Saturday, May 27, 2006

In honor of the 54th Massachusetts:

On this Memorial Day weekend I thought it might be appropriate to mention some of the brave soldiers that have served their country with distinction despite the shoddy treatment some of them have received over the years from their own government. In addition to the day to day travails of being a soldier on the battle line, long hours of monotony punctuated by a few seconds of sheer terror, there have been men who have had to endure discrimination and ill treatment by their superior officers in some cases and the complete abandonment of their leaders in Washington. The fact that such adversity never caused them to leave their post and to keep fighting is a testament to all American fighting men and women and should never be forgotten because this is what has made our fighting people the best in the world.

Such a case is the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the colored regiment made again famous a few years ago in the movie "Glory." The Boston regiment fought with bravery and distinction in the Deep South from 1863 to the end of the war in 1865. They are most remembered for their legendary failed storming of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863 that caused the death of their white commanding officer Col. Robert Gould Shaw along with eleven other officers, 135 men wounded and almost a hundred missing or captured.

What is even more amazing about this group of black American soldiers was their refusal to except any pay until they should be paid the same rate as white soldiers. When the government finally decided to allow blacks to fight in the US army in late 1862 the thinking was that these new volunteers weren't intelligent or brave enough to fight like their white counterparts. Initially they were only to be used as laborers (treated as "contraband") and thus they were to be paid $10 a month minus three dollars for supplies and one ration a day. White soldiers on the other hand made $13 minus $3 for supplies and one ration a day.

Col. Shaw wrote to Massachusetts Governor Andrew on July 2nd 1963 about this problem:

"You have probably seen the order from Washington which cuts down the pay of colored troops from $13 to $10. Of course if this effects Massachusetts regiments, it will be a great piece of injustice to them, as they were enlisted on the express understanding that they were to be on precisely the same footing as all other Massachusetts troops. In my opinion they should be mustered out of service or receive full pay which was promised them. The paymaster here is inclined to class us as contraband regiments, and pay the men only $10. If he does not change his mind, I shall refuse to have the regiment paid until I hear from you on the subject...for every pay-day we shall the same trouble unless there is a special order to prevent it."

What became clear shortly after Shaw's death, 16 days later, was that blacks would be in combat and not only were they just as susceptible to death and injury as their white comrades, but if they were captured by Confederate soldiers, as happened after the failed attempt at Battery Wagner, they were either killed on the spot after surrendering or sold into slavery, something their the better paid white soldiers didn't have to worry about.

As the months went on this stubborn refusal to be paid was becoming an embarrassment to commanders higher up the chain of command in the army and came to a head later on in the year on September 30, 1963 when, Col. James Montgomery, an abolitionist from the Bloody Kansas days, came to force the troops to take their pay.

An excerpt from 'A Brave Black Regiment: the official history of the 54th Massachusetts 1863-1865:

"The paymaster came again on the 30th to renew his offer. It was on this date that Colonel Montgomery appeared and made the men a remarkable and characteristic address, which Sergeant Stephens of Company B has given in substance as follows:

'Men: the paymaster is here to pay you. You must remember you have not proved yourselves soldiers. You must take notice that the Government has virtually paid you a thousand dollars a piece for setting you free. Nor should you expect to be placed on the same footing with white men. Anyone listening to your shouting and singing can see how grotesquely ignorant you are. I am you friend and the friend of the Negro. I was the first person in the country to employ Negro soldiers in the United States Army. I was out in Kansas. I was short of men. I had a lot of niggers and a lot of mules; and you know a nigger and a mule go very well together. I therefore enlisted niggers, and made teamsters of them. In refusing to take the pay offered you, and what you are only legally entitled to, you are guilty of insubordination and mutiny, and can be tried and shot by court-martial.'

Montgomery besides made some gross and invidious insinuations and reflections because 54th men were so light-colored, which is would be improper to repeat. The colonel seemed unaware that his remarks were insulting, and most of the men addressed born free."

The fight for fair pay and the resistance to accepting the lower wage went on into November when Massachusetts governor John Andrew still being unable to convince the War Department to pay the soldiers of the 54th the same pay as whites had the Massachusetts legislature pass a bill to make up the difference. The commander of the 54th Colonel E. N. Hallowell wrote to the Governor that regardless of the generous action of the legislature the troops the 54th would serve without pay until mustered out rather than accept less than what they were owed.

On December 12, 1863 an extraordinary article appeared in the Boston Journal written by "a Massachusetts soldier in the 54th:"

"A strange misapprehension exists as to the matter of pay, and it pains us deeply. We came forward at the call of Governor Andrew, in which call he distinctly told us that we were to be subsisted, clothed, paid and treated in all respects the same as other Massachusetts soldiers. Again, on the presentation of flags to the regiment at Camp Miegs, the Governor reiterated this promise, on the strength of which we marched through Boston, holding our heads high as men and soldiers. Nor did we grumble because we were not paid the portion the United States bounty paid to other volunteer regiments in advance. Now that we have gained some reputation, we claim the right to be heard.

Three times have we been mustered in for pay. Twice have we swallowed the insult offered to us by the United States paymaster, contenting ourselves with a simple refusal to acknowledge ourselves different from other Massachusetts soldiers. Once in the face of insult and intimidation such as no body of men were ever subjected to before, we quietly refused and continued to do our duty. For four months we have been steadily working night and day under fire. And such work! Up to our knees in mud half the time, causing the tearing and wearing out of more than a yearly allowance of clothing, denied time to repair and wash (what we might have by means have saved ), denied time to drill and prefect ourselves in soldierly qualities, denied the privilege of burying our dead decently. All this we've borne patiently, waiting for justice.

Imagine our surprise and disappointment on the receipt by last mail of the Governor's address to the General Court, to find him making a proposition to them to pay this regiment the difference between what the United States Government offers us and what they are legally bound to pay us, which, in effect, advertises us to the world as holding out for money and not from principle, --- that we sink our manhood in consideration of a few more dollars. How has this come about? What false friend has been misrepresenting us to the Governor, to make him think that our necessities outweigh our self-respect? I am sure no representation of ours [itlcs] every impelled him to such action

Finally on September 28 1865 the government finally gave the men their due and they were paid in full. The official history of the regiment says it was 'a red letter day for the 54th.'

"We had been eighteen months waiting, and a kaleidoscope was turned, --- nine hundred men received their money; nine hundred stories rested on the faces of those men, as they passed in one door and out the other. Two days have changed the face of things, and now a petty carnival prevails. The fiddle and other music long neglected enlivens the tents day and night. Songs burst out everywhere; dancing is incessant."

The 54th was paid $170,000 owed to them. Many donated liberally, over a thousand dollars, to the building of the famous monument in Boston to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th. Such a fine example of American soldiery, principle and bravery should not be forgotten this memorial day. Not only were they fighting and dying to preserve the Union and end slavery, they were also fighting to be treated like men, a struggle that goes on sadly to this day.


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