Appendix D. The Struggle for Pay.

From: Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1882 Boston


  THE story of the attempt to cut down the pay of the colored troops is too long, too complicated, and too humiliating, to be here narrated. In the case of my regiment there stood on record the direct pledge of the War Department to General Saxton that their pay should be the same as that of whites. So clear was this that our kind paymaster, Major W. J. Wood, of New Jersey, took upon himself the responsibility of paying the price agreed upon, for five months, till he was compelled by express orders to reduce it from thirteen dollars per month to ten dollars, and from that to seven dollars,—the pay of quartermaster’s men and day-laborers. At the same time the “stoppages” from the pay-rolls for the loss of all equipments and articles of clothing remained the same as for all other soldiers, so that it placed the men in the most painful and humiliating condition. Many of them had families to provide for, and between the actual distress, the sense of wrong, the taunts of those who had refused to enlist from the fear of being cheated, and the doubt how much farther the cheat might be carried, the poor fellows were goaded to the utmost. In the Third South Carolina regiment, Sergeant William Walker was shot, by order of court-marital, for leading his company to stack arms before their captain’s tent, on the avowed ground that they were released from duty by the refusal of the Government to fulfill its share of the contract. The fear of such tragedies spread a cloud of solicitude over every camp of colored soldiers for more than a year, and the following series of letters will show through what wearisome labors the final triumph of justice was secured. In these labors the chief credit must be given to my admirable Adjutant, Lieutenant G. W. Dewhurst In the matter of bounty justice is not yet obtained; there is a discrimination against those colored soldiers who were slaves on April 19, 1861. Every officer, who through indolence or benevolent design claimed on his muster-rolls that all his men had been free on that day, secured for them the bounty; while every officer who, like myself, obeyed orders and told the truth in each case, saw his men and their families suffer for it, as I have done. A bill to abolish this distinction was introduced by Mr. Wilson at the last session, but failed to pass the House. It is hoped that next winter may remove this last vestige of the weary contest

  To show how persistently and for how long a period these claims had to be urged on Congress, I reprint such of my own printed letters on the subject as are now in my possession. There are one or two of which I have no copies. It was especially in the Senate that it was so difficult to get justice done; and our thanks will always be especially due to Hon. Charles Sumner and Hon. Henry Wilson for their advocacy of our simple rights. The records of those sessions will show who advocated the fraud.

  To the Editor of the New York Tribune:

  SIR,—No one can overstate the intense anxiety with which the officers of colored regiments in this Department are awaiting action from Congress in regard to arrears of pay of their men.

  It is not a matter of dollars and cents only; it is a question of common honesty,—whether the United States Government has sufficient integrity for the fulfillment of an explicit business contract.

  The public seems to suppose that all required justice will be done by the passage of a bill equalizing the pay of all soldiers for the future. But, so far as my own regiment is concerned, this is but half the question. My men have been nearly sixteen months in the service, and for them the immediate issue is the question of arrears.

  They understand the matter thoroughly, if the public do not. Every one of them knows that he volunteered under an explicit written assurance from the War Department that he should have the pay of a white soldier. He knows that for five months the regiment received that pay, after which it was cut down from the promised thirteen dollars per month to ten dollars, for some reason to him inscrutable.

  He does not know for I have not yet dared to tell the men—that the Paymaster has been already reproved by the Pay Department for fulfilling even in part the pledges of the War Department; that at the next payment the ten dollars are to be further reduced to seven; and that, to crown the whole, all the previous overpay is to be again deducted or “stopped” from the future wages, thus leaving them a little more than a dollar a month for six months to come, unless Congress interfere!

  Yet so clear were the terms of the contract that Mr. Solicitor Whiting, having examined the original instructions from the War Department issued to Brigadier-General Saxton, Military Governor, admits to me (under date of December 4, 1863,) that “the faith of the Government was thereby pledged to every officer and soldier enlisted under that call.”

  He goes on to express the generous confidence that “the pledge will be honorably fulfilled.” I observe that every one at the North seems to feel the same confidence, but that, meanwhile, the pledge is unfulfilled. Nothing is said in Congress about fulfilling it. I have not seen even a proposition in Congress to pay the colored soldiers, from date of enlistment, the same pay with white soldiers; and yet anything short of that is an unequivocal breach of contract, so far as this regiment is concerned.

  Meanwhile, the land sales are beginning, and there is danger of every foot of land being sold from beneath my soldiers’ feet, because they have not the petty sum which Government first promised, and then refused to pay.

  The officers’ pay comes promptly and fully enough, and this makes the position more embarrassing. For how are we to explain to the men the mystery that Government can afford us a hundred or two dollars a month, and yet must keep back six of the poor thirteen which it promised them? Does it not naturally suggest the most cruel suspicions in regard to us? And yet nothing but their childlike faith in their officers, and in that incarnate soul of honor, General Saxton, has sustained their faith, or kept them patient, thus far.

  There is nothing mean or mercenary about these men in general. Convince them that the Government actually needs their money, and they would serve it barefooted and on half-rations, and without a dollar—for a time. But, unfortunately, they see white soldiers beside them, whom they know to be in no way their superiors for any military service, receiving hundreds of dollars for re-enlisting for this impoverished Government, which can only pay seven dollars out of thirteen to its black regiments. And they see, on the other hand, those colored men who refused to volunteer as soldiers, and who have found more honest paymasters than the United States Government, now exulting in well-filled pockets, and able to buy the little homesteads the soldiers need, and to turn the soldiers’ families into the streets. Is this a school for self-sacrificing patriotism?

  I should not speak thus urgently were it not becoming manifest that there is to be no promptness of action in Congress, even as regards the future pay of colored soldiers,—and that there is especial danger of the whole matter of arrears going by default Should it be so, it will be a repudiation more ungenerous than any which Jefferson Davis advocated or Sydney Smith denounced. It will sully with dishonor all the nobleness of this opening page of history, and fix upon the North a brand of meanness worse than either Southerner or Englishman has yet dared to impute. The mere delay in the fulfillment of this contract has already inflicted untold suffering, has impaired discipline, has relaxed loyalty, and has begun to implant a feeling of sullen distrust in the very regiments whose early career solved the problem of the nation, created a new army, and made peaceful emancipation possible.

Colonel commanding 1st S. C. Vols.

  BEAUFORT, S. C., January 22, 1864.

BEAUFORT, S. C., Sunday, February 14, 1864.

To the Editor of the New York Times:

  May I venture to call your attention to the great and cruel injustice which is impending over the brave men of this regiment?

  They have been in military service for over a year, having volunteered, every man, without a cent of bounty, on the written pledge of the War Department that they should receive the same pay and rations with white soldiers.

  This pledge is contained in the written instructions of Brigadier-General Saxton, Military Governor, dated August 25, 1862. Mr. Solicitor Whiting, having examined those instructions, admits to me that “the faith of the Government was thereby pledged to every officer and soldier under that call.”

  Surely, if this fact were understood, every man in the nation would see that the Government is degraded by using for a year the services of the brave soldiers, and then repudiating the contract under which they were enlisted. This is what will be done, should Mr. Wilson’s bill, legalizing the back pay of the army, be defeated.

  We presume too much on the supposed ignorance of these men. I have never yet found a man in my regiment so stupid as not to know when he was cheated. If fraud proceeds from Government itself, so much the worse, for this strikes at the foundation of all rectitude, all honor, all obligation.

  Mr. Senator Fessenden said, in the debate on Mr. Wilson’s bill, January 4, that the Government was not bound by the unauthorized promises of irresponsible recruiting officers. But is the Government itself an irresponsible recruiting officer? and if men have volunteered in good faith on the written assurances of the Secretary of War, is not Congress bound, in all decency, either to fulfill those pledges or to disband the regiments?

  Mr. Senator Doolittle argued in the same debate that white soldiers should receive higher pay than black ones, because the families of the latter were often supported by Government What an astounding statement of fact is this! In the white regiment in which I was formerly an officer (the Massachusetts Fifty-First) nine tenths of the soldiers’ families, in addition to the pay and bounties, drew regularly their “State aid.” Among my black soldiers, with half-pay and no bounty, not a family receives any aid. Is there to be no limit, no end to the injustice we heap upon this unfortunate people? Cannot even the fact of their being in arms for the nation, liable to die any day in its defence, secure them ordinary justice? Is the nation so poor, and so utterly demoralized by its pauperism, that after it has had the lives of these men, it must turn round to filch six dollars of the monthly pay which the Secretary of War promised to their widows? It is even so, if the excuses of Mr. Fressenden and Mr. Doolittle are to be accepted by Congress and by the people.

  Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Colonel commanding 1st S. C. Volunteers.


  To the Editors of the Evening Post:

  On the 2d of July, at James Island, S. C., a battery was taken by three regiments, under the following circumstances:

  The regiments were the One Hundred and Third New York (white), the Thirty-Third United States (formerly First South Carolina Volunteers), and the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts, the two last being colored. They marched at one A. M., by the flank, in the above order, hoping to surprise the battery. As usual the rebels were prepared for them, and opened upon them as they were deep in one of those almost impassable Southern marshes. The One Hundred and Third New York, which had previously been in twenty battles, was thrown into confusion; the Thirty-Third United States did better, being behind; the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts being in the rear, did better still. All three formed in line, when Colonel Hartwell, commanding the brigade, gave the order to retreat. The officer commanding the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts, either misunderstanding the order, or hearing it countermanded, ordered his regiment to charge. This order was at once repeated by Major Trowbridge, commanding the Thirty-Third United States, and by the commander of the One Hundred and Third New York, so that the three regiments reached the fort in reversed order. The color-bearers of the Thirty-Third United States and of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts had a race to be first in, the latter winning. The One Hundred and Third New York entered the battery immediately after.

  These colored regiments are two of the five which were enlisted in South Carolina and Massachusetts, under the written pledge of the War Department that they should have the same pay and allowances as white soldiers. That pledge has been deliberately broken by the War Department, or by Congress, or by both, except as to the short period, since last New-Year’s Day. Every one of those killed in this action from these two colored regiments—under a fire before which the veterans of twenty battles recoiled—died defrauded by the Government of nearly one half his petty pay.

  Mr. Fessenden, who defeated in the Senate the bill for the fulfillment of the contract with these soldiers, is now Secretary of the Treasury. Was the economy of saving six dollars per man worth to the Treasury the ignominy of the repudiation?

  Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania, on his triumphal return to his constituents, used to them this language: “He had no doubt whatever as to the final result of the present contest between liberty and slavery. The only doubt he had was whether the nation had yet been satisfactorily chastised for their cruel oppression of a harmless and long-suffering race.” Inasmuch as it was Mr. Stevens himself who induced the House of Representatives, most unexpectedly to all, to defeat the Senate bill for the fulfillment of the national contract with these soldiers, I should think he had excellent reasons for the doubt.

  Very respectfully,

T. W. HIGGINSON, Colonel 1st S. C. Vols. (now 33d U. S.)

  July 10, 1864.

  To the Editor of the New York Tribune:

  No one can possibly be so weary of reading of the wrongs done by Government toward the colored soldiers as am I of writing about them. This is my only excuse for intruding on your columns again.

  By an order of the War Department, dated August 1, 1864, it is at length ruled that colored soldiers shall be paid the full pay of soldiers from date of enlistment, provided they were free on April 19, 1861,—not otherwise; and this distinction is to be noted on the pay-rolls. In other words, if one half of a company escaped from slavery on April 18, 1861, they are to be paid thirteen dollars per month and allowed three dollars and a half per month for clothing. If the other half were delayed two days, they receive seven dollars per month and are allowed three dollars per month for precisely the same articles of clothing. If one of the former class is made first sergeant, his pay is put up to twenty-one dollars per month; but if he escaped two days later, his pay is still estimated at seven dollars.

  It had not occurred to me that anything could make the pay-rolls of these regiments more complicated than at present, or the men more rationally discontented. I had not the ingenuity to imagine such an order. Yet it is no doubt in accordance with the spirit, if not with the letter, of the final bill which was adopted by Congress under the lead of Mr. Thaddeus Stevens.

  The ground taken by Mr. Stevens apparently was that the country might honorably save a few dollars by docking the promised pay of those colored soldiers whom the war had made free. But the Government should have thought of this before it made the contract with these men and received their services. When the War Department instructed Brigadier-General Saxton, August 25, 1862, to raise five regiments of negroes in South Carolina, it was known very well that the men so enlisted had only recently gained their freedom. But the instructions said: “The persons so received into service, and their officers, to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.” Of this passage Mr. Solicitor Whiting wrote to me: “I have no hesitation in saying that the faith of the Government was thereby pledged to every officer and soldier enlisted under that call.” Where is that faith of the Government now?

