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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

The Fight for Equal Pay

Alexander T. Augusta and the Fight for Equal Pay

“There is no more pressing political issue than the payment of the colored troops."[1]

The practice of unequal pay for Black soldiers began with the recruitment and enlistment of Black men for the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863, when they were paid only seven dollars a month, which included a three-dollar deduction for clothing, while white soldiers were paid thirteen dollars per month. As Black soldiers became aware of the discrepancy in pay, they began to protest the discriminatory practice. The men of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, later the 33rd Infantry of the USCT, refused to serve until they received equal pay, while the 54th and 55th Mas­sachusetts regiments refused to accept any pay until it was equal to those of white soldiers.

While serving in Baltimore examining Black re­cruits for the USCT, Major Alexander T. Augusta attempted to collect his monthly major’s pay of $169 from the army paymaster but was told that he would receive only the standard Black soldier’s pay of $7 per month. The refusal of the paymaster to pay Augusta according to his military rank was part and parcel of a regular practice to pay Black soldiers less than their white counterparts.

Augusta protested the paymaster’s actions to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs making it clear that the paymaster had refused to issue him his full pay. He asked whether the proposed legislation for equal pay for Black soldiers that was being considered in Congress would include Black commissioned officers. Stanton responded by instructing Wilson to acknowledge Augusta’s let­ter and reply that “the subject was submitted from the Paymaster General’s Office, April 12th and it was decided that Surgeon Augusta was entitled to pay according to his rank.”

Protests and objections voiced by Black soldiers and the support they received from some senators who were fighting for equal pay within the system brought about change. In June 1864, Congress passed legislation that required equal pay and made it retroactive for all Black soldiers. “Congress, in equalizing the pay and bounty of white and colored troops, has maintained the honor of the national uniform.”[2]

Learn more about Alexander T. Augusta in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons, available June 2023. Pre-order today at Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount.

[1]“Congressional Lethargy,” Harper’s Weekly, April 16, 1864.Liberator, June 17, 1864. [2] Liberator, June 17, 1864.

© Jill L. Newmark, 2023

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