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

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Higginson embodied many of the characteristics that Bostonians like to consider elements in the classic Bostonian persona: courage, independence, eloquence, idealism. He was an ordained Unitarian minister, but also an ardent swimmer and football player, also an ardent abolitionist, a friend and comrade-in-arms to John Brown, also an ardent feminist, one of the signers of the call to the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, and author of a, celebrated polemic entitled Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet? After his antislavery activities had forced him to resign from his wealthy parish in Newburyport, he declared, “An empty pulpit has often preached louder than a living Minister.” And after he had discovered the reclusive Emily Dickinson, whose poems he was the first to publish, she wrote to him: “Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life.”

Slaves acquiring weapons conjured up hideous scenes of revenge.

Higginson was reluctant to abandon his comrades in the 51st Massachusetts Regiment, but on making a quick trip to Port Royal, he found that he could not resist the challenge of leading “eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers, and representing a race affectionate, enthusiastic, grotesque, and dramatic beyond all others.” Though that may sound patronizing, Higginson soon came to love his black troops, and they loved him. One of their most extraordinary confrontations occurred on New Year’s Day of 1863, when ten cattle were slaughtered and barbecued for an open-air feast to accompany the reading of Lincoln’s new Emancipation Proclamation. There was the presentation of a new regimental flag. “Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it… ,” Higginson wrote in Army Life in a Black Regiment. “Just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice … into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning-note of the song-sparrow—‘My country, ’tis of thee,/Sweet land of liberty,/Of thee I sing.’ People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came this interruption… . Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; it seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.”

Once Congress had authorized the recruiting of black soldiers, Secretary of War Stanton established a Bureau for Colored Troops in May 1863 and asked the War Department’s solicitor, William Whiting, of Boston, to look into the vexing question of what the black recruits should be paid. Despite Stanton’s promise of equal treatment, Whiting replied that the only applicable law was the Militia Act of 1862, in which Congress had specifically stated that “persons of African descent” were to be paid ten dollars per month (minus three dollars for clothing), or three dollars less than white soldiers received. “There seems to be inequality and injustice in this distinction,” Stanton said in his annual report for 1863, “and an amendment authorizing the same pay and bounty as white troops receive, is recommended.” Lincoln was not convinced. Since blacks “had larger motives for being soldiers than white men … they ought to be willing to enter the service upon any condition,” the President said to Frederick Douglass, the black leader. The decision to grant them lower pay, Lincoln added, “seemed a necessary condition to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers.” For the time being, Stanton wrote to the governor of Ohio, all blacks who had relied on his promises of equal pay “must trust to State contributions and the justice of Congress at the next session.”

Colonel Higginson was furious. The refusal to grant equal pay, he declared, “has impaired discipline, has relaxed loyalty, and has begun to implant a feeling of sullen distrust in the very regiments whose early career solved the problem of the nation, created a new army, and made a peaceful emancipation possible.” Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first black unit recruited in the North, was even more furious. Though the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds to provide equal pay for Shaw’s regiment, which was already stationed on the Sea Islands and ready to go into action, the regiment refused to accept any pay at all unless it was given equal pay by the federal government. These soldiers should either be “mustered out of the service or receive the full pay which was promised them,” Shaw wrote to the Massachusetts governor, John Andrew. “Are we soldiers or are we laborers?” wrote one of Shaw’s black soldiers, James Henry Gooding, in a letter to President Lincoln. Then, in the flowery rhetoric of his time, Gooding answered his own question: “Mr. President … the patient, trusting descendants of Afric’s clime have dyed the ground with blood in defense of the Union and democracy.”