February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
The United States had promised black soldiers that they would be paid as much as whites. Sergeant Walker believed that promise.
This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, of the 3d South Carolina Infantry Regiment, a young black soldier who believed in the United States government’s promises of equal rights. This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, who was brave enough to act on his belief in his rights. This is in honor of Sgt. William Walker, who died in disgrace, executed by the United States government for acting on his belief in its promise of equal rights.
The main charge against him was mutiny. The specifications of the court-martial at Hilton Head, South Carolina, dated January 11, 1864, provide the basic details: “That he, Sergeant William Walker, Co. ‘A,’ 3d S.C. Infy, did unlawfully take command of his Company ‘A,’ and march the same with others of the Regiment, in front of his Commanding Officer’s tent (Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett), and there ordered them to stack arms; and when his Comdg Officer Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett inquired of the Regiment what all this meant, he, the said Sergt. William Walker, replied: ‘We will not do duty any longer for ($7) seven dollars per month’;—and when remonstrated with, and ordered by their Comdg Officer (Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett) to take their arms and return to duty, he, the said Sergeant Walker, did order his Co. (‘A’) to let their arms alone and go to their quarters, which they did, thereby exciting and joining in a general mutiny.”
To understand this trial, it is essential to remember that dark-skinned people had no constitutional right to equal treatment during most of the Constitution’s first century. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court specifically ruled that a black who claimed to be a freedman could not argue his claim in federal court because he was by definition not a citizen. And though the Civil War was implicitly fought over the issue of slavery, neither President Lincoln nor the Congress made any great effort for a long time to free any slaves. On the contrary, the original version of the Thirteenth Amendment, passed by Congress, with Lincoln’s approval, in February 1861, promised that the federal government would make no attempt to interfere with the institution of slavery. It was only the Southerners’ attack on Fort Sumter two months later that nullified this remarkable amendment, and not until four years later, when the war was over and Lincoln dead, was a new Thirteenth Amendment ratified, proclaiming that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”
A few radicals had argued that view from the beginning. “Our cry now must be emancipation and arming the slaves,” wrote the young Henry Adams in November 1861. But even the most idealistic of Presidents has to make compromises with political reality, and Lincoln was probably correct in believing that any attempt to abolish slavery would inspire slaveholding states like Kentucky and Maryland to join the Southern rebellion.
Some of the men directly in charge of fighting the war were less sensitive to politicians’ anxieties. Maj. Gen. John Charles Frémont, who had been the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1856 and who now commanded what was known as the Western Department at St. Louis, decided to act on his own. In a proclamation of August 30, 1861, he declared martial law throughout Missouri and the liberation of all Rebels’ slaves. “The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States … is declared to be confiscated to the public use, and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen.” Lincoln responded by giving the adventurous general a direct order, “in a spirit of caution, and not of censure,” to go no further than Congress had authorized, and Congress had authorized nothing resembling Frémont’s proclamation.
These official hesitations about freeing the slaves applied all the more to the idea of arming them. It was not only in the South that the image of black slaves acquiring weapons conjured up hideous scenes of revenge, massacres, and atrocities. But again, the men charged with waging war had to confront reality, and the reality was that the Union army needed a great many soldiers. “If it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service,” Secretary of War Simon Cameron said in a report issued in December 1861, the end of the first year of war, “it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them….” Lincoln was angered not only by Cameron’s views but by his audacity in making such a statement public without the President’s approval.
Though many Union generals regarded blacks as worthless, a few kept pressing Lincoln to make use of them. The first serious attempt to recruit and arm former slaves took place on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. There in the lovely old mansions of Beaufort, on Port Royal Island, the cotton barons of South Carolina had plotted the Southern insurrection, so it was eminently fitting that the Union navy should invade their headquarters. It sent southward an armada of seventy-four steam frigates, steam sloops, gunboats, and transports loaded with twelve thousand seasick troops. After cannonading the islands’ strongholds, the invaders finally entered Beaufort in November of 1861 and found that every white inhabitant (except one man too drunk to move) had fled. Only the slaves were left.
