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

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There were about ten thousand of them, more than 80 percent of the islands’ pre-war population, and their appearance dismayed some of their liberators. “Nearly all the Negroes left on the islands were in densest ignorance,” wrote one arriving Northern officer, Capt. Hazard Stevens, “some of the blackest human beings ever seen, and others the most bestial in appearance. These ignorant and benighted creatures flooded into Beaufort…and held high carnival in the deserted mansions, smashing doors, mirrors, and furniture and appropriating all that took their fancy.”

The Northerners had no idea what to do with these blacks. They were hardly slaves now, since their masters had fled, but they had not been officially freed, so they were not really people either, much less citizens. Out in the Southwest, in New Orleans, Gen. Benjamin Butler had devised a solution to this problem by insisting that escaped slaves were “contraband.” The word ordinarily referred to property, and the application of this term to slaves seemed to satisfy everyone’s sense of legality and propriety. So the ten thousand contraband objects on the Sea Islands, who needed, after all, to be fed and clothed and sheltered, were assigned to the United States Treasury Department. The Treasury Department appointed a bright young Boston lawyer named Edward Pierce to go to Port Royal and take charge of the contraband. He sent his charges back to the work they had always done, planting, hoeing, and picking cotton. He rewarded them, however, with something they had never seen before: cash wages.

Then came Maj. Gen. David Hunter, West Point ’22, commander of the grandly named Department of the South, which actually included little more than these beautiful but swampy islands off the Carolina coast. Scarcely a month after his arrival in Port Royal in March 1862, Hunter issued a decree proclaiming that all people “heretofore held as slaves” in the three nearest coastal states—South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—”are … declared forever free.” On the same day on which he freed the slaves, however, Hunter ordered his subordinate officers “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms.”

Pierce of the Treasury was outraged at this autocratic conscription of his contraband cotton workers. They “were taken from the fields without being allowed to go to their houses even to get a jacket…,” Pierce wrote to Washington. “Wives and children embraced the husband and father thus taken away, they knew not where, and whom, as they said, they should never see again.” Once again Lincoln himself struck down an overzealous general. “The Government of the United States,” he declared, “had no knowledge, information, or belief of intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation.”

But though Lincoln thus disavowed Hunter, disavowed both the emancipation of slaves and the arming of slaves, he remained under pressure to do both. Edwin Stanton, who had replaced the corrupt Cameron as Secretary of War, gradually came to favor the recruitment of blacks, and Congress drifted nervously toward the same view. The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, authorized the President “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion.” In the Militia Act, passed the same month, the President was authorized “to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service, or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent….” The Act also specified that persons of African descent would be paid $3 a month less than white soldiers—that is, $10 a month instead of $13—and that $3 of that pay would be deducted for clothes, whereas whites could spend or keep their $3.50 clothing allotments.

So although General Hunter was forbidden in May to emancipate or draft blacks into his forces, Gen. Rufus Saxton, the new military governor in Port Royal, was authorized on August 25 to recruit five thousand of them. And these recruits, Stanton said to Saxton on his own authority, were “to be entitled to receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.” That declaration by the Secretary of War amounted to a pledge of equal pay and equal rights. It was understood as such not only in Port Royal but wherever Union officials undertook recruitment of black soldiers. But Congress had never authorized any such pledge, nor, when challenged, would Congress honor it.

Capt. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who knew nothing of these complications, was having dinner with two other officers in the barracks of the 51st Massachusetts Regiment when he received a letter from General Saxton announcing that he was “organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers” and offering him the colonelcy and command of what was to become the first Union regiment of freed slaves. Higginson was astonished. “Had an invitation reached me to take command of a regiment of Kalmuck Tartars,” he recalled, “it could hardly have been more unexpected.” But Saxton had heard good reports about Higginson, and they all were true.