  The men who enlisted under the pledge were volunteers, every one; they did not get their freedom by enlisting; they had it already. They enlisted to serve the Government, trusting in its honor. Now the nation turns upon them and says: Your part of the contract is fulfilled; we have had your services. If you can show that you had previously been free for a certain length of time, we will fulfil the other side of the contract. If not, we repudiate it Help yourselves, if you can.

  In other words, a freedman (since April 19, 1861) has no rights which a white man is bound to respect. He is incapable of making a contract No man is bound by a contract made with him. Any employer, following the example of the United States Government, may make with him a written agreement receive his services, and then withhold the wages. He has no motive to honest industry, or to honesty of any kind. He is virtually a slave, and nothing else, to the end of time.

  Under this order, the greater part of the Massachusetts colored regiments will get their pay at last and be able to take their wives and children out of the almshouses, to which, as Governor Andrew informs us, the gracious charity of the nation has consigned so many. For so much I am grateful. But toward my regiment, which had been in service and under fire, months before a Northern colored soldier was recruited, the policy of repudiation has at last been officially adopted. There is no alternative for the officers of South Carolina regiments but to wait for another session of Congress, and meanwhile, if necessary, act as executioners for those soldiers who, like Sergeant Walker, refuse to fulfil their share of a contract where the Government has openly repudiated the other share. If a year’s discussion, however, has at length secured the arrears of pay for the Northern colored regiments, possibly two years may secure it for the Southern.

Colonel 1st S. C. Vols. (now 33d U. S.)

August 12, 1864.

  To the Editor of the New York Tribune:

  SIR,—An impression seems to prevail in the newspapers that the lately published “opinion” of Attorney-General Bates (dated in July last) at length secures justice to the colored soldiers in respect to arrears of pay. This impression is a mistake.

  That “opinion” does indeed show that there never was any excuse for refusing them justice; but it does not, of itself, secure justice to them.

  It logically covers the whole ground, and was doubtless intended to do so; but technically it can only apply to those soldiers who were free at the commencement of the war. For it was only about these that the Attorney-General was officially consulted.

  Under this decision the Northern colored regiments have already got their arrears of pay,—and those few members of the Southern regiments who were free on April 19, 1861. But in the South Carolina regiments this only increases the dissatisfaction among the remainder, who volunteered under the same pledge of full pay from the War Department, and who do not see how the question of their status at some antecedent period can affect an express contract If, in 1862, they were free enough to make a bargain with, they were certainly free enough to claim its fulfilment.

  The unfortunate decision of Mr. Solicitor Whiting, under which all our troubles arose, is indeed superseded by the reasoning of the Attorney-General. But unhappily that does not remedy the evil, which is already embodied in an Act of Congress, making the distinction between those who were and those who were not free on April 19, 1861.

  The question is, whether those who were not free at the breaking out of the war are still to be defrauded, after the Attorney-General has shown that there is no excuse for defrauding them?

  I call it defrauding, because it is not a question of abstract justice, but of the fulfilment of an express contract

  I have never met with a man, whatever might be his opinions as to the enlistment of colored soldiers, who did not admit that if they had volunteered under the direct pledge of full pay from the War Department, they were entitled to every cent of it. That these South Carolina regiments had such direct pledge is undoubted, for it still exists in writing, signed by the Secretary of War, and has never been disputed.

  It is therefore the plain duty of Congress to repeal the law which discriminates between different classes of colored soldiers, or at least so to modify it as to secure the fulfilment of actual contracts. Until this is done the nation is still disgraced. The few thousand dollars in question are nothing compared with the absolute wrong done and the discredit it has brought, both here and in Europe, upon the national name.

Late Col. 1st S. C. Vols. (now 33d U. S. C. T.)

NEWPORT, R. I, December 8, 1864.


  “To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled:

  “The undersigned respectfully petitions for the repeal of so much of Section IV. of the Act of Congress making appropriations for the army and approved July 4, 1864, as makes a distinction, in respect to pay due, between those colored soldiers who were free on or before April 19, 1861, and those who were not free until a later date;

  “Or at least that there may be such legislation as to secure the fulfillment of pledges of full pay from date of enlistment, made by direct authority of the War Department to the colored soldiers of South Carolina, on the faith of which pledges they enlisted.

Late Colonel 1st S. C. Vols. (now 33d U. S. C. Vols.)

“NEWPORT, R. I., December 9, 1864.”

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