There were about ten thousand of them, more than 80 percent of the islands’ pre-war population, and their appearance dismayed some of their liberators. “Nearly all the Negroes left on the islands were in densest ignorance,” wrote one arriving Northern officer, Capt. Hazard Stevens, “some of the blackest human beings ever seen, and others the most bestial in appearance. These ignorant and benighted creatures flooded into Beaufort…and held high carnival in the deserted mansions, smashing doors, mirrors, and furniture and appropriating all that took their fancy.”
The Northerners had no idea what to do with these blacks. They were hardly slaves now, since their masters had fled, but they had not been officially freed, so they were not really people either, much less citizens. Out in the Southwest, in New Orleans, Gen. Benjamin Butler had devised a solution to this problem by insisting that escaped slaves were “contraband.” The word ordinarily referred to property, and the application of this term to slaves seemed to satisfy everyone’s sense of legality and propriety. So the ten thousand contraband objects on the Sea Islands, who needed, after all, to be fed and clothed and sheltered, were assigned to the United States Treasury Department. The Treasury Department appointed a bright young Boston lawyer named Edward Pierce to go to Port Royal and take charge of the contraband. He sent his charges back to the work they had always done, planting, hoeing, and picking cotton. He rewarded them, however, with something they had never seen before: cash wages.
Then came Maj. Gen. David Hunter, West Point ’22, commander of the grandly named Department of the South, which actually included little more than these beautiful but swampy islands off the Carolina coast. Scarcely a month after his arrival in Port Royal in March 1862, Hunter issued a decree proclaiming that all people “heretofore held as slaves” in the three nearest coastal states—South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—”are … declared forever free.” On the same day on which he freed the slaves, however, Hunter ordered his subordinate officers “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms.”
Pierce of the Treasury was outraged at this autocratic conscription of his contraband cotton workers. They “were taken from the fields without being allowed to go to their houses even to get a jacket…,” Pierce wrote to Washington. “Wives and children embraced the husband and father thus taken away, they knew not where, and whom, as they said, they should never see again.” Once again Lincoln himself struck down an overzealous general. “The Government of the United States,” he declared, “had no knowledge, information, or belief of intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation.”
But though Lincoln thus disavowed Hunter, disavowed both the emancipation of slaves and the arming of slaves, he remained under pressure to do both. Edwin Stanton, who had replaced the corrupt Cameron as Secretary of War, gradually came to favor the recruitment of blacks, and Congress drifted nervously toward the same view. The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, authorized the President “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion.” In the Militia Act, passed the same month, the President was authorized “to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service, or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent….” The Act also specified that persons of African descent would be paid $3 a month less than white soldiers—that is, $10 a month instead of $13—and that $3 of that pay would be deducted for clothes, whereas whites could spend or keep their $3.50 clothing allotments.
So although General Hunter was forbidden in May to emancipate or draft blacks into his forces, Gen. Rufus Saxton, the new military governor in Port Royal, was authorized on August 25 to recruit five thousand of them. And these recruits, Stanton said to Saxton on his own authority, were “to be entitled to receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.” That declaration by the Secretary of War amounted to a pledge of equal pay and equal rights. It was understood as such not only in Port Royal but wherever Union officials undertook recruitment of black soldiers. But Congress had never authorized any such pledge, nor, when challenged, would Congress honor it.
Capt. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who knew nothing of these complications, was having dinner with two other officers in the barracks of the 51st Massachusetts Regiment when he received a letter from General Saxton announcing that he was “organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers” and offering him the colonelcy and command of what was to become the first Union regiment of freed slaves. Higginson was astonished. “Had an invitation reached me to take command of a regiment of Kalmuck Tartars,” he recalled, “it could hardly have been more unexpected.” But Saxton had heard good reports about Higginson, and they all were true.
