During the Civil War he went head to head with Abraham Lincoln over equal pay for blacks serving in the Union Army. He won. And in June 1864 Congress granted equal pay for the 180,000 blacks who fought on the side of the North. Rev. Harrison knew first-hand how badly blacks were treated in the military. He served as chaplain of the famed Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all black infantry to fight in the Civil War. The exploits of this unit were dramatized in the movie "Glory," which, coincidentally, had as its hero another Berkshires man. Robert Gould Shaw, the 26-year old colonel who commanded the 54th, lived in a house that stood on the site in Lenox where Ventfort Hall stands today.
Born: April 15, 1818 in Philadelphia, PA to enslaved parents. Samuel and his mother were given their freedom 3 years later.
Age 17 – felt a strong calling into the ministry while working for his uncle as an apprentice shoemaker. He had an equally strong desire to educate himself to fulfill that calling. He traveled to Peterboro, NY to begin his education under Gerrit Smith. Gerrit Smith shortly afterwards sent him to Ohio to continue his education.
Age 18 – began attending Western Reserve College and Prepatory School (now known as Western Reserve Academy) in Hudson, Ohio from 1836 -1839.
Age 22 – married his childhood sweetheart & later moved to Newark NJ to operate a shoe shop while training as a minister under the tutelage of a former pastor of the 1st Congregational Church.
Age 32 (in 1850) – moved to Pittsfield to become the 1st pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church that was founded 4 years earlier in 1846. The church building was then located at the current site of RJ's restaurant on First Street across from The Common.
Age 34 – purchased a building lot on Third Street for $50 and had this house built 7 years later at a cost of $300; borrowing $50 from each of 3 abolitionist friends and securing a $150 mortgage from what is now Berkshire Bank. One of the 3 abolitionist friends was George Nixon Briggs, the Governor of Massachusetts from 1844-1851. Here Samuel Harrison lived with his wife Ellen and their 6 surviving children.
Age 44 – Resigned as pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church and was employed as an advocate and fundraiser for the National Freedmen’s Relief Society to aid the Freedmen of the sea islands of SC.
Age 45 (Aug 1863) – Mass Gov John A Andrew arrived by train from Boston to visit the widow of Colonel Robert Shaw who died during the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston SC. Colonel Shaw led the 1st and most famous all black infantry to fight in the Civil War, the 54th Mass Infantry that was immortalized in the 1989 Academy Award winning film “Glory”. During the Gov’s visit he called upon Rev Harrison and asked him to go to SC to express the sympathy of the Commonwealth over the tragic death of Colonel Shaw and that of nearly half the members of the regiment who died during the disastrous assault on Fort Wagner. Just 2 days before the tragedy a letter was sent from Gov Andrew’s Military Sec’y to Colonel Shaw citing a “strong and unanimous” endorsement by the Governor of Mass, the President of Williams College, and highly respected clergy and laymen of Western Mass for Rev Harrison as the 1st Chaplain of the Mass 54th. Rev Harrsion reported for commissioning and duty at Morris Island, SC and states in his autobiography that he was treated “in all respects…same as other chaplains of a fairer hue.” But when payday came around “the paymaster refused to pay the men of the regiment the same amount paid to white troops because they were of African descent”. Harrison wrote, “Three months passed and no pay. I knew that my family’s means were nearly used up… My wife and six children, a debt of three hundred dollars on my house, and grocery bills. I had a hard burden to carry.” Chaplain Harrison filed a formal complaint to his superior officers, but to no avail. Harrison wrote, “I grew sick under the pressure.” So sick was he that he requested and received a medical discharge during his 4th month of service. He thereupon complained to Mass Gov Andrew at being declined equal pay on account of his African ancestry. Gov Andrew vigorously and repeatedly petitioned President Lincoln to honor Harrison’s claim for equal pay and that of all servicemen of African descent serving under an enlistment contract issued by the Sec of War acting under the orders of the President of the United States. In June 1864 legislation requiring equal pay, retroactive to Jan 1864, was passed in the army appropriations bill. Harrison states in his autobiography that it was suggested during his brief military service that he was “the victim” upon whom the whole matter of equal pay would turn and, as a consequence of the relationships he’d established with men of influence, that indeed was the case (At the bottom of this page are links to documents concerning the case of equal pay located at the Library of Congress).
Age 48 (1866) – Rev Harrison filled the pulpit of the Sanford Street Free Church (now St. John's Congregational Church) in Springfield, MA. Rev Harrison served there as pastor until 1870.
Age 54 (1872) – Rev Harrison returned to pastor the 2nd Congregational Church where he continued to serve faithfully until the time of his death in 1900.
Age 64 (1882) - Rev Harrison began serving as Chaplain of the W.W. Rockwell Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. He served until 1884.
Died: August 11, 1900 in Pittsfield, MA
The following works of Samuel Harrison are available at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, MA.
"Pittsfield Twenty-Five Years Ago; A Sermon Delivered in the Second Congregational Church". January 11th and 18th, 1874.
"Shall a Nation Be Born at Once?" - A Centennial Sermon Delivered in the Chapel of the Methodist Episcopal Church." July 2, 1876. Also available for online viewing at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
"An Appeal of a Colored Man to His Fellow-Citizens of a Fairer Hue, in the United States." 1877.
"Rev. Samuel Harrison: His Life Story, as Told by Himself." 1899.
Rev. Samuel Harrison's Commission as Chaplain
Rev. Samuel Harrison's Muster form
Letter from Mass. Gov. John A. Andrew to President Lincoln on behalf of Rev. Samuel Harrison for equal pay
Letter from U.S. Attorney General Bates to President Lincoln on behalf of Rev. Samuel Harrison for equal pay
Resolution of Rev. Samuel Harrison's case of equal pay