On February 22, 1865, Private William Joseph Nelson wrote a petition for leniency from prison. The black Ohioan was being held as a deserter and explained why he had to leave the army. He said that recruiters cheated him out of his much-needed bounty, forcing him to abandon his post and see to his family. He insinuated that he alone contributed to the family’s finances. “I had [sic] marryed a Widdow With eight children,” he wrote. They “are depending on me for support and I am a poor color[e]d man [and] havent enything for them to live on except by my labor and I am in the g[u]ard house and cant do enything for them.”[1] Nelson said that the only way his family could survive was with the bounty money and his salary. When he could not give them his money, he tried to return home to help them.[2] Although he did not refer directly to army wages, he indicated the importance of the bounty in his decision to join (and desert), a reality of black military service during the Civil War often overlooked.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, black men rallied to the cause. They heard speeches from black leaders about the importance of service and joined because they wanted to end slavery, attain citizenship, and save the Union. Not all were motivated by these causes though. Many enlisted because service offered a paycheck and a meal. Their objectives were much more practical. Just as white men became soldiers of fortune, black men volunteered for a bounty and for a paycheck, so they could care for their families.

Assessing the economic motives of black men during the era is challenging. While data on the household finances of white families can help determine the economic need of families and indicate a man’s incentive, data on black northern families is incomplete. Furthermore, direct references to money rarely made it into letters and diaries because frank conversations of fiscal rewards were unseemly at the time. White and black men seldom remarked on their household affairs, especially when it came to military service. The public frowned upon and demeaned men who admitted they fought for pay. Troops may have commented on their pay in letters, but they did not admit that they joined for a paycheck, as such remarks undermined the patriotism that they espoused.[3] In addition to the general reticence to discuss pay, black men faced censorship because black leaders harped on the political significance of service, even in the context of black soldiers struggle for equal pay. As Frederick Douglass wrote in a letter to War Secretary Edwin Stanton, “I am one of those Colored men who say officer or no officer, equal or unequal pay, bounty or no bounty, the place for Colored men is in the army of the United States.”[4] Money not only seemed sordid in polite society but was anathematic to the cause. Nevertheless, men looked to military service for its pecuniary rewards, as soldiering presented wages other employment could not.

Men jumped at a soldier’s pay because it offered family security. Black households in the North were not simply carbon-copies of white households, growing out of African and Native American as well as European traditions. Yet many black Northerners increasingly strove to fulfill gender conventions during the nineteenth century. Black men longed to bring home pay while black women cared for the hearth. In an effort to claim masculinity denied them by coerced, uncompensated labor, black men also identified wage earning as a chance to assume a free manhood. However, they often found it difficult to secure stable employment and support their families. Potential white employers harboring anti-black prejudices barred black men from high-paying jobs, prevented the men from earning an education or learning a trade, and forced men to accept meager wages and unstable, seasonal employment. In 1860, fewer than one hundred black men were professionals in major northern cities.[5] Even as they struggled to find well-paying jobs, black men strove to be breadwinners, and military service presented a new opportunity to fulfill the ideal. While combat afforded a means of attaining masculinity for black leaders and many men, husbands and fathers identified the reliable army wage as a boon for their families.

Louis Wagner, Lieut. Col. 88th Pa. Vols., “100 Colored Men Wanted. . . .” Civil War Posters, 1861-1865, PR-55-3, New-York Historical Society. Link to digitized version.

The state and federal governments realized black families’ financial woes and embraced the persuasion of pay. Money saturated recruiting drives. Massachusetts incentivized enlistment, promising bonuses to recruiters who enlisted men and bounties, travel expenses, and family support for volunteers.[6] Recruiting posters across the North called attention to the pay and bounties offered by military service. Just as today’s advertisers appeal to potential consumers’ senses with brightly colored, often-moving advertisements, recruiters created posters made to attract nineteenth-century black readers.

Recruiters relied on popular textual practices to garner readers’ attention, including the use of capitalization and exclamation points. Font played a central role in how individuals read documents, which newspaper editors and publishers knew well. Important political arguments relied on such textual rhetoric. David Walker’s incendiary Appeal (1829) is a perfect example of the marriage between argument and presentation. Even as he described the need for black women and men to fight for their freedom with reason and evidence, Walker attracted black readers and held their attention with a systematic increase of exclamation points to articulate his argument’s cadence. As the reader saw each additional exclamation point, she would imagine hearing Walker raise his voice in passion.[7] Much in the same way, posters drew attention to the perks of service, from bounty and pay to food and clothing, and provoked an emotional reading.