Higginson embodied many of the characteristics that Bostonians like to consider elements in the classic Bostonian persona: courage, independence, eloquence, idealism. He was an ordained Unitarian minister, but also an ardent swimmer and football player, also an ardent abolitionist, a friend and comrade-in-arms to John Brown, also an ardent feminist, one of the signers of the call to the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, and author of a, celebrated polemic entitled Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet? After his antislavery activities had forced him to resign from his wealthy parish in Newburyport, he declared, “An empty pulpit has often preached louder than a living Minister.” And after he had discovered the reclusive Emily Dickinson, whose poems he was the first to publish, she wrote to him: “Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life.”
Higginson was reluctant to abandon his comrades in the 51st Massachusetts Regiment, but on making a quick trip to Port Royal, he found that he could not resist the challenge of leading “eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers, and representing a race affectionate, enthusiastic, grotesque, and dramatic beyond all others.” Though that may sound patronizing, Higginson soon came to love his black troops, and they loved him. One of their most extraordinary confrontations occurred on New Year’s Day of 1863, when ten cattle were slaughtered and barbecued for an open-air feast to accompany the reading of Lincoln’s new Emancipation Proclamation. There was the presentation of a new regimental flag. “Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it… ,” Higginson wrote in Army Life in a Black Regiment. “Just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice … into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning-note of the song-sparrow—‘My country, ’tis of thee,/Sweet land of liberty,/Of thee I sing.’ People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came this interruption… . Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; it seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.”
Once Congress had authorized the recruiting of black soldiers, Secretary of War Stanton established a Bureau for Colored Troops in May 1863 and asked the War Department’s solicitor, William Whiting, of Boston, to look into the vexing question of what the black recruits should be paid. Despite Stanton’s promise of equal treatment, Whiting replied that the only applicable law was the Militia Act of 1862, in which Congress had specifically stated that “persons of African descent” were to be paid ten dollars per month (minus three dollars for clothing), or three dollars less than white soldiers received. “There seems to be inequality and injustice in this distinction,” Stanton said in his annual report for 1863, “and an amendment authorizing the same pay and bounty as white troops receive, is recommended.” Lincoln was not convinced. Since blacks “had larger motives for being soldiers than white men … they ought to be willing to enter the service upon any condition,” the President said to Frederick Douglass, the black leader. The decision to grant them lower pay, Lincoln added, “seemed a necessary condition to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers.” For the time being, Stanton wrote to the governor of Ohio, all blacks who had relied on his promises of equal pay “must trust to State contributions and the justice of Congress at the next session.”
Colonel Higginson was furious. The refusal to grant equal pay, he declared, “has impaired discipline, has relaxed loyalty, and has begun to implant a feeling of sullen distrust in the very regiments whose early career solved the problem of the nation, created a new army, and made a peaceful emancipation possible.” Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first black unit recruited in the North, was even more furious. Though the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds to provide equal pay for Shaw’s regiment, which was already stationed on the Sea Islands and ready to go into action, the regiment refused to accept any pay at all unless it was given equal pay by the federal government. These soldiers should either be “mustered out of the service or receive the full pay which was promised them,” Shaw wrote to the Massachusetts governor, John Andrew. “Are we soldiers or are we laborers?” wrote one of Shaw’s black soldiers, James Henry Gooding, in a letter to President Lincoln. Then, in the flowery rhetoric of his time, Gooding answered his own question: “Mr. President … the patient, trusting descendants of Afric’s clime have dyed the ground with blood in defense of the Union and democracy.”
Unpaid, the 54th Massachusetts marched into combat, leading a hopeless charge against Fort Wagner, in Charleston Harbor. After a long but ineffective cannonading, Shaw’s outnumbered troops had to charge uphill and across a deep ditch into a storm of Confederate gunfire. Colonel Shaw, who was twenty-five, led them all the way, reached the fort’s parapet, and climbed it. “He stood there for a moment with uplifted sword, shouting, ‘Forward, 54th!’ ” as William James said many years later in dedicating Saint-Gaudens’s great monument on Boston Common, “and then fell headlong, with a bullet through his heart.” More than half of Shaw’s unpaid black troops died in that heroic charge before the remnants were finally beaten back. And after all the dead were dumped into a common trench, the Confederate commander was said to have remarked of Shaw, “We have buried him with his niggers.”
