Letter from 1863 reveals Mass. 54th's fight for equal pay



The letter is written in a neat hand by Gov. John A. Andrew to a Boston abolitionist and U.S. senator calling attention to the plight of the black soldiers of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers to get paid the same as whites for their military service during the Civil War.

Crisply white after 160 years, it's displayed on a wall of the Du Bois Center in the company of other documents related to black history and to the center's namesake, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the protean sociologist, historian, author and civil rights activist born in Great Barrington in 1868.

The Great Barrington-based center, which opened in 2006, is a nonprofit run by Randy F. Weinstein. Dedicated to the exploration of the black experience and issues of social justice, the center is located just south of Main Street and next to the Mahaiwe Cemetery where three of Du Bois' family members are buried.

When Weinstein talks about W.E.B. Du Bois, history and books, a twinkle comes to the eyes of the fit 59-year-old. But when he saw the letter from Gov. Andrew to U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, Weinstein said he knew it was special.

"I don't even remember exactly where I got it [the letter]. But when I saw that it had Andrew and Sumner, I knew I'd hit pay dirt and not just in the monetary sense," he said. "I had to look at it two or three times before it hit me what it was."

Weinstein said people donate historical items to the center, but much of what he has collected he's found at local tag sales and auctions.

"I collect and preserve [historical items]," he said. "This stuff survives and each one has a story."

The unpublished Dec. 3, 1863, letter from Gov. Andrew to Sumner, a radical Republican, is related to the Massachusetts 54th's ongoing battle with the federal government to receive the wages they deserved.

The 54th was the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The regiment included 72 Berkshire County men in its ranks, with more locals in the 55th, a sister regiment.

The Massachusetts governor was instrumental in the creation of the two units. And when he learned the men were being paid $6 less a month by the federal government for the same services as their white counterparts, he approached the government on their behalf. When nothing was resolved, Andrew went to the Massachusetts Legislature, which passed a bill making up the difference in the soldiers' pay.

In the letter, Andrew lets Sumner know that the compromise legislation had passed and asked for his "cordial support" for the measures that he hopes "may be early accomplished."

The move was moot, since the soldiers of the 54th and 55th declined the compromise pay on principle. The soldiers wanted the federal government to admit they deserved equal pay.

Andrew urged the Rev. Samuel Harrison, a Pittsfield minister who had been the 54th's chaplain, to apply for equal pay that would be retroactive to his first day of service. The governor then presented the case to President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of Harrison.

Eventually, the federal government relented and the men got the money they deserved.

Besides the letter, Weinstein also has about a dozen books from Harrison's private collection.

He said that Harrison often noted inside each book when and where they came from and many of them include notes, ideas, or commentary that Harrison jotted down in the books' margins.

Weinstein, who is the owner and operator of North Star Rare Books, which shares a space with the center, said he's had "a 40-year long love affair with black history and history in general."

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


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