Black soldiers' struggle for equal pay long, often frustrating

Sunday July 7, 2013

Editor's note: It was 150 years ago this year when Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew authorized the creation of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War, which included 72 Berkshire County soldiers. This is the third in an occasional series of articles that looks back on different aspects of the 54th.

Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- They fought and died to preserve the Union just like their white countrymen. But it took an angry Massachusetts governor, the dignity and passion of a Pittsfield minister, and the resolve of the rest of the heroic men of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to get equal pay for serving their country.

"I did not know but that in all respects I would be treated by the officers of the government the same as other chaplains of a fairer hue," the 54th's chaplain, the Rev. Samuel Harrison, wrote in a memoir. "But I did learn it by the time pay day came around, the paymaster declined to pay the men of the regiment the same amount paid to white troops because they were of African descent."

The enlisted men of the 54th -- the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War -- and its sister regiment, the 55th, were due $13 a month, but government paymasters, citing an 1862 law, would only pay them $7.

As chaplain, Harrison was entitled to $100 a month, but was offered less because of his race. Like the rest of the black soldiers, he turned down the money rather than suffer the humiliation of being paid less than white soldiers.

Nevertheless, Harrison and his family suffered because of their stand against discrimination, and so did the men of the 54th and their families.

"Three months passed and no pay," Harrison wrote. "I knew that my family's means were nearly used up. My wife and six children, a debt of three hundred dollars on my house, and grocery bills. I had a hard burden to carry."

Harrison, who was born into slavery in 1818 in Philadelphia, became the pastor of Pittsfield's Second Congregational Church -- the first black congregation in Berkshire County -- in 1850. While he was a vociferous advocate for the formation of the 54th, it wasn't until Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew paid him a personal visit that he agreed to serve as the 54th's chaplain.

Commissioned chaplain in September 1863, Harrison, then 45, joined the regiment in South Carolina that November. Harrison missed the 54th's famed July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner, a rebel stronghold in Morris Island, S.C. -- an event at the center of the 1989 film "Glory" -- but was with them for four months afterward. He preached to the 54th on Sundays and performed other duties, until health problems forced him to resign his commission and return to Pittsfield.

Andrew had been the driving force behind the birth of the 54th and was unrelenting in his efforts to get the soldiers equal pay.

After unsuccessful attempts to get the federal government to budge on the pay issue, Andrew, in December 1863, helped get legislation passed in Massachusetts that made up the difference for the soldiers' pay.

In an unpublished Dec. 3, 1863, letter from Gov. Andrew to U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, a Boston abolitionist and radical Republican, Andrew lets Sumner know the Massachusetts Legislature had passed the bill for equal pay and asks him for his "cordial support" for the measures that he hoped "may be early accomplished."

The governor's attempts at a stop-gap solution were dashed when the soldiers of the 54th and 55th declined the compromise. While it was welcomed, the measure still didn't force the federal government's hand in granting equal pay.

Lt. Luis Emilio, an 18-year-old Salem native who was among the original officers chosen by Andrew to lead the 54th, recalled that when representatives from the governor came to their camp in South Carolina with the news, the men discussed the matter and "the noncommissioned officers on behalf of the men positively refused the state aid. At their conclusion cheers were given for Governor Andrew, to whom they were grateful for the proffered help."

Andrew continued his fight to get the soldiers what they deserved. He urged Harrison, one of 72 Berkshire County men in the 54th, to apply for equal pay that would be retroactive to when he entered the service.

In March 1864, Andrew wrote to President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of Harrison, appealing in humanistic and religious terms.

"In no respect do the troops raised and organized under this order differ for their rights, liabilities or pay, from any other regiments of volunteers," he wrote the president. "The case of Chaplain Harrison carries us a step further as it is the case of an officer duly mustered into service of the United States who has performed the duties of an officer and claims the full pay of an officer."

Andrew then shrewdly framed Harrison's plight in a religious context, writing that Harrison was "filling a sacred office." The governor tells Lincoln that in the "ancient church of Rome men of African descent" held "positions of high dignity and honor" and that now "such a laborer is pronounced unworthy of secular recognition" and would be "condemned in contempt of his origin to suffer the loss of his pay."

While U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates agreed with Andrew that the black soldiers were entitled to equal pay and allowances, Lincoln dragged his feet while Congress debated the issue.

In Congress, the debate centered on whether black soldiers had the same value as their white counterparts, but in the end it came down to the law.

Andrew again wrote the president in May 1864 saying that he felt "compelled again and again" to ask Lincoln to address the issue "not only by reason of the suffering condition of the men of these regiments and of their families, but also from my conviction of their rights under the laws, and of the justice of their claim."

The governor, through George S. Hale, the attorney and president of Boston's common council, laid out their legal position on the issue of equal pay for the soldiers.

"I confess that as a lawyer I cannot conceive a clearer case of legal right, under a contract, than is the case presented by the soldiers whose claims I present. Their moral claims to consideration and regard, I am sure I need not repeat nor urge anew," wrote Hale.

Meanwhile, the soldiers themselves wrote to Lincoln, other government officials and their hometown newspapers.

"A soldier's pay is $13 per month, and Congress had nothing to do but to acknowledge that we are such -- it needs no further legislation. To say even, we were not soldiers and pay us $20 would be injustice, for it would rob a whole race of their title to manhood," wrote Cpl. James Henry Gooding to the New Bedford (Conn.) Mercury newspaper.

On June 15, 1864, legislation requiring equal pay was passed in the army appropriations bill.

The men were retroactively paid in full for their 18 months of service.

The soldiers' back pay totaled $170,000, with the bulk of the money being sent home to their families.

Harrison, back in Pittsfield, continued his fight for the equal rights of blacks. He died in 1900 at age 82 after serving as the Second Congregational Church's pastor for 50 years.

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:,
or (413) 496-6249.
On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions