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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
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….”
The form then proceeded to summarize the financial relationship between the late Private Walker and his government. “The said William Walker was last paid … to include the 31st day of August, 1863, and has pay due him from that time to the present date,” the document said. “He is entitled to pay and subsistence for travelling to place of enrollment and whatever other allowances are authorized to volunteer soldiers, or militia, so discharged.” In other words, equal pay. On the other hand, the document continued, “He has received fifty-nine 6/100 dollars, advanced by the United States on account of clothing.” It further said that he had “lost” one Prussian musket, one bayonet, one bayonet scabbard, one cartridge belt, and forty rounds of ammunition. Perhaps those were the weapons he had stacked in front of the colonel’s tent, and denied having stacked in front of the colonel’s tent. Trying to estimate their value, to be repaid by the late Private Walker to the government that had just executed him, the lieutenant could only write, “Price list has never been furnished.” As for the rest of the printed form, which said, “He is indebted to_______, sutler,_______dollars,” and “He is indebted to_______, laundress,_______dollars,” the lieutenant just crossed all that out. And so the United States government declared that its account with the late William Walker was settled in full.
Three months later Congress took up once again the question of equal pay for black soldiers and once again defaulted on the government’s obligations. It voted to grant equal pay to black soldiers, but not to ex-slaves like Walker, only to those who had been freedmen on the day the Civil War started. There then began a series of deceptions in which sympathetic officers like Col. Edward Hallowell, Robert Gould Shaw’s successor as commander of the 54th Massachusetts, told his men, “You do solemnly swear that you owed no man unrequited labor on or before the 19th day of April, 1861. So help you God.” And all the ex-slaves who felt that they owed no man unrequited labor then or at any other time chorused their agreement.