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“We Will Not Do Duty Any Longer for Seven Dollars per Month”
The United States had promised black soldiers that they would be paid as much as whites. Sergeant Walker believed that promise.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
“On the morning of Nov. 19, 1863, when a portion of the command was in a state of mutiny,” the colonel began, “I noticed the accused, with others of his company and regiment, stack his arms, take off his accoutrements, and hang them on the stack. I inquired what all this meant, and received no reply, and again repeated the question, when the accused answered by saying, that they ‘would not do duty any longer for seven dollars per month.’ I then told the men the consequences of a mutiny … I told them that if they did not take their arms and return to duty, I should report the case to the Post commander and they would be shot down. While saying this, I heard the accused tell the men not to take their arms, but leave them and go to their street, which command of his they obeyed… .”
By declaring escaped slaves contraband, the Union felt free to use them.
A: He stood on the right of the line when I first saw him. He afterwards moved to the rear, moving back and forth….
Q: Do you know the object of the accused passing to and fro…?
A: He was advising the men “to go back to their quarters without their arms.”
But then it became apparent that the colonel had not seen or heard the complete incident.
A: I did not. The arms were stacked when I came out of my tent… .
Q: Did you hear the accused give the command to march the company back to their street… ?
A: He did not give the command, “March.” He merely told them to go.
Walker, or perhaps the defense lawyer assigned to him, Lt. J. A. Smith of the 47th New York Volunteers, attempted to dodge responsibility. The court-martial record says only:
Question by accused: Have you had any conversation with the accused since his confinement… ?
Answer: I have once… .
Q: Did you, in that conversation, say that you were satisfied, from the information you had received, that he was not the person who used the language relative to not serving any longer for $7 dollars per month…?
A: No, sir, I did not.
Though there was some hearsay in Colonel Bennett’s testimony, the prosecution also produced an eyewitness, 2d Lt. John E. Jacobs, who said he had seen Walker lead the demonstration from the start. “The first I saw of him after roll call, he was at the head of the Company (‘A’), apparently in command of it, marching up to the Colonel’s quarters,” Jacobs testified. “At the front of the Colonel’s quarters, he gave the command, ‘Stack arms.’ They stacked arms…. The Colonel asked, ‘What does all this mean?’ The accused replied, they were ‘not willing to be soldiers for seven dollars per month.’ The Colonel first advised them to take arms, and then commanded them to take arms. Sergt. Walker then left his place at the head of the company, and walked up and down in the rear of the company, telling the men not to take their arms. He came to the left of the line, and the company left, without taking their arms….”
Walker again tried to deny responsibility.
A: I did not hear any other man give the order.
For some mysterious reason Walker never testified in his own defense. Nor did he make any attempt to argue that the demonstration for equal pay expressed a justifiable grievance. Perhaps he (or the presumably white lieutenant acting as his assigned attorney) knew that a court-martial would not sympathize with such a line of argument. All of the defense’s intermittent attempts to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses were attempts to deny involvement, to spread blame, or to spread confusion. The handful of defense witnesses served much the same purpose. PVt. James Williams, from Walker’s own Company A, was asked, “Did you hear anyone say that the ‘men wouldn’t serve any longer for $7 a month,’ and if so, who was it?” Williams testified that the only man he had heard make such a statement was a Sergeant Bullock. And so on.
Instead of testifying, Walker and his lawyer submitted to the court a long statement in which he denied everything. About the alleged dispute with Lieutenant Wood, for example, he said: “I positively declare that I had not a gun in my hands that day, neither did I threaten to shoot Lieut. Wood.” More generally, Walker declared that he and his fellow blacks were “entirely ignorant” about the rules of military law and behavior. “We have been allowed to stumble along,” he said, “taking verbal instructions as to the different parts of our duty, and gaining a knowledge of the services required of us as best we might. In this way many things have occurred that might have been made entirely different had we known the responsibility of our position.”