Congress gave black soldiers equal pay 150 years ago today
Editor's note: This is the sixth in an occasional series of articles that looks back on different aspects of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment officially recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War, which included 72 Berkshire County soldiers. One hundred fifty years ago today Congress passed a law giving them equal pay as their white comrades.
Marching double time toward the enemy line in Olustee, Fla., the men of the Massachusetts 54th volunteers let loose with the yell that had become their motto: "Three cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month."
It was Feb. 20, 1864, and the men were in Florida as part of an expeditionary force there to shore up existing Union enclaves and cut off Rebel supplies of beef and salt. They were once again about to be tested in the heat of battle, this time in Olustee, located in Baker County.
Their motto was tinged with bitter humor, born of the U.S. government's refusal to give them the same amount of money as white soldiers -- as they had been promised when they joined up. The enlisted men of the 54th -- the first black regiment officially recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War -- and the other soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, were due $13 a month, but government paymasters, citing an 1862 law, would only pay them $7.
For months the 54th had been serving their country without pay rather than accepting less than what they were owed.
Even in the face of the government's obstinacy, on that February afternoon, the men marched across 200 yards of swamp under heavy enemy fire. As they moved toward the Confederate lines they drove "the enemy from some guns, and checking the advance of a column of the enemy's infantry," Col. Edward N. Hallowell, of the 54th, would later report to his commanding officers.
Brigadier Gen. Truman Seymour, in command of the Union troops, had initially believed he was facing only Florida militia units, but Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had guessed at the Union advance on Florida and sent in more troops to bolster their defenses.
By the evening the tide had turned and the Union lines wavered. The 480 enlisted men and 15 officers of the 54th had fired about 20,000 cartridges before they were ordered to retreat.
They reformed their line of battle and began to march off the field, stopping every few hundred yards to check the Rebel advance. The 54th and the 35th United States Colored Troops formed the rear guard of the federal army and helped cover the retreat of their fellow soldiers.
Through the dark they marched well past midnight. After an intense battle and 35 miles of marching, they were then ordered back 10 miles to escort a disabled train car full of wounded soldiers, which they did without complaint.
Dr. M.M. Marsh of the Sanitary Commission would later comment that "the immortal" 54th "did what ought to insure it higher praise" than even holding the field against the advancing Rebel army. They hauled the disabled engine by rope for several miles enabling the wounded to be brought to safety.
"They knew their fate if captured; their humanity triumphed. Does history record a nobler deed?" Marsh wrote.
Arriving back at Jacksonville, which was under Union control, about 8 a.m., they took stock. There were 13 men reported killed, 66 wounded and eight missing in action. Almost half of the men were shoeless, their knapsacks tossed aside so they could move more quickly. But they had helped save the lives of countless others thanks to their brave rearguard action.
During the months following the battle, encamped once again at Morris Island, S.C., many of the men took time to write letters to President Abraham Lincoln, other government officials, their hometown newspapers and friends concerning the pay inequity.
"I cannot any more condemn nor recite our wrongs, but console myself that One who is able has said vengeance is mine and I will repay," Francis H. Fletcher bitterly wrote to a friend. "All the misery and degradation suffered in our regiment by its members' families is not atoned for by the passage of the bill for equal pay."
Fletcher was a clerk from Salem who had enlisted as a private in Company A of the 54th in February 1863.
Among those fighting to get the men the money they were owed was Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew, who had been the force behind the birth of the regiment.
He had even tried to get around the stalemate with the federal government by helping to get a bill passed back in Massachusetts that made up the difference in the federal pay, but the steadfast men of the 54th had refused the money based on principal.
That March, Andrew wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the Rev. Samuel Harrison, a Pittsfield pastor, who served as the 54th's chaplain.
Harrison, at Andrew's urging, had applied for equal pay that would be retroactive to when he entered the service.
With steady pressure from Andrew, the soldiers, abolitionists and the 54th's white officers, among others, Congress finally acted. On June 15, 1864, Congress passed a bill giving the black soldiers equal pay.
"That all persons enlisted and mustered into service as volunteers under the call, dated October seventeen, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, for three hundred thousand volunteers, who were at the time of enlistment actually enrolled and subject to draft in the state in which they volunteered, shall receive from the United States the same amount of bounty without regard to color," it read in part.
But it would take another three months for the men to receive the $170,000 in back pay they had rightfully earned.
The soldiers sent most of the money home to their families.
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