When they were recruited, the black soldiers were promised the same pay as white soldiers received: $13 a month, clothing and rations. The War Department paid them only $10, and took $3 out for clothing.
The soldiers decided if they could not receive equal pay, they would accept no pay. For 18 months they fought without receiving any wages, while their impoverished families suffered. Appeals were made to the Secretary of War and to President Lincoln for justice. They came from the governors of Vermont and Massachusetts, from the soldiers, from abolitionists and from the commander of the 54th Massachusetts, Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
The issue was never far from their minds. During the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in Baker County, Fla., the 54th Massachusetts was ordered to protect the retreat of Union troops. The men of the 54th shouted as they advanced, “Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!”
In June 1864, Congress passed a bill granting the 54th Massachusetts Regiment full pay retroactive to the date of their enlistment. As the bill made its way through the House and the Senate, Francis H. Fletcher wrote to his friend Jacob Safford in Ipswich, Mass. Fletcher was a 23-year-old clerk from Salem, Mass., who had enlisted on Feb. 13, 1863. He was not in a forgiving mood when he picked up his pen in Morris Island, S.C.:
Hd Qrs Post of Morris Island S.C.
May 28th, 1864
Mr. Jacob C. Safford
I have received your letter bearing date May 8th.
There is no local news of any importance about here. There were some operations on James Island but amounted to only a raid as far as I have been able to learn. At the front everything is quiet.
I have forgotten of what you refer to speaking of some message I sent you by Mrs. Lewis.
You take a far more liberal view of things than you could in my situation. Just one year ago to day our regt was received in Boston with almost an ovation, and at 5 P. M. it will be one year since we were safely on board transport clear of Battery Wharf and bound to this Department: in that one year no man of our regiment has received a cent of monthly pay all through the glaring perfidy of the U.S. Gov’t.
I cannot any more condemn nor recite our wrongs, but console myself that One who is able has said vengeance is mine and I will repay.
All the misery and degradation suffered in our regiment by its members’ families is not
atoned for by the passage of the bill for equal pay.
Remember me to your sister and and family and believe me
Francis H. Fletcher
Francis Fletcher and the men of the 54th Massachusetts finally got paid in September 1864. He was promoted to sergeant — the highest position open to black soldiers — and mustered out on Aug. 20, 1865.