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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
But even then Congress’s laggard bill offered equal pay only retroactive to January 1, 1864, fully a year after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation had inspired the serious recruitment of black soldiers. Colonel Higginson was eloquent in his indignation. His black troops were not mercenary, he wrote to the New York Tribune. If they felt that Lincoln’s government could not afford to pay them, he said, they “would serve it barefooted and on half-rations, and without a dollar—for a time.” But when they saw white troops earning more than they earned, they felt understandably resentful. And their white officers would have to continue “to act as executioners for those soldiers who, like Sergeant Walker, refuse to fulfill their share of a contract where the Government has openly repudiated the other share.” Finally, on March 3, 1865, just a month before Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Congress passed the Enrollment Act and granted retroactively equal pay to all black soldiers.
This included the late William Walker’s old regiment, the 3d South Carolina Volunteers, which because of a new regulation banning state names for army units was now known as the 21st U.S. Colored Troops. They had not seen a great deal of combat, but in these last days of the crumbling Confederacy, they were the ones assigned to march triumphantly into the slaveholders’ citadel of Charleston, to recapture Fort Sumter, where the first shots had been fired, and Fort Wagner, where Colonel Shaw and his brave black troops had been slaughtered. Before fleeing Charleston, the Confederate general W. J. Hardee ordered the burning of all shipyards, cotton warehouses, and anything else that might be of value to the Union forces.
Colonel Bennett, the survivor of that confrontation with the late William Walker, arrived in Charleston by rowboat from Morris Island, out in the harbor, and sent a message to the mayor to demand a surrender and to promise “every possible assistance to your well-disposed citizens in extinguishing the flames.” Then into the city marched the 21st U.S. Colored and two companies of Hallowell’s 54th Massachusetts. A reporter for the Boston Journal tried to describe the extraordinary scene. Here were ex-slaves, he wrote, “with the old flag above them, keeping step to freedom’s drum beat, up the grass-grown streets, past the slave shambles, laying aside their arms, working the fire-engines to extinguish the flames, and, in the spirit of the Redeemer of man, saving that which was lost.”
There is just one postscript. In 1894, thirty years after the execution of William Walker, his wife, Rebecca, filed a claim for a pension due to a widow of a veteran of the Civil War. If she was about twenty at the time of her husband’s execution, she was about fifty now, in the age of President Grover Cleveland, and perhaps she thought that everybody had forgotten the case of Sergeant Walker.
But the military bureaucracy never forgets anything. On the application by Rebecca Walker for a pension deriving from the execution of her husband, a War Department examiner named J. M. Paxtero recommended “rejection on the ground that soldier’s death from gun shot while resisting authority in a state of mutiny was not in line of duty.”
Quite true. Sgt. William Walker did not die in the line of duty. Let us honor him for that.