“We Will Not Do Duty Any Longer for Seven Dollars per Month”

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This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, of the 3d South Carolina Infantry Regiment, a young black soldier who believed in the United States government’s promises of equal rights. This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, who was brave enough to act on his belief in his rights. This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, who died in disgrace, executed by the United States government for acting on his belief in its promise of equal rights.

The main charge against him was mutiny. The specifications of the court-martial at Hilton Head, South Carolina, dated January 11, 1864, provide the basic details: “That he, Sergeant William Walker, Co. ‘A,’ 3d S.C. Infy, did unlawfully take command of his Company ‘A,’ and march the same with others of the Regiment, in front of his Commanding Officer’s tent (Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett), and there ordered them to stack arms; and when his Comdg Officer Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett inquired of the Regiment what all this meant, he, the said Sergt. William Walker, replied: ‘We will not do duty any longer for ($7) seven dollars per month’;—and when remonstrated with, and ordered by their Comdg Officer (Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett) to take their arms and return to duty, he, the said Sergeant Walker, did order his Co. (‘A’) to let their arms alone and go to their quarters, which they did, thereby exciting and joining in a general mutiny.”

To understand this trial, it is essential to remember that dark-skinned people had no constitutional right to equal treatment during most of the Constitution’s first century. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court specifically ruled that a black who claimed to be a freedman could not argue his claim in federal court because he was by definition not a citizen. And though the Civil War was implicitly fought over the issue of slavery, neither President Lincoln nor the Congress made any great effort for a long time to free any slaves. On the contrary, the original version of the Thirteenth Amendment, passed by Congress, with Lincoln’s approval, in February 1861, promised that the federal government would make no attempt to interfere with the institution of slavery. It was only the Southerners’ attack on Fort Sumter two months later that nullified this remarkable amendment, and not until four years later, when the war was over and Lincoln dead, was a new Thirteenth Amendment ratified, proclaiming that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”

A few radicals had argued that view from the beginning. “Our cry now must be emancipation and arming the slaves,” wrote the young Henry Adams in November 1861. But even the most idealistic of Presidents has to make compromises with political reality, and Lincoln was probably correct in believing that any attempt to abolish slavery would inspire slaveholding states like Kentucky and Maryland to join the Southern rebellion.

Some of the men directly in charge of fighting the war were less sensitive to politicians’ anxieties. Maj. Gen. John Charles Frémont, who had been the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1856 and who now commanded what was known as the Western Department at St. Louis, decided to act on his own. In a proclamation of August 30, 1861, he declared martial law throughout Missouri and the liberation of all Rebels’ slaves. “The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States … is declared to be confiscated to the public use, and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen.” Lincoln responded by giving the adventurous general a direct order, “in a spirit of caution, and not of censure,” to go no further than Congress had authorized, and Congress had authorized nothing resembling Frémont’s proclamation.

These official hesitations about freeing the slaves applied all the more to the idea of arming them. It was not only in the South that the image of black slaves acquiring weapons conjured up hideous scenes of revenge, massacres, and atrocities. But again, the men charged with waging war had to confront reality, and the reality was that the Union army needed a great many soldiers. “If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service,” Secretary of War Simon Cameron said in a report issued in December 1861, the end of the first year of war, “it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them….” Lincoln was angered not only by Cameron’s views but by his audacity in making such a statement public without the President’s approval.

Though many Union generals regarded blacks as worthless, a few kept pressing Lincoln to make use of them. The first serious attempt to recruit and arm former slaves took place on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. There in the lovely old mansions of Beaufort, on Port Royal Island, the cotton barons of South Carolina had plotted the Southern insurrection, so it was eminently fitting that the Union navy should invade their headquarters. It sent southward an armada of seventy-four steam frigates, steam sloops, gunboats, and transports loaded with twelve thousand seasick troops. After cannonading the islands’ strongholds, the invaders finally entered Beaufort in November of 1861 and found that every white inhabitant (except one man too drunk to move) had fled. Only the slaves were left.