Digital History

Digital History ID 397

Author:   Benjamin F. Butler


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 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."

In the following selection, General Benjamin F. Butler directs his men to treat black soldiers with respect and declares his opposition to the government's policy of paying African American soldiers less than white soldiers. This document is extremely revealing and illustrative of the most "liberal" and "best-intentioned" values of the 1860s.


The recruitment of colored troops has become the settled purpose of the Government. It is therefore the duty of every officer and soldier to aid in carrying out that purpose, by every proper means, irrespective of personal predilection. To do this effectually, the former condition of the blacks, their change of relation; the new rights acquired by them; the new obligations imposed on upon them; the duty of the Government to them; the great stake they have in the war; and the claims their ignorance, and the helplessness of their women and children, make upon each of us, who hold a higher grade in social and political life, must all be carefully considered.

It will also be taken into account that the colored soldiers have none of the machinery of "State aid" for the support of their families while fighting our battles, so liberally provided for the white soldiers, nor the generous bounties given by the State and National Governments in the loyal States--although this last is far more than compensated to the black man by the great boon awarded to him, the result of the war--FREEDOM FOR HIMSELF AND HIS RACE FOREVER!

To deal with these several aspects of this subject, so that as few of the Negroes as possible shall become chargeable either upon the bounty of Government or the charities of the benevolent, and at the same time to do justice to those who shall enlist, to encourage enlistment, and to cause all capable of working to employ themselves for their support, and that of their families--either in arms or other service--and that the rights of Negroes and the Government may both be protected, it is ordered: I....In this Department, after the 1st day of December,instant, and until otherwise ordered, every able bodied colored man who shall enlist and be mustered into the service of the United States for three years or during the war, shall be paid as bounty, to supply his immediate wants, the sum of ten (10) dollars.... II....To the family of each colored soldier so enlisted and mustered, so long as he shall remain in the service and behave well, shall be furnished suitable subsistence, under the direction of the Superintendents of Negro Affairs, or their Assistants; and each soldier shall be furnished with a certificate of subsistence for his family, as soon as he is mustered; and any soldier deserting, or whose pay and allowances are forfeited by Court Martial, shall be reported by his Captain to the Superintendent of the District where his family lives, and the subsistence may be stopped--provided that such subsistence shall be continued for at least six months to the family of any colored soldier who shall die in the services by disease, wounds or battle. III....Every enlisted colored man shall have the same uniform, clothing, arms, equipments, camp equipage, rations, medical and hospital treatment as are furnished to the United States soldiers of a like arm of the service, unless upon request, some modification thereof shall be granted from these Head Quarters. IV....The pay of the colored soldiers shall be ten ($10) per month--three of which may be retained for clothing. But the non-commissioned officers, whether colored or white, shall have the same addition to their pay as other non-commissioned officers. It is, however, hoped and believed by the Commanding General [Butler], that Congress, as an act of justice, will increase the pay of the colored troops to a uniform rate with other troops of the United States. He can see no reason why a colored soldier should be asked to fight upon less pay than any other. The colored man fills an equal space in ranks while he lives, and an equal grave when he falls. VIII....Political freedom rightly defined is liberty to work and to be protected in the full enjoyment of the fruits of labor; and no one with ability to work should enjoy the fruits of another's labor: Therefore, no subsistence will be permitted to any Negro or his family, with whom he lives, who is able to work and does not work. It is, therefore, the duty of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs to furnish employment to all negroes able to labor, and see that their families are supplied with the necessaries of life. Any Negro who refuses to work when able, and neglects his family, will be arrested and reported to these Head Quarters, to be sent to labor on the fortifications, where he will be made to work. No Negro will be required to labor on the Sabbath, unless upon the most urgent necessity. IX....The Commanding General is informed that officers and soldiers in the Department have, by impressment and force, compelled the labor of negroes, sometimes for private use, and often without any imperative necessity.

Negroes have rights so long as they fulfill their duties: Therefore it is ordered, that no officer or soldier shall impress or force to labor for any private purpose whatever, any Negro; and negro labor shall not be impressed or forced for any public purpose, unless under orders from these Head Quarters, or because of imperative military necessity, and where the labor of white citizens would be compelled, if present.... X....The theory upon which Negroes are received into the Union lines, and employed, either as laborers or soldiers, is that every Negro able to work who leaves the rebel lines, diminishes by so much the producing power of the rebellion to supply itself with food and labor necessary to be done outside of military operations to sustain its armies; and the United States thereby gains either a soldier or a producer. Women and children are received, because it would be manifestly iniquitous and unjust to take the husband and father and leave the wife and child to ill-treatment and starvation. Women and children are also received when unaccompanied by the husband and father, because the Negro has the domestic affections in as strong a degree as the white man, and however far South his master may drive him, he will sooner or later return to his family.... XI....In consideration of the ignorance and helplessness of the Negroes arising from the condition in which they have been heretofore held, it becomes necessary that the Government should exercise more and peculiar care and protection over them than over its white citizens, accustomed to self-control and self-support, so that their sustenance may be assured their rights respected, their helplessness protected, and their wrongs redressed; and that there be one system of management of Negro affairs....

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