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.
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.
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.