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The Battle Against Discrimination Previous Next
Digital History ID 3083

 

During the war, African American troops also faced a different kind of battle: a battle against discrimination in pay, promotions, and medical care. Despite promises of equal treatment, blacks were relegated to separate regiments commanded by white officers. Black soldiers received less pay than white soldiers, inferior benefits, and poorer food and equipment. While a white private was paid $13 a month plus a $3.50 clothing allowance, blacks received just $10 a month, out of which $3 was deducted for clothing. Furthermore, black soldiers were not provided with the enlistment bonuses commonly given to white soldiers, and, until the end of the war, the federal government refused to commission black officers.

Within the ranks, black troops faced repeated humiliations; most were employed in menial assignments and kept in rear-echelon, fatigue jobs. They were punished by whipping or by being tied by their thumbs; if captured by the Confederates, they faced execution. But despite these trials, African American soldiers won their fight for equal pay (in 1864) and in 1865 they were allowed to serve as line officers. Drawing upon the education and training they received in the military, many former troops became community leaders during Reconstruction.

One Union captain explained the significance of black military participation on the attitudes of many white soldiers. "A great many [white people]," he wrote, "have the idea that the entire Negro race are vastly their inferiors. A few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them, I think. I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those...who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation."

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