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


Unpaid, the 54th Massachusetts marched into combat, leading a hopeless charge against Fort Wagner, in Charleston Harbor. After a long but ineffective cannonading, Shaw’s outnumbered troops had to charge uphill and across a deep ditch into a storm of Confederate gunfire. Colonel Shaw, who was twenty-five, led them all the way, reached the fort’s parapet, and climbed it. “He stood there for a moment with uplifted sword, shouting, ‘Forward, 54th!’ ” as William James said many years later in dedicating Saint-Gaudens’s great monument on Boston Common, “and then fell headlong, with a bullet through his heart.” More than half of Shaw’s unpaid black troops died in that heroic charge before the remnants were finally beaten back. And after all the dead were dumped into a common trench, the Confederate commander was said to have remarked of Shaw, “We have buried him with his niggers.”

It was a fact that black casualties in the Union army were far higher than white casualties. Of the approximately 180,000 black troops eventually recruited, about 37,000 died. That death rate amounted to slightly more than 20 percent, as compared with a death rate of 15.2 percent among white troops and only 8.6 percent in the regular army. The disparity occurred not because blacks were regularly used as cannon fodder but because most Civil War casualties, white and black alike, resulted from sickness. Among blacks, the remarkable statistics are that 2,870 died in combat, more than 4,000 died of unknown causes, and 29,756 are known to have died of illness. In fact, the regiment with the second-highest number of deaths in the entire Union army was the 65th U.S. Colored Infantry, which lost 755 men without ever going into combat at all.

Black recruits found white officers could be as harsh as slavemasters.

There were a number of reasons for this. High among them were inferior food, inferior clothing, inferior medical care, inferior everything. All wars breed corruption, after all, and the Civil War, fought in the early days of freewheeling capitalism, certainly bred its share. As Thomas Beer wrote in Hanna, “Bayonets of polished pewter, tents of porous shoddy, coffee made of pulse and sorghum, carbines that exploded on the drill ground … and many other versions of the wooden nutmeg were offered to the Army between 1861 and 1864.

“Often nothing could be done. The actual vendor vanished in a cloud of agents and guileless middlemen… .” And who could be more vulnerable to this sort of swindle than the fledgling black regiments? One of their commanders, Brig. Gen. Daniel Ullman, complained to a senator about “arms almost entirely unserviceable and … equipment … of the poorest kind.”

And woe to anyone who fell ill. Since black troops were supposed to be led by white officers, only eight black doctors were taken into the Army, and six of these served in Washington hospitals. White doctors generally refused to serve in black regiments, and so, according to one general’s report, “In very many cases Hospital Stewards of low order of qualification were appointed to the office of Assistant Surgeon and Surgeon.” There were “well-grounded objections…,” the general went on, “against the inhumanity of subjecting the colored soldiers to medical treatment and surgical operations from such men.”

One reason that blacks were so prone to sickness, though, was overwork. The black troops were used mainly to dig trenches and fortifications, to cut trees and haul supplies, to provide, for seven dollars per month, what they once provided for nothing: slave labor. “My men were … put into trenches and batteries, or detailed to mount guns, haul cannon and mortars, and were kept constantly and exclusively on fatigue duty of the severest kind… ,” said Col. James Montgomery of the 2d South Carolina Volunteers. “I frequently had to take men who had been on duty from 4 o’clock in the morning until sundown to make up the detail called for, for the night, and men who had been in the trenches in the night were compelled to go on duty again at least part of the day.” Or as another officer wrote, “Where white and black troops come together in the same command, the latter have to do all the work.”

The maw of war kept demanding more men. At Gettysburg alone, the two sides together suffered more than fifty thousand casualties before the Union forces finally beat back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. The following week in July 1863, Lincoln’s draft law went into effect, and after the first names had been chosen by lottery, mobs of antidraft rioters began tearing New York City to pieces.

For four days they burned and killed, and nobody knows the final death toll. Police Commissioner Thomas Acton estimated it at around twelve hundred, mostly black. Nobody knows, either, how much of this kind of news reached the Sea Islands off South Carolina or what impression it made on black recruits like William Walker in the 3d South Carolina Infantry Regiment.

We do not know a great deal about William Walker. For most of his short life he belonged to that large category of people on whom history keeps no records. There are only some military documents—notably a forty-eight-page handwritten transcript of his court-martial. One paper says he was born in Hilton Head; another, in Savannah. One says, “Occupation: Servant.” It adds: “Name of former owner not of record.” From this we can deduce that Walker had been born and reared a slave and that if anyone asked him who his master was, he probably refused to say.