“Two regiments of this command have not been paid”: Continuing inequality for the 54th Massachusetts

One-hundred and fifty years ago today (June 2), Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig took the time to write a letter, in a rather incredulous tone, bringing a situation regarding soldiers’ pay to his new department commander, Major-General John Foster:

Hdqrs. Northern District, Dept. of the South,
Folly Island, S.C., June 2, 1864.
Capt. W. L. M. Burger,
Asst. Adjt. Gen.,  Department of the South:

I consider it my duty to lay before the major-general commanding the fact that two regiments of this command have not been paid since they entered the service of the United States, now one year ago. This unhappy state of affairs seems to have been brought about by some misunderstanding between the United States and the State of Massachusetts in regard to colored troops. For this misunderstanding the enlisted men cannot be held responsible, and they consequently should not be made to suffer for it.

Letters have been constantly arriving for six months in these regiments, in which the wives of the enlisted men describe their sufferings and the sufferings of their families. Children have died because they could not be supplied with the proper food, and because the doctor could not be paid or medicines obtained from the druggist. Wives have proved untrue to their husbands and abandoned their offspring. Mothers advise their sons to throw down the musket and come home, it being impossible for them to live longer without their support. The effect of such letters on the minds of the enlisted men of these regiments may be easily imagined, and it reflects to the credit of the officers as well as the men that the efficiency of the regiments has not materially suffered under these trying circumstances.

I have ordered Col. A. S. Hartwell, of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers, to explain the case personally to the general commanding, and to beg the general to send him north in order to procure an order from the Paymaster-General for the payment of these regiments as soon as possible, upon the law to that effect being passed. Sending the colonel north for that purpose would at least have the certain effect of keeping the men quiet while awaiting his return, and of convincing them that something was being done on their behalf which would prove decisive, whereas now many of them do not believe they will ever receive any pay.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. Schimmelfennig,
Brigadier-General, Commanding District.

When the men of the 54th Massachusetts enlisted, the state promised them equal pay and bounties. Fourteen dollars a month does not sound like much today, but at least it recognized an equality between Massachusetts privates.  However, upon entering Federal service, where they men would receive pay from the federal government and not the state, the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of 1862 applied.  That act, not considering the full implementation of the USCT as combat troops, stated:

That persons of African descent, who under this law shall be employed, shall receive ten dollars per month and one ration, three dollars of which monthly pay may be in clothing.

This act was written and took effect before the Emancipation Proclamation.   It was implemented at a time when the government was only officially employing contrabands for non-combat duties.  By June 1864, the act was about eighteen months overtaken by events.  Thus the pay scene from the movie “Glory!” which I assume all are familiar with.  The 54th protested by refusing pay until made equal with the white soldiers with whom they shared the dangers of combat.

While some authorities felt the inequity in pay was acceptable, perhaps as a means to assuage the prejudices of some troops who were reluctant to serve with black troops.  Clearly Schimmelfennig did not feel that way.  While I cannot say the letter reflected an overall acceptance of the USCT by white commanders, it is another indication those in close proximity of the black troops had come to see them in a different light.

Later that spring, legislative action would address this issue in part, with Congress authorizing equal pay for freedmen who joined the USCT.  But that left open questions about back pay… and more importantly why escaped slaves would be paid less when performing the same duties.

(Schimmelfennig’s letter appears in OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 110-11.)

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