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Remarks on Black Soldiers,
April 30, 1864, in Congress

 

   As part of the army appropriation bill (H.R. 198), the House was debating an amendment from the Senate providing for equal supplies, rations, and pay to Black soldiers retroactive to January 1, 1864.

 

    Mr. Stevens. Mr. Speaker, I do not see any particular reason for excitement in discussing the present question. I know it is natural for some gentlemen on the other side of the House who are interested in the institution of slavery to become excited, and therefore it is not to me at all surprising. It is the last convulsive spasm of the struggle which I have seen going on for twenty years on this floor, of a power which dominated the Union, and which I never expected to live to see conquered. But my life has been spared to see it subdued, exhausted, and trembling in the last agonies of death as we have seen today. I do not think it strange, nor do I reproach it for that last natural convulsive effort which we have seen today, It ought to affect but a few, and it does affect but a few.

    But, sir, I shall try to confine myself to the question at hand, and not follow the wild rambling of the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Holman) and other gentlemen, who have gone away from the question to inquire into the robbery of property – that is, slaves – of those gentlemen who have been oppressors so long that they are unwilling to come down to the democratic level of freemen who tolerate freedom.

    Sir, the question now is whether the soldiers of the United States, who wear the livery of the Union, who march under the banner of the Union, who, in common with the armies of the Union, expose themselves in the battle and to death, shall be placed on an equality, or whether in that position and under that glorious flag we are to keep up the distinctions which have been the infamy and disgrace of the Union and the age, and which existed when slavery did. I take it for granted that the day has passed when any man, who is not either a lover of slavery or a demagogue, will attempt to maintain the position that any of the soldiers who bear their arms in battle shall be treated as inferior to any other men who stand up by their side. I care not whether the soldiers are of Milesian, Teutonic, African, or Anglo-Saxon descent. I despise the principle that would make a difference between them in the hour of battle and of death. The idea that we are to keep up that distinction is abhorrent to the feelings of the age, is abhorrent to the feelings of humanity, is shocking to every decent instinct of our nature; and I take it that no man who is wedded to the institution of slavery, or does not foster it for the sake of power, will go with the gentleman from Indiana.

    Sir, why should they not be all paid alike? Why should the not all be clothed alike? Why should they not be all armed alike? Why should they not all charge the rebels alike, and die alike in defense of the Union? Because they are of different decent. Why did you put it upon the mere complexion, and not upon the nationality? Indeed, sir, if any were to have a preference over others in pay and in inducements to join the service, it ought to be that class of men whose perils are greatest when they go into our Army. The black man knows when he goes there that his dangers are greater than the white man’s. He runs not only the risk of being killed in battle, but the certainty, if taken prisoner, of being slaughtered instead of being treated as a prisoner of war. And these are the men that the gentleman from Indiana would degrade, and sink, and treat differently from those who, when they are taken, are treated as prisoners of war and their lives spared. Sir, I will make no distinction. If black men, knowing, as they do, their greater peril, will consent to fight at our sides, die in our stead, and save our brethren and sons and fathers from slaughter, although I would make no distinction in pay and rations, yet I cannot fail to award to them equal, if not more, honor than those who, from their social position and the certainty of their position when they go into battle, have more inducements to defend their country. If there is to be any distinction anywhere, it should be in favor of the black man.

     Does the gentleman from Indiana pretend that these colored soldiers, who have already appeared in arms and fought, have not fought as gallantly and died as freely as our own white brethren? The records of all battles in which they have been engaged would give him the lie if he dared to say so. At Port Hudson, at Fort Wagner, and wherever they have been engaged, the uniform testimony is that they have been no less gallant, no less brave, no less faithful, than the white men who fought by their side. And yet this infamous and degrading distinction is sought to be kept up between men who thus fought and thus die and the white soldiers. Let not this nation for a moment sanction it. Let it not go forth as the opinion of this House that the black man or the red man or any other man who bears our arms and fights for our liberty is not to be treated like every other man. But the gentleman says we are discriminating against the white man. He thinks so, no doubt, but he thinks a thing that is not. There is no such discrimination anywhere. By the section under consideration we put, from the 1st of January, all men of all colors, black and white, married and unmarried, upon precisely the same footing. We do not legislate in regard to their families nor with regard to their wives.

    I heard it said here, much to my astonishment, that the reason why we should not give black men the same chance with white men is because by some of their infernal laws the black man who is married to a black woman is not married, but that marriage is a nullity, and those infernal laws, which ought to be scouted by every Christian man, are brought forward here as an excuse for not treating the black man as we treat the white man.

    Mr. Holman. I trust the gentleman from Pennsylvania will not attribute any such view as that to me.

    Mr. Stevens. I do not attribute that language to the gentleman from Indiana.

    Mr. Ganson. I presume the gentleman refers to me.

    Mr. Stevens. I refer to the gentleman from New York.   

