James Henry Gooding

A Black Soldier's Letter to President Abraham Lincoln

Written September 28, 1863

An appeal for equal pay for black soldiers

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 deep-seated 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 any-way—to join the Confederacy.

"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 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 or

Civil War Black Soldiers

Black soldiers leave by train to serve in the Civil War.

(Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

ganized 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.

Black soldiers leave by train to serve in the Civil War.

(Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

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

Massachusetts governor John Andrew organized the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment.

(Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.)

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.

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  • Fiyori
    What happened to black southern soldiers when captured?
    8 years ago
  • nasih
    How could black soldiers have protested for higher pay in 1863?
    8 years ago
  • swen
    Did black soldiers fight in the battle of mine creek?
    8 years ago

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