In posters, recruiters emphasized what they believed would induce men to join—pay. For example, in a broadside used to recruit black soldiers in Rhode Island and Connecticut, advertisers employed large, emboldened letters and exclamation points to lure readers’ eyes. The poster grabbed the readers’ attention with the headline: “COLORED SOLDIERS!” Then, to persuade the reader to enlist, it mentioned equality, the determination to free slaves, and pay. Of the three appeals, the references to equality and the drive for emancipation received only one exclamation point and were printed in a relatively slender font. Recruiters gave equal pay the most prominent position, two exclamation points, and lettering only outsized by the headline.[8] In a poster created by Philadelphia’s Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments held by the New-York Historical Society, the emphasis on pay was emphasized as well, yet the Supervisory Committee described the need for literate black men—and the army’s promise to pay volunteers handsomely for their reading and writing skills.

The Supervisory Committee seized readers’ attention with the headline: “100 COLORED MEN WANTED.” It then went on to detail that the men “must be able to Read and Write Fluently, and must be Men of Intelligence.” The poster said these men would go on to serve as non-commissioned officers and clerks in the southwest. Black regiments in the region most likely needed literate black men to attend to paperwork, as recruiters could only enlist freedmen left illiterate by laws restricting slave education.[9] To entice the “men of intelligence” from the North, the recruiting poster pledged—in a large, capitalized font—that the men would receive “LOCAL AND GOVERNMENT BOUNTIES.” Not only would they earn a bounty, it said. The men would also obtain a non-commissioned officers’ pay. In big, bold letters, the poster declared: “18 to 26 DOLLARS PER MONTH PAY.” Considering the jobs available for black men in other sectors of the economy, the pay surely captured men’s attention, especially if they had hungry families.[10]

The list of black men’s accomplishments during the war is illustrious. They helped the U.S. army defeat Confederates. They aided in the destruction of slavery. And their valor provided black leaders examples of courage and sacrifice, which could be pointed to when petitioning for citizenship and suffrage. Yet for some men, the war presented an even greater reward. Some men used their strength—including their brainpower—to bring home wages. While pay may have been far more pragmatic, it was no less important to many loving black mercenaries and their families.

“Come and Join Us Brothers” (Philadelphia: Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, ca. 1861-65). Subject File, PR-068, Series I, Box 7, New-York Historical Society, digital item 70954.


[1] See Nelson’s letter in Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: Series II: The Black Military Experience: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 112.

[2] For analysis of black deserters’ trials in the courts-martial, see Jonathan Lande, “Trials of Freedom: African American Deserters during the U.S. Civil War,” Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (Mar., 2016), 693–709.

[3] William Marvel addresses the economic motives of white soldiers from the North in his recent study, Lincoln’s Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018). For the stigma around discussions of money, see especially 137, 142. In his study, Marvel states that the data at the drawn from census records to determine the median wealth of white soldiers cannot be done for black families. On this point, see especially xvi.

[4] Frederick Douglass to Edwin Stanton, July 13, 1863, Letters to Stanton, Tracy Collection, Folder 1, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

[5] James Oliver Horton, Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993), 98-99, 106-7, 111; Horton, In Hope of Liberty, 119-20.

[6] Richard M. Reid, African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2014), 89.

[7] For the significance of punctuation in nineteenth century black print, see Marcy J. Dinius, “‘Look!! Look!!! at This!!!!’: The Radical Typography of David Walker’s ‘Appeal,’” PMLA 126, no. 1 (Jan., 2011), 59-60

[8] Berlin, et al., Black Military Experience, 103.

[9] For efforts by enslaved people to learn despite the laws criminalizing black education, see Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[10] “Enlisting Soldiers. Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments (Philadelphia, Pa.),” Printed Collections, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.

This post is by Dr. Jonathan Lande, Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow, 2018-2019.

[Click here for information on the New-York Historical Society’s fellowship program.]