Exactly one year after the 54th Massachusetts Regiment marched through Boston Common in a blaze of glory, Pvt. Francis H. Fletcher wrote bitterly that the African-American soldiers did not get paid.
When they were recruited, the black soldiers were promised the same pay as white soldiers received. That meant $13 a month, clothing and rations. But the War Department paid them only $10, and took $3 out for clothing.
Equal Pay or No Pay
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 injustice rarely left their minds. During the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in Baker County, Fla., the 54th Massachusetts protected the retreat of Union troops. The men of the 54th shouted as they advanced, “Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!”
Francis Fletcher Writes
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, a 23-year-old clerk from Salem, Mass., had enlisted on Feb. 13, 1863. He did not feel forgiveness 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….
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
The 54th Massachusetts
Francis Fletcher and the men of the 54th Massachusetts finally got paid in September 1864. He won a promotion to sergeant — the highest position open to black soldiers. He then mustered out after the war ended, on Aug. 20, 1865.
On Memorial Day in 1897, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment. Considered one of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ finest work, it sits on the corner of Boston Common across from the Statehouse.
Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, praised the 54th Regiment in words inscribed on the back of the memorial. They read, in part:
The Black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union Cause. Served without pay for eighteen months till given that of white troops. Faced threatened enslavement if captured. Were brave in action. Patient under heavy and dangerous labors.
This story was updated in 2021.