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A black soldier demands equal pay

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[October 12, 2013]  SPRINGFIELD -- With Nov. 19 marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is featuring letters to or by Lincoln, written between the end of Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and his famous speech at Gettysburg. Each letter represents one of the many issues he had to face as chief executive of the nation during its greatest crisis.

One of the more famous letters written to Lincoln during this period was James Henry Gooding's request that United States Colored Troops, or USCTs, receive the same pay as white soldiers. This was an exemplar of the African-American struggle for social and legal equality.

Born into slavery, Gooding acquired his freedom and went to New York early in his life. With the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, he enlisted in the renowned 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Having participated in that unit's famous July 18 assault on Battery Wagner, Gooding wrote to President Lincoln demanding that the $10 paid to USCTs be increased to the $13 paid to white soldiers.

In doing so, Gooding joined with several other equal rights advocates and newspaper columnists demanding that this imbalance be rectified. Like Gooding, they believed any man who was deemed good enough to enlist in the army was entitled to the same pay as his fellow soldiers, regardless of race.

Responding to such pressure, Congress finally awarded equal pay to USCTs on June 15, 1864, but Gooding could do little to celebrate. He was imprisoned at Andersonville, Ga., where he died on July 19.


James Henry Gooding to Abraham Lincoln|
Sept. 28, 1863

(Copy of letter transcript)

Camp of 54th Mass Colored Regt
Morris Island Dept of the South,

Sept 28th 1863.

Your Excelency Abraham Lincoln:

Your Excelency will pardon the presumtion of an humble individual like myself, in addressig you, but the earnest Solicitation of my Comrades in Arms, besides, the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance: On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the department, informed us, that if we would decide to recieve the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but, that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three.) He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped, certainly he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we can not supose him acting in any way interested. Now the main question is, Are we Soldiers, or are we Labourers. We are fully armed, and equipped, have done all the various Duties, pertaining to a Soldiers life, have conducted ourselves, to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who, were if any, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement, and honour due us: have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag: and more, Mr President. Today, the Anglo Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister, are not alone, in tears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient Trusting Decendants of Africs Clime, have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men too your Excellency, who know in a measure, the cruelties of the Iron-heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very Power, their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them to the dust. But When the war trumpet sounded oer the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation, and he was refused. When the arms of the Union, were beaten, in the first year of the War, And the Executive called more food, for its ravaging maw; again the black man begged, the privelege of Aiding his Country in her need; to be again refused, And now, he is in the War: and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms, rise up, out the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich mould around Wagners parapets be upturned, and there will be found an Eloquent answer. Obedient and patient, and Solid as a wall are they. all we lack, is a paler hue, and a better aquaintance with the Alphabet.

[to top of second column]

Now Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay? You caution 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 of treatment of her Soldiers, from the Insurgents, would it not be well, and consistent, to set the example; herself, by paying all her Soldiers alike? We of this Regt, were not enlisted under any "contraband" act. But we do not wish to be understood, as rating our Service, of more Value to the Government, than the service of the exslave, Their Service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express, provision touching their case as slaves freed by Military necessity, and assuming the Government, to be their temporary Gaurdian: Not so with us. Freemen by birth, and consequently, having the advantage of thinking, and acting for ourselves, so far as the Laws would allow us. We do not consider ourselves, fit subjects for the Contraband act, We appeal to You, Sir: as the Executive of the Nation, to have us Justly Dealt with. The Regt, do pray, that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated, by paying them as american Soldiers, not as menial hierlings. Black men You may well know, are poor, three dollars per month, for a year, will suply their needy Wives, and little ones, with fuel. If you, as chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us, of our whole pay. We are content, our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid Our Country.

Not that our hearts ever flagged, in Devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but We feel as though, our Country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her.

Please give this a moments attention

Corporal James Henry Gooding
Co. C. 54th Mass, Regt
Morris Island S.C.


The 54th Massachusetts Regiment assaults Battery Wagner. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


To see one of only five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's hand and to receive a free booklet titled "On Lincoln's Mind: Leading the Nation to the Gettysburg Address," containing this and other document stories, visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum between Nov. 18 and 24.

[By the editors of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. Text from file provided by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]

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