Are We Soldiers or Are We Labourers?The Story of Corporal James H. Gooding

By Ziv Carmi ’23

While the 54th Massachusetts is the most famous African-American regiment, the story of Corporal James H. Gooding is lesser-known. Cpl. Gooding was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1838 before his freedom was purchased and he was sent to New York City. This past was something he did not like to speak of, preferring to tell people that he was born free in Troy, NY. Having attended the New York Colored Orphan’s Asylum, a Quaker school, Gooding was a well-educated man of letters, which would serve him well for the rest of his life.

At the age of 18, in 1856, Gooding took a job whaling out of New Bedford, MA, capitalizing on the fact that the whaling industry was one of the only ones at the time where, according to the NPS, black men could “find employment on equal footing with whites.” Gooding often wrote poetry about life at sea, showing his facility with the written word.

Shortly after he gave up whaling in 1862, and six days before Gooding’s marriage, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would, of course, be foundational in allowing black men to enlist with the Union army. Gooding enlisted on February 14, 1863, into the 54th Massachusetts, writing regular letters to the New Bedford Mercury, which published them weekly and allowed civilians on the home front to follow the regiment throughout the war.

While, initially, the 54th Massachusetts was on picket duty on the Georgia and South Carolina coast’s barrier islands, they soon saw action at Fort Wagner, famously depicted in the film Glory. After the assault on the fort, Gooding recounted that “…a regiment of white men gave us three cheers as we were passing them, it shows that we did our duty as men should.” A few months later, in September 1863, frustrated with the meager and unequal pay of black soldiers (they were paid only $10 per month, compared to the $13 per month white soldiers received), Gooding wrote a letter to President Lincoln, demanding equal pay, asking the President “are we Soldiers or are we Labourers?” Gooding also noted that “We have done a Soldier’s Duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s Pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States knows no distinction in her Soldiers. She insists on having all her Soldiers of whatever creed or Color, to be treated according to the usages of War [this statement was referring to the federal government’s insistence that all soldiers captured by the Confederacy be treated equally]. 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?”

This was tragically ironic, as the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system due to Union demands of equal treatment for black soldiers ultimately resulted in the creation of large prison camps, something which Gooding would experience firsthand. Wrongfully believed dead by his comrades following the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in Florida (his commander actually notified the Mercury of his supposed death and his wife applied for a widow’s pension in April 1864), Gooding, who had been wounded in the thigh during the battle, was instead captured and sent to the notorious Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia, arriving in early March 1864. He would die four months later on July 19, 1864 and was buried in grave 3,585 at the Andersonville National Cemetery. Possibly the most tragic part of Gooding’s story is that he never learned that, a month before his passing, Congress had passed the June, 1864 law giving black soldiers equal pay like he had wished.

Corporal James Gooding’s gravesite, Andersonville National Cemetery, Andersonville, GA (photo courtesy of the NPS)

Besides Gooding, there were about 105 other African-Americans imprisoned at Andersonville. Of these, 33 died, suggesting a death rate of 31% among black soldiers (compared to the total death rate of 29%). Our best sources of information are the testimonies given at the trial of Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, where witnesses, including four USCT soldiers, testified about their experiences within the prison. Frank Maddox of the 35th USCT said that black soldiers were “were treated in no way differently from the white soldier,” something corroborated by Lewis Dyer, another black man. Despite this testimony, however, they said that they were still punished by Confederate guards. Maddox and Dyer both accounted the whipping of Isaac Hawkins, a soldier from the 54th Massachusetts, who got 250 lashes. Another witness, William Henry Jennings of the 8th USCT, said that he received 30 lashes for “not going to work one morning,” as well as being put in the stocks for a day and a night. As Jennings’ account suggests, African-American prisoners were put on work details, often outside of the stockade. Among other tasks, Maddox testified that he pulled stumps, cut wood, and helped expand the stockade walls, while Dyer was a house servant for Dr. Isaiah White, Andersonville’s surgeon, for two months. As well, Maddox reported that black prisoners were put on the burial detail starting in September 1864, which was likely one of the most undesirable jobs around the prison.

While he may not have lived to see the end of the Civil War or the abolition of slavery, Cpl. Gooding’s sacrifice for freedom and equality is not forgotten. Featured in the interpretive programming of Andersonville National Historic Site, a perennial partner site with CWI’s Pohanka Internship Program, the story of this man who so fervently fought for equal pay, but never got to see those efforts come to fruition will remain told, ensuring that his memory and the legacy of his struggle for equality will endure.

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