A letter written by Corporal James Henry Gooding of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry to President Abraham Lincoln.
National Archives
By Lily Rothman
February 12, 2018

Countless stories are contained within the theme chosen for 2018’s Black History Month observance, “African Americans in Times of War.” From the famed Tuskegee Airmen to the disproportionately large number of African-American men who fought in Vietnam, African-Americans have been part of America’s military history since the very beginning.

On the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Feb. 12, 1809, birth, one particular slice of that history is likely to be brought to mind: the Civil War.

One of the most poignant reminders that the African-Americans experience of military service has not always been the same as that of other servicemembers comes courtesy of a man named James Henry Gooding, whose explanation of one part of that problem — directed at none other than Lincoln himself — puts the situation in stark terms. “We have done a Soldiers Duty,” he stated. “Why cant we have a Soldiers pay?”

As explained by Chris Barr, a guide at the National Park Service’s Andersonville National Historic Site, Gooding was born enslaved in 1838, but his freedom was purchased (perhaps by his father) and he was sent to school in New York City as a child. Although he made a good living in the whaling industry at the time of the Civil War, he was driven to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in February of 1863, shortly after the Union Army began to allow black soldiers to join.

His letters from the front were published in his local paper in the months that followed, but it was a different letter that has become particularly famous in the years since.

On Sept. 28, 1863, from Morris Island, S.C., Corporal Gooding wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, the original of which is held in the National Archives. As Gooding explained in his letter, he and the other black soldiers with whom he served received $3 less per pay period than white soldiers did. But this didn’t make sense: not only were they risking their lives just as much, but they were also uniquely familiar with the “iron heel of oppression” that the Union fought against.

A few months later, however, he was captured in battle and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville. While he was there, Congress in fact equalized pay for black Union troops, just as he desired — but Gooding died a prisoner just weeks later.

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Read the full text of the letter below, as transcribed for the book Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War.

Your Excelency will pardon the presumtion of an humble individual like myself, in addressing you. but the earnest Solicitation of my Comrades in Arms, besides the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance: On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the department, informed us, that if we would decide to recieve the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but, that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three.) He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped, certainly he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we can not supose him acting in any way interested. Now the main question is. Are we Soldiers, or are we LABOURERS. We are fully armed, and equipped, have done all the various Duties, pertaining to a Soldiers life, have conducted ourselves, to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who, were if any, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement, and honour due us: have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag: and more, Mr President. Today, the Anglo Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister, are not alone, in tears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient Trusting Decendants of Africs Clime, have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men too your Excellency, who know in a measure, the cruelties of the Iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very Power, their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them to the dust. But When the war trumpet sounded o’er the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation, -and he was refused. When the arms of the Union, were beaten, in the first year of the War, And the Executive called more food. for its ravaging maw, again the black man begged, the privelege of Aiding his Country in her need, to be again refused, And now, he is in the War: and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms, rise up, out the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich mould around Wagners parapets be upturned, and there will be found an Eloquent answer. Obedient and patient, and Solid as a wall are they. all we lack, is a paler hue, and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet. Now Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States, knows, no distinction, in her Soldiers: She insists on having all her Soldiers, or whatever, creed or Color, to be treated, according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her Soldiers, from the Insurgents, would it not be well, and consistent, to set the example herself, by paying all her Soldiers alike? We of this Regt. were not enlisted under any “contraband” act. But we do not wish to be understood, as rating our Service, of more Value to the Government, than the service of the exslave, Their Service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express, provision touching their case, as slaves freed by military necessity, and assuming the Government, to be their temporary Gaurdian:–Not so with us– Freemen by birth, and consequently, having the advantage of thinking, and acting for ourselves, so far as the Laws would allow us. We do not consider ourselves fit subjects for the Contraband act. We appeal to You, Sir: as the Executive of the Nation, to have us Justly Dealt with. The Regt, do pray, that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated, by paying them as american SOLDIERS, not as menial hierlings. Black men You may well know, are poor, three dollars per month, for a year, will suply their needy Wives, and little ones, with fuel. If you, as chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us, of our whole pay. We are content, our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid Our Country. Not that our hearts ever flagged, in Devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but We feel as though, our Country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her.

James Henry Gooding

The New Press

Copyright © 1992 by The New Press. This excerpt originally appeared in Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy & Leslie S. Rowland, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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