“Are we Soldiers or are we LABOURERS?”
The 54th Massachusetts, which contained two of Frederick Douglass’ own sons, Lewis and Charles, were among the first regiments made up of Northern free black men, to lead the protest against discriminatory pay. They rejected Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrews offer to make up the difference from the state coffers on principle, even though they had received no pay by July of 1863. However, their dignified stand came at a price. Letters from their families bore news of great hardship, which served to only further inflame the soldier’s protest.
A freeborn corporal in the 54th Massachusetts, named James Henry Gooding, wrote to President Lincoln on behalf of his comrades on the 28th September 1863. Reacting to the news that their pay was to be cut, Gooding asks the President in his letter, “are we Soldiers, or are we LABOURERS?” Gooding alludes to the bravery of his regiment at Fort Wagner just a couple of months prior and states that “we have done a soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a soldier’s pay?” Gooding also highlights the hypocrisy of the Union calling for equal treatment of captured black soldiers from the Confederacy when it wasn’t even willing itself to pay its own soldiers on equal terms.
Writing on behalf of his men on the 23rd November 1863, Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, Commander of the 54th Massachusetts, informed Governor Andrew of their decision to refuse his offer. Acceptance for them would imply that because they have “African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have Saxon.”