It was a fact that black casualties in the Union army were far higher than white casualties. Of the approximately 180,000 black troops eventually recruited, about 37,000 died. That death rate amounted to slightly more than 20 percent, as compared with a death rate of 15.2 percent among white troops and only 8.6 percent in the regular army. The disparity occurred not because blacks were regularly used as cannon fodder but because most Civil War casualties, white and black alike, resulted from sickness. Among blacks, the remarkable statistics are that 2,870 died in combat, more than 4,000 died of unknown causes, and 29,756 are known to have died of illness. In fact, the regiment with the second-highest number of deaths in the entire Union army was the 65th U.S. Colored Infantry, which lost 755 men without ever going into combat at all.
There were a number of reasons for this. High among them were inferior food, inferior clothing, inferior medical care, inferior everything. All wars breed corruption, after all, and the Civil War, fought in the early days of freewheeling capitalism, certainly bred its share. As Thomas Beer wrote in Hanna, “Bayonets of polished pewter, tents of porous shoddy, coffee made of pulse and sorghum, carbines that exploded on the drill ground … and many other versions of the wooden nutmeg were offered to the Army between 1861 and 1864.
“Often nothing could be done. The actual vendor vanished in a cloud of agents and guileless middlemen… .” And who could be more vulnerable to this sort of swindle than the fledgling black regiments? One of their commanders, Brig. Gen. Daniel Ullman, complained to a senator about “arms almost entirely unserviceable and … equipment … of the poorest kind.”
And woe to anyone who fell ill. Since black troops were supposed to be led by white officers, only eight black doctors were taken into the Army, and six of these served in Washington hospitals. White doctors generally refused to serve in black regiments, and so, according to one general’s report, “In very many cases Hospital Stewards of low order of qualification were appointed to the office of Assistant Surgeon and Surgeon.” There were “well-grounded objections…,” the general went on, “against the inhumanity of subjecting the colored soldiers to medical treatment and surgical operations from such men.”
One reason that blacks were so prone to sickness, though, was overwork. The black troops were used mainly to dig trenches and fortifications, to cut trees and haul supplies, to provide, for seven dollars per month, what they once provided for nothing: slave labor. “My men were … put into trenches and batteries, or detailed to mount guns, haul cannon and mortars, and were kept constantly and exclusively on fatigue duty of the severest kind… ,” said Col. James Montgomery of the 2d South Carolina Volunteers. “I frequently had to take men who had been on duty from 4 o’clock in the morning until sundown to make up the detail called for, for the night, and men who had been in the trenches in the night were compelled to go on duty again at least part of the day.” Or as another officer wrote, “Where white and black troops come together in the same command, the latter have to do all the work.”
The maw of war kept demanding more men. At Gettysburg alone, the two sides together suffered more than fifty thousand casualties before the Union forces finally beat back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. The following week in July 1863, Lincoln’s draft law went into effect, and after the first names had been chosen by lottery, mobs of antidraft rioters began tearing New York City to pieces.
For four days they burned and killed, and nobody knows the final death toll. Police Commissioner Thomas Acton estimated it at around twelve hundred, mostly black. Nobody knows, either, how much of this kind of news reached the Sea Islands off South Carolina or what impression it made on black recruits like William Walker in the 3d South Carolina Infantry Regiment.
We do not know a great deal about William Walker. For most of his short life he belonged to that large category of people on whom history keeps no records. There are only some military documents—notably a forty-eight-page handwritten transcript of his court-martial. One paper says he was born in Hilton Head; another, in Savannah. One says, “Occupation: Servant.” It adds: “Name of former owner not of record.” From this we can deduce that Walker had been born and reared a slave and that if anyone asked him who his master was, he probably refused to say.
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.”
