By Joseph P. Reidy
Reposted with permission from Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, Fall 2001, vol. 33, no. 3
Given the wealth of available information about Civil War soldiers, the comparative poverty of such knowledge about Civil War sailors borders on the astonishing. Two explanations account for this imbalance. First, the broad narrative of presidential leadership and the clash of armies in Virginia that Ken Burns's The Civil War told so powerfully all but excludes naval forces from the tale. Second, existing accounts of the naval Civil War have focused on the strategic role of naval forces in the contest, the governmental architects of naval policy, the naval officers who masterminded operations, and the innovations in technology and weaponry to the near exclusion of the enlisted sailors' war. No image of "Jack Tar" comparable to Bell I. Wiley's classic portraits of "Billy Yank" and "Johnny Reb" fills the popular imagination or the works of Civil War historians.(1)
Because the navy, unlike the army, was racially integrated, understanding the history of black sailors requires some effort but even more interpretive caution to unravel it from that of all Civil War sailors. Exploring the similarities and differences in the experiences of black and white enlisted men must avoid viewing the racial groups in strictly monolithic terms that do not allow for internal complexity and diversity and shifting, if not altogether porous, borders. The work must also beware currently popular understandings of the black soldiers' experience. Often framed around the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, that tale depicts stoic sacrifice and daunting perseverance in pursuit of freedom and equality that in the end was crowned with "Glory," the impression conveyed by the popular feature film. The black sailors' story fits awkwardly, if at all, within that image.
The study of African Americans in the Civil War navy must begin with
determining their numbers. During the first decade of the twentieth century,
when the secretary of the navy was quizzed about the service of black men in the
Civil War, senior officers who had served in the conflict recalled that
approximately one-quarter of the enlisted force was black. In a grand display of
false precision, the secretary's office concluded that 29,511 black men had
served by taking the known figure of Civil War enlistments (118,044) and
dividing by four.(2) That figure remained
essentially unchallenged until 1973, when David L. Valuska's dissertation
revised it downward to slightly less than ten thousand men, based upon his
survey of surviving enlistment records.(3) Over the
past decade, a research partnership among Howard University, the Department of
the Navy, and the National Park Service has made possible an examination of a
fuller array of records than earlier researchers, working as individuals, were
able to explore.(4) As a result, nearly eighteen
thousand men of African descent (and eleven women) who served in the U.S. Navy
during the Civil War have been identified by name.(5)
At 20 percent of the navy's total enlisted force, black sailors constituted a
significant segment of naval manpower and nearly double the proportion of black
soldiers who served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.(6)
At the start of the conflict, the army and the navy drew upon separate
traditions regarding the service of persons of African descent. Following
adoption of the federal Militia Act in 1792, the army excluded black men, and
the prohibition remained in effect until the second summer of the Civil War. The
navy, in contrast, never barred black men from serving, although from the 1840s
onward regulations limited their numbers to 5 percent of the enlisted force.
When the war began, several hundred black men were in the naval service, a small
fraction of those with prewar experience and a figure well below the prescribed
maximum. During the first ninety days after Fort Sumter, when nearly three
hundred black recruits enlisted, fifty-nine (20 percent) were veterans with an
average of five years of prior naval service per man.(7)
Over succeeding months, the proportion of black men in the service increased
rapidly. At the end of 1861, they made up roughly 6 percent of the crews of
vessels. By the summer of 1862, the figure had climbed to nearly 15 percent.(8)
At first, navy officials did not treat black manpower separately from their
general need for men as the service expanded and as volunteer army units
competed for the able-bodied. With enlistment centers at the major Atlantic
ports from Chesapeake Bay through New England, recruiters could draw upon the
international seafaring fraternity to supplement the recruits from the seaboard
states. By the end of the war, some 7,700 of the roughly 17,000 men whose place
of nativity is recorded had been born in states that remained within the Union.
