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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
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. FVt. 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.”
As for the equal-pay demonstration outside Colonel Bennett’s tent, Walker could not deny his participation, but he did once again deny his responsibility. “I believe that I have proved conclusively by the testimony of the noncommissioned officers and men of my company that I did not then exercise any command over them,” he said, “that I gave no word of counsel or advice to them in opposition to the request made by our commanding officer, and that, for one, I carried my arms and equipment back with me to my company street.” In other words, he denied being a rebellious hero and claimed to be a docile subordinate. Perhaps that was the lesson all slaves had to learn in order to survive, or perhaps it was just the basic teaching of the army. But though Walker denied all responsibility for the demonstration that the army regarded as a mutiny, he did remind the court that the demonstrators had been “an assemblage who only contemplated a peaceful demand for the rights and benefits that had been guaranteed them.”
In the signature at the end of that statement, between the names William and Walker, there is an X . Over and under the X are the words his mark .
The members of the court-martial—a lieutenant colonel from Connecticut, a major from Pennsylvania, two captains and three lieutenants—considered the accusations and the defense and then returned the verdict: on all charges, guilty. “And the court do therefore sentence him, Sergeant William Walker, Co.‘A’ 3d S.C. Vol Infantry (two thirds of the members concurring) to be shot to death with musketry at such time and place as the Commanding General may direct.”
The commanding general directed that the execution take place the following month, February, at the Union outpost in Jacksonville, Florida. Walker was still imprisoned at the Provost Guard House in Hilton Head early in February, when he addressed his last appeal to the provost marshal general. By now he was reduced, as many prisoners eventually are, to pleading. “I am a poor Colored soldier… ,” he began. He was “entirely guiltless” and had “always done my duty as a soldier and a man.” He had not been paid anything at all for the past six months, and he was “suffering very much in consequence of my close confinement and absence from my family who are suffering from want and destitution.” If the provost marshal general would “use your influence in the proper quarter,” he went on, the evidence would lead to his release and return to duty. “I assure you, Sir,” he said, “I shall never give you cause to regret your kindness.”
“The court do sentence him … to be shot to death with musketry …”
The next document is a discharge form filled out by the lieutenant who commanded the firing squad in Jacksonville. He did not even bother to cross out the inapplicable parts. With preprinted courtesy, the discharge form said that Walker, by now reduced to the rank of private, had “served HONESTLY and FAITHFULLY with his company to the present date,” but then the lieutenant wrote in a flowery script that he “was shot to death for mutiny at Jacksonville, Fla., Febry. 29th, 1864….”