Inspiring Letter from an African American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer to Lincoln Advocates for Equal Pay
On September 28, 1863, James Henry Gooding, a corporal with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the Black regiment that had won fame several months earlier for its heroic assault on Fort Wagner, in South Carolina, wrote President Lincoln to argue for black soldiers receiving the same pay as white soldiers. He wrote,
Your Excellency, Abraham Lincoln:
. . . When the war trumpet sounded o’er the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation, — and he was refused. When the arms of the Union were beaten, in the first year of the War, and the Executive called more food for its ravaging maw, again the black man begged the privilege of aiding his Country in her need, to be again refused.
And now he is in the War, and how has he conducted himself? . . . Let the rich mould around Wagner’s parapets be upturned, and there will be found an Eloquent answer. Obedient and patient and Solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet.
Now your Excellency, we have done a Soldier’s Duty. Why Can’t we have a Soldier’s pay? . . . 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 men, you may well know, are poor; three dollars per month for a year will supply their needy Wives and little ones with fuel. If you, as Chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us of our whole pay, we are content. Our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid our Country. Not that our hearts have ever flagged in Devotion . . . but We feel as though our Country spurned us, now that we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moment’s attention.
James Henry Gooding
The men of Gooding’s regiment went for more than a year without pay to protest the unequal pay received by white and black soldiers. In June 1864 Congress finally equalized pay for all Union soldiers.
The Civil War, Letters from the Homefront, Virginia Schomp, New York: Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2002, p.38.
Editor’s Note: Entry submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council.