Not surprisingly, the coastal states contributed the largest numbers of men: New
York and Pennsylvania roughly 1,200 each, and Massachusetts and New Jersey more
than 400 each. Many of these men had been mariners before the war, and still
others had worked on the docks and shipping-related businesses of the seaport
cities. Additional recruits with prior maritime experience on the lakes and
rivers of the nation's interior also enlisted; these included 420 natives of
Kentucky. The largest number of black men from any of the northern states—more
than 2,300 in all—hailed from Maryland. The maritime culture of Chesapeake
Bay, with its numerous tributaries and the port of Baltimore, offer part of the
explanation for the large number of Marylanders in naval service. The size of
the Maryland contingent also benefited from a spring 1864 agreement between army
and navy officials to transfer nearly eight hundred black Marylanders from
incomplete units of the U.S. Colored Troops into the navy.(9)
Another fifteen hundred men were born outside of the United States, chiefly
Canada and the islands of the Caribbean.(10) Like
their counterparts from the United States, the foreign-born men entered service
for a variety of reasons. John Robert Bond, for instance, a mariner of mixed
African and Irish descent from Liverpool, England, enlisted during 1863 "to
help free the slaves," as his descendants recall. Seriously wounded the
following year, he was discharged and pensioned after a long recuperation. He
settled in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, amid other black Civil War veterans.(11)
The remainder of the 17,000 men whose place of nativity is recorded—some
7,800 in all—were born in the seceded Confederate states. The firsthand
experience that these men had with slavery distinguished them from their
freeborn northern counterparts. Moreover, whereas northern freemen could enlist
when they chose, men held in bondage often had to rely on the circumstances of
war for the opportunity to do so. Not simply awaiting their fate, black men
escaping from slavery helped create opportunities for the federal government to
protect them and accept their offers of service. By September 1861, the volume
of requests from commanders of naval vessels regarding authorization to enlist
fugitive slaves reached such proportions that Secretary of the Navy Gideon
Welles, a Connecticut native of antislavery bent, felt obliged to act. Welles
permitted the enlistment of former slaves whose "services can be
useful," stipulating that the "contrabands" be classified as
"Boys," the lowest rung on the rating and pay scales and one
traditionally reserved for young men under the age of eighteen.(12)
(The term "contraband" itself had within weeks of Fort Sumter sprung
into widespread use throughout the North as a rationale for treating such
persons as plunder under international conventions of warfare.) The practical
effect of this policy became evident when Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont
established federal control of the harbor at Port Royal, South Carolina, in
November 1861. This beachhead eventually became the home port of the South
Atlantic Blockading Squadron, with repair and supply facilities that employed
nearly a thousand contrabands. At the same time, vessels in all the squadrons
began taking fugitive slaves on board, enlisting the men as needed and
forwarding others to places of safety.(13)
The large concentrations of enslaved African Americans on the plantations
along the Mississippi River and the strategic importance of the river to both
sides assured that Secretary Welles's directive regarding the employment of
contrabands would have special relevance to the Mississippi Squadron. In April
1863, as the combined army and navy assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi, took
shape, Flag Officer David D. Porter instructed the commanders of vessels to take
full advantage of "acclimated" black manpower.(14)
Under these guidelines, more than two thousand men enlisted on the vessels that
plied the Mississippi and its tributaries.(15) The
refugee camps that sprang up in Union-occupied areas also proved a rich source
of recruits. In the camps of coastal North Carolina, for instance, recruiters
from the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron displayed posters promising good pay
and other amenities and urging volunteers to "Come forward and serve your
The success of these efforts to recruit black men from the Union-occupied
regions of the South tipped the demographic balance among black sailors. Largely
free men with considerable naval experience at the start of the war, over time
the force included growing numbers of recently enslaved men with only limited
maritime experience. Not surprisingly, most were from the states where Union
naval forces operated: the Carolinas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The largest
contingent of southern-born men, however, was the Virginians, more than
twenty-eight hundred strong, numbers of whom had been sold before the war from
their native state to plantation regions farther south. The fact that nearly six
thousand (roughly 35 percent) of the black sailors whose nativity is known came
from the Chesapeake Bay region is striking. Even more so is that more than
eleven thousand men were born in the slave states as against four thousand born
in the free states. Even allowing for the fact that a small fraction of those
from the slave states had been born free, nearly three men born into slavery
served for every man