The Civil War: Black soldiers fought with less pay, less honor

Even though Blacks fought for the Union, slaves in the North were not freed. Photo: Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and black 54th Regiment

VIENNA, Va., June 10, 2013During the Civil War, when black soldiers joined the Union army to fight, there was a time when black soldiers were paid the same as their white comrades in arms, thanks to efforts of white soldiers.

The first black troops had been formed in 1861, and in August of 1862, the government decided that both sets of troops would be paid the same; this after an initial disparity in favor of the white soldiers, who complained that their black brethren in arms were not being treated fairly. 

Black and white soldiers fought togetherThe War Department agreed to equal pay, and both sides welcomed the pay equity. But apparently it was short-lived.

Thanks to information received from Peter A. Gilbert of the Vermont Humanities Council, a little known reversal of that policy was later made by the U.S. War Department on June 4, 1863. It was decided that black soldiers would have $3 less in their paychecks and that money for their uniforms would be deducted from their pay. 

White soldiers would receive an additional allowance for their uniforms. The old, uneven payment scale had been reintroduced by the so-called equality seeking Union Army officials and/or their government.

Adding fuel to the fire, if the black soldiers raised an objection to this rather startling change to the system, they were still prevented from leaving the military service.

SEE RELATED: Boston and the Civil War: Freedom but not equality

Equality meant different things to different people, depending on who was enjoying equality or seeking it. In any event, discriminatory practices largely continued in the virtuous North (the side fighting to free the slaves, remember?), with only five Northern states allowing their black brothers to vote in elections the same as whites.

On the other hand, five states banned blacks from testifying in court against whites. And in another shocking revelation, one Northern state, Illinois, had actually passed a law banning any black immigration into that state.

As far removed as school desegregation and busing issues were from that era, school segregation was widespread throughout the North at that time and afterward. Even the fabled “little red schoolhouse” was segregated.

Historian Margaret Wagner writes about this issue, noting that “Fighting on [Western and Eastern] fronts, the Union’s black soldiers had helped win signal victories on both: Southern Armies were defeated and, with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865, slavery in the United States was at an end.”

SEE RELATED: The Civil War: “The House Girl,” another look at slavery

But she apparently failed to draw the distinction that blacks were freed only in the Southern states and those enslaved in the Northern states (i.e., “the United States”) were, in fact, not affected at all by the long awaited  Emancipation Proclamation.

Sometimes silence speaks louder than even the most respected voice. Mrs. Wagner also notes that some two years in the future, when General William T. Sherman of the Army of the Potomac marched with his troops in “a spectacular Grand Review in Washington on May 23-24, 1865, the only African Americans among the marchers were freedmen walking with Sherman’s troops.”

Not a single one of the 166 regiments raised as the U. S. Colored Troops participated or was included in this celebration, Mrs. Wagner reports. And who can blame them?

Read more of Martha’s columns at The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at   

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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