage for the Union cause. He also notes that black soldiers have willingly given their lives for their country.
Things to remember while reading James Henry Gooding's letter to President Abraham Lincoln:
- Toward the end of his letter to the president, Gooding mentions that he and the other members of his regiment are "freemen by birth" rather than former slaves. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts was unusual because its ranks were filled with free blacks from the North. Most other black regiments consisted almost entirely of former slaves. In fact, eight out of every ten black men who became Union soldiers during the Civil War were liberated or escaped slaves from the South.
- In some cases, slaves who became soldiers found it difficult to see any difference between their former masters and their white officers in the Union Army. The men placed in command of black regiments ranged from Northern abolitionists like Robert Gould Shaw (head of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts) to Kentucky slaveowners.
- Gooding talks about how black soldiers "have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy." In fact, a black soldier was almost three times more likely to die than a white soldier during the Civil War. Black soldiers often experienced harsher working conditions than whites and did not receive equal access to medical care.
A Black Soldier's Letter to President Abraham Lincoln
Your Excellency, Abraham Lincoln:
Your Excellency will pardon the presumption of an humble individual like myself, in addressing you, but the earnest Solicitation of my Comrades in Arms beside the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance. On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the department informed us, that if we would decide to receive the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt. would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three). He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped; certainly he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we cannot suppose him acting in any way interested.
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 Soldier's life, have conducted ourselves to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who were, if any[thing], prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement and honour due us; have shared the perils and Labour of Reducing the first stronghold that flaunted a Traitor Flag; and more, Mr. President. Today the Anglo-Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister are not alone in tears for departed Sons, Husbands and Brothers. The patient, trusting Descendants of Afric's Clime have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men, too, your Excellency, who know in a measure the cruelties of the Iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very Power their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them to the dust.
But When the war trumpet sounded o'er the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation,—and he was refused. When the arms of the Union were beaten, in the first year of the War, and the Executive called more food for its ravaging maw, again the black man begged the privilege of aiding his Country in her need, to be again refused.
And now he is in the War, and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms rise up, out [of] the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich mould around [Fort]Wagner's parapets be upturned, and there will be found an Eloquent answer. Obedient and patient and Solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet. Now your Excellency, we have done a Soldier's Duty. Why Can't we have a Soldier's pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States knows no distinction in her Soldiers. She insists on having all her Soldiers of whatever creed or Color, to be treated according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her Soldiers from the Insurgents, would it not be well and consistent to set the example herself by paying all her Soldiers alike?
We of this Regt. were not enlisted under any "contraband" act. But we do not wish to be understood as rating our Service of more Value to the Government than the service of the ex-slave. Their Service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express provision touching their case, as slaves freed by military necessity, and assuming the Government to be their temporary Guardian. Not so with us. Freemen by birth and consequently having the advantage of thinking and acting for ourselves so far as the Laws would allow us, we do not consider ourselves fit subject for the Contraband act.
We appeal to you, Sir, as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly Dealt with. The Regt. do pray that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated by paying them as American Soldiers, not as menial hirelings.
Black men, you may well know, are poor; three dollars per month for a year will supply their needy Wives and little ones with fuel. If you, as Chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us of our whole pay, we are content. Our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid our Country. Not that our hearts have ever flagged in Devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but We feel as though our Country spurned us, now that we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moment's attention.
James Henry Gooding
What happened next . . .
The U.S. Congress finally reached a compromise in June 1864, nine months after Gooding made his appeal to President Lincoln. The War Department agreed to begin paying black soldiers the same wages as white soldiers at that time. Black soldiers who had been free before the start of the Civil War would receive an additional $3 per month retroactive to the time that they had enlisted in the army. The increase in pay for former slaves would be retroactive only to January 1, 1864.
Despite the discrimination in pay and promotion by the Union, and the threat of execution or abusive treatment if they were captured by the Confederates, more than two hundred thousand black men fought valiantly for the Union. By late 1864, black regiments made up about 10 percent of the entire Northern forces. Black men fought in almost every major battle during the final year of the Civil War. Approximately 37,300 black men died while serving their country, and 21 received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery in battle. The courage and determination of black soldiers on the battlefield earned the respect of many white Americans and helped the North win the Civil War.
Did you know . . .
- Gooding is the only black member of the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment whose first-hand accounts of his days in combat have survived to this day.
- In addition to the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, several other black regiments found it necessary to protest against racist treatment within the Union Army. For example, in December 1863, a black regiment stationed at Fort Jackson in Louisiana revolted when they saw a black drummer boy whipped by a white officer. The officer was placed on trial before a military court, found guilty of "inflicting cruel and unusual punishment," and dismissed from the army.
- Although the U.S. government never officially retaliated against the Confederates' harsh treatment of black prisoners of war, Union field commanders did so unofficially on more than one occasion. During battles near Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, Confederate troops forced captured black Union soldiers to build fortifications under enemy fire. This was a violation of the basic rules of war. Union leaders responded by putting an equal number of Confederate prisoners to work under similar conditions. In both cases, the Confederate officers gave in and allowed the black prisoners to return to safety.
For Further Reading
Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. New York: Longmans, Green, 1956. Reprint, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1987.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870. Reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.
Williams, Walter L. "Again in Chains: Black Soldiers Suffering in Captivity." Civil War Times Illustrated. May 1981.