Lieutenant Wood was mysteriously absent from the court-martial, but Lt. Adolph Bessie testified for the prosecution in support of this charge. In doing so, however, he made it sound as though the quarrel had been started by Wood rather than Walker. “I was sick at that time,” Bessie said. “The accused came to my tent, and several others of the company. He complained of Lt. Geo. W. Wood as having maltreated him, of having threatened to shoot him, or something of that kind. I told the accused I would see about it. He left my tent, and shortly after I heard considerable noise in the company street. I went out and saw the accused with a gun in his hand, and heard him say he would ‘shoot Lt. Geo. W. Wood.’ He repeated it several times, in front of the tent of the Orderly… .”
Question, by the judge advocate (Lt. S. Alford of the 8th Maine Volunteers): What was his tone of voice when threatening to shoot Lieutenant Wood?
Answer: It was loud, and could be heard quite a distance. He seemed to be talking in a rage.
Capt. Edgar Abeel attempted to arrest Walker, according to the third specification, but Walker “did refuse to obey.” Abeel testified that he had ordered Walker to go to his tent under arrest. “He refused to go in arrest,” Abeel said, “and said he would not for any man… .”
Q: Where did he go after the order?
A: He walked up and down the street of his company, but did not go in his tent.
Q: What was the conduct of the men present at the time?
A: They seemed to uphold the sergeant. A number of them said they “would go to the provost with him.”
Abeel seems to have given up his attempt to arrest Walker, and the whole quarrel died down. That was in August. In October Walker got into another angry argument, this time with a Sgt. Sussex Brown. The troops were supposed to be lined up for inspection, Sergeant Brown testified, but Walker didn’t appear. “I went in Sergt. Walker’s tent and two men was there playing cards,” he said. “I asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ They told me they was ‘coming out now.’ Sergt. Walker said, ‘Let’s play on,’ and I told Sergt. Walker he must fall in. He cussed and said I was a ‘damned son of a bitch.’ I said, if you don’t fall in the ranks, I will have you arrested…. He told me he ‘didn’t care a damn’ about any man. He said if I didn’t mind he’d put a ball in his gun and shoot me… .”
Q: About how many times, if more than once, did he say he would shoot you?
A: Three times.
Walker subsequently denied most of this. He claimed that he and his comrades had each had only one more card to play and that he had said, “Play your card and get out.” He further claimed “that my threat of ‘putting a cartridge in my gun and blowing his brains out’ was only in answer to his threat that he would ‘smash my head in with the butt of his gun.’ ” By now, though, Walker’s insubordination was almost habitual, and he resisted discipline not only for himself but for other men. Drum Maj. William Smith testified that when he tried to arrest a man named Ranty Pope for refusing to go on fatigue duty, Walker intervened. “I told him [Pope] I would tie him up,” Smith said. “Sergt. Walker told me if I tied Ranty Pope up I would also have to tie him, Sergt. Walker, up.”
Q: What did you then do with the said Pope?
A: I did not do anything with him.
Q: Why not?
A: The camp was in a state of excitement and I did not like the looks of Sergt. Walker at the time.
Q: You say you did not like the looks of the accused. How did he look or act at the time?
A: He eyed me sharply. I was actually afraid of him.
Q: Did the words or looks of the accused prevent the arrest of Ranty Pope… ?
A: His words and looks both.
This all happened on the morning of November 19,1863, the day of the “mutiny.” The prosecution made no effort to establish any chronology, so it is not clear whether Walker’s rescue of Ranty Pope came before or after the equal-pay demonstration outside Colonel Bennett’s tent. The prosecution also made no effort to establish any reason for the “mutiny,” any background of grievances and arguments about pay or living conditions. Walker later stated that he had not received any pay at all since August, but we don’t know whether his regiment was another unit rejecting unequal pay or what the reason was. Clearly Walker was in a state of rage, and clearly he was not alone in that rage. The whole camp was described as “mutinous,” but nobody at the court-martial paid much attention to the reasons. On the main charge of stacking arms and refusing to serve without equal pay, the judge advocate simply asked Colonel Bennett whether he had seen Walker that day and then asked him to “state his conduct as far as it came under your observation.”
“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… .”
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.”
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 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.
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.