Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, fearing election loss by supporting Lincoln’s incessant calls for more troops, pushed strongly for equal pay for Southern black men captured in the Sea Islands and credited to his State quota. Though the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth were official Massachusetts regiments, the men were not from Massachusetts. The Second Massachusetts Cavalry were bounty-paid men from California.
Taking Refuge in the Clouds
“A much sorer spot . . . was the matter of pay. Negroes in the army received $10 a month, of which $3 was paid in clothing; white soldiers received $13 plus clothing – a difference of $6 a month. The pay of the Negro was based on a decision of the solicitor of the War Department, William Whiting, who on June 4, 1863, ruled that Negro soldiers were to be paid under the provisions of the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, which stipulated that persons of African descent could be used for military service . . . this Act did not have in mind Negroes actually bearing arms, and it referred only to those Negroes who had recently been freed from bondage. Nonetheless, until Congress acted, Negro soldiers were to be paid, said Whiting, as military laborers.
[Massachusetts Governor] John Andrew was greatly troubled over the solicitor’s ruling since he had promised the men of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth equality in every respect with the other State regiments. He urged the President to get an opinion from the attorney general, and Lincoln did so. Supporting Andrew, Bates reply stated that the $10 a month pay was meant for those Negroes who had been slaves.
Lincoln did nothing – [the 1862] elections were approaching. [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton moved slowly too, doubtless because he feared that equal pay might interfere with the recruitment of white soldiers. When asked by John Mercer Langston what was the duty of colored men in view of the lower wage, Stanton took refuge in the clouds:
“The duty of the colored man is to defend his country, whenever wherever, and in whatever form, is the same as that of white men. It does not depend on, nor is it affected by, what the country pays. The true way to secure her rewards and win her confidence is not to stipulate for them, but to deserve them”
Disappointed over his failure at Washington, Andrew returned to the State house . . . In quick response Massachusetts lawmakers passed an act on November 16 to make up the deficiencies in the monthly pay of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth.
A week later the governor received an answer from the Fifty-fourth declining to accept any money from Massachusetts. [The] men of the Fifty-fourth wanted it known that had enlisted as other soldiers from the State, and that they would rather continue to serve without pay until their enlistments ran out, rather than accept from the national government less than the amount paid other soldiers.”
(The Negro in the Civil War, Benjamin Quarles, Little, Brown and Company, 1953, excerpts pp. 200-201)