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

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He was five feet seven inches tall, according to these Army documents. Eyes black, hair black, complexion black. He was illiterate—hardly surprising since it was against the law in South Carolina to teach a slave to read, and any black found in possession of a pencil and paper was liable to flogging. He was twenty-three years old when he died.

On Walker’s death certificate his occupation was given not as “servant” but as “pilot.” In his last appeal for mercy, just three weeks before his execution, he said that he had served six months as pilot on an armored gunboat, the USS Montauk. This implies, surely, that he knew the region well; it also implies a certain intelligence, energy, and eagerness to serve the Union cause.

Walker may be the anonymous exslave who turned up in a report by Comdr. John L. Worden, captain of the Montauk, about the blockading fleet’s venture up the Big Ogeechee River to attack Fort McAllister in Georgia early in 1863. “I learned through the medium of a contraband, who had been employed upon these waters as a pilot, the position of the obstructions below the fort … ,” Worden wrote on February 2,1863. “This information, with the aid of the contraband, whom I took on board, enabled me to take up a position nearer the fort in the next attack upon it.” The Montauk accomplished little in its exchange of gunfire with Fort McAllister, but it discovered the Confederate raider Nashville, a paddle-wheeled merchant steamer that had been newly outfitted with cannon, lying aground near the fort. “A few well directed shells determined the range,” Worden reported on February 28, “and soon we succeeded in striking her with XI-inch and XV-inch shells.” The Nashville caught fire, then exploded. But a Confederate torpedo blew a hole in the Montauk and nearly sank it before its engineer could patch the leak. We know no details of Walker’s role in all this, only that he proudly stated in his appeal: “I also destroyed the rebel steamer Nashville in the Big Ogeeche [sic] River….”

One day in April 1863 Walker got a pass to return home and visit his family—he had a wife named Rebecca—and there he heard that a third regiment of South Carolina blacks was being organized. He knew that his job as a pilot exempted him from conscription, but the cause called out to him. To join the Union infantry in combat must have seemed better than being just a river pilot. “On the promise solemnly made by some who are now officers in my regiment,” he later said, “that I should receive the same pay and allowances as were given to all soldiers in the U.S. Army, [I] voluntarily entered the ranks.”

Not quite. He was enrolled as a sergeant from the start, on April 24, 1863, and that also implies that he had a certain quality of self-possession, authority, leadership, some quality unusual for an illiterate ex-slave of twenty-three. It did not earn him any extra pay, however. All black recruits received the same seven dollars per month, regardless of rank. And they soon found that their white officers could be as harsh as any slavemasters. “For an account of the treatment that has been given to the men of the 3rd Regt S.C. Vols by a large majority of their officers,” Walker declared at his court-martial, “nine-tenths of those now in service there will be my witness that it has been tyrannical in the extreme.” Walker’s judgment was corroborated, after his death, in a statement by a Col. P. P. Browne of the provost marshal’s office, about some other blacks accused of taking part in Walker’s “mutiny.” All his interrogations, said Colonel Browne, led him to the conclusion “that during the summer and fall of 1863 … the regiment … was under bad management and in a greatly demoralized condition; … that several of the officers who had most to do with these men have either been dismissed [from] the service or are under charges which will cause their dismissal;…that being made up of South Carolina Slaves their great ignorance of their duties and responsibilities as Soldiers led them to commit errors which more intelligent men would have avoided; … that the officers or the Regiment were [more] to blame than the men.”

Sergeant Walker, eager and enthusiastic, signed up for three years’ service in April 1863. By that August, just four months later, he was embittered, quarrelsome, insubordinate. The indictment listed several instances of “mutinous conduct” that occurred long before the protest demonstration about equal pay. The first specification charged that on August 23 he did “join in a mutiny, at Seabrook Wharf [in Hilton Head], when on detail, and go away to camp when ordered not to do so by 1st Lieut. Geo. W. Wood.” The second specification charged that Walker “did use threatening language, such as ‘I will shoot him,’ meaning 1st Lieut. Geo. W. Wood. This he said in a loud voice, so as to be heard all over camp, having, at the same time, a gun in his hand.”