It was 150 years ago this week that the federal Congress in Washington, DC resolved one of the overlying discrepancies in pay for Union soldiers.
Since its formation in May 1863, the Bureau of United States Colored Troops were paid less than their white counterparts. White soldiers received $10 per month plus $3 for their uniform – for a total of $13. Black soldiers received $10 per month minus $3 being charged monthly for their uniforms. The discrepancy amounted to a six dollar difference each and every month.
The colored troops complained and some, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, actually refused to accept any pay throughout the war because of the unfairness. They argued, and rightly so, that they too were risking life and limb for their country.
Corporal James Gooding, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, took the men’s grievance to the Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln, writing a letter from Morris Island, South Caroline on September 28, 1863. Gooding said “You cautioned the Rebel Chieftain that the United States knows no distinction in her soldiers; she insists on having all her soldiers, of whatever creed or color, to be treated according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity in treatment of her soldiers from insurgents, would it not be well, and consistent to set the example herself, by paying all her Soldiers alike?” Gooding asked Mr. Lincoln to look into the matter.
In June 1864, one hundred fifty years ago this week, Congress finally approved equal pay for the U.S. Colored Troops. The measure was retroactive to their enlistment date.
In total, over 209,000 U.S. Colored Troops served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the Civil War. Over 68,000 died in their service. Corporal Gooding was one of those who did not make it through to the end of the war. Corporal Gooding died on July 19, 1864 of wounds received at the Battle of Olustee while a prisoner of War at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He had been captured on February 20, 1864 in a battle where three thousand U.S. Colored Troops participated.
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