    Mr. Ganson. I made that point upon the subject of reserving a portion of the money appropriated to the soldiers for the support of these women and children, and I did it for the reason that they had not a legal claim upon the head of the family, under the law as it exists.

    Mr. Stevens. Then the gentleman was not speaking to the amendment. The amendment had no reference to that, nor did the gentleman move any such amendment.

    Mr. Ganson. My colleague from New York informed me that there was such a provision in this bill; but he now says, after examining the matter, that it is in another bill. I should have moved it if I had supposed it was not in this bill, because I think it is a proper provision, and I think the gentleman from Pennsylvania concurs with me on that point.

    Mr. Stevens. I have no doubt it might be proper to have a provision by which a certain portion should be reserved, not because they are their wives and children, but because they are less provident in attending them; and for the further reason that while at home the cities, towns, and townships make provision for white men’s wives, they make none for the black men’s wives.

    But, sir, why does the gentleman from Indiana say that we discriminate in favor of the black man? Because, he says, that in these contraband camps we support the wives of these black soldiers not h of their pay. Sir, I know not how that is. I do know that they are set to work and expected to pay their way, and I do know further that regulations have been made by which the contrabands who are soldiers contribute a portion of their pay to the support of their families. There is no such discrimination. It is a false position; undoubtedly an innocent mistake of the gentleman from Indiana, who wants to get up a clamor that we are discriminating against white men. We are attempting to put both classes upon a perfect equality in our Army, and the gentleman mistakes the American heart when he says that this will be looked upon abroad in the country with disgust and dislike.

    I remember when first the question was raised in this Hall about arming black men how scenes occurred far worse than the scene we have witnessed here today. All sides were a little tainted then with the miasma – well I do not know what to call it, but it was said that it would not do, and I remember it was said upon this floor that a distinguished gentleman from Illinois, General Logan, had stated that his soldiers would lay down their arms if negroes were enlisted. He may have said so, but I do know that the same gentleman a year and a half ago took the stump, in company with Adjutant General Thomas and traversed the valley of Mississippi, making speeches in favor of the liberation of the slaves and of arming them against their masters. I do know that, for I have seen his speeches, and have heard him say that his whole view was changed, that no soldiers fought better than the negroes, and that there was no prejudice against them in the Army.

     Mr. Ganson. I would ask the gentleman if he has a provision in this bill opening the door to the promotion of colored soldiers? I understand that under the existing regulations they do not commission any of these black soldiers. I would like to know why that discrimination is made.

    Mr. Stevens. There is nothing relating to that question in this bill. We have not deemed it imperative to make any provision on that subject. We leave it to the sound discretion of a very discreet Executive.

    Mr. Ganson. Who is the person to whom the gentleman alludes?

    Mr. Stevens. A person the gentleman has heard of and will hear of again for four or five years to come. (Laughter.)

    Now, sir, I do not want to go on and discuss this question. I remember that when I first moved something of this kind in this House it got but thirty votes. That day, thank God, has passed. The day of liberty, of universal liberty, has dawned upon the country, and thank God, it is growing brighter and brighter and will until no man will rise here and talk about “stealing” his property in slaves. Men will be ashamed that they ever has anything to do with the institution.

    The reason why Negroes heretofore have been allowed but ten dollars a month because the Department has misconstrued the law. We passed an act 1862 authorizing the President to employ contrabands. We did it very gingerly. We had to wrap it up in such a way that the gentleman from Indiana could not use it before his constituents. (Laughter.) We did not say that they should be used as soldiers as all. We authorized the Executive to employ them in and about the Army in such a way as he might deem best, and pay them ten dollars a month. That was not making soldiers of them. We intended that, but we only referred then to contrabands who came over, and who were to be employed and paid ten dollars a month, and then out of that amount the cost of their clothing was deducted, and three dollars more was deducted for some fund – I do not know what it is called. But I never supposed then that if we went on to arm the free people of color they were not to put upon the same footing as the whites. That law was intended to apply only to contrabands, who could not complain considering the great boon they received in their freedom.  But the Department construed the law to apply to every colored soldier who was enlisted, which was a great wrong.

 

    Now, sir, the Committee on Ways and Means propose to go a little further than the Senate; and we have provided in a subsequent amendment that where freemen have been enlisted, no matter when, their pay and emoluments shall refer to the time of their enlistment; and where contrabands are enlisted we deduct from them the bounty supposing that their freedom is a sufficient equivalent for the bounty. I think that these provisions ought to be made. I admire the conduct of the fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, which, when it was offered by the government of the State the difference of pay between ten and thirteen dollars a month refused to take it from the State government; and I am informed that they never have received it to this day. Can the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Dawes) inform me how that is?

    Mr. Dawes. They have never received it.

    Mr. Stevens. And when Massachusetts, with her usual liberality, offered to make up the difference, and pay it to those who marched from her soil and under her banner, they refused, with a magnanimity and a spirit which would do credit even to the men of Indiana, to take it; and they refuse to take it to this day, and I honor them for that. I beg pardon of the House for saying so much on this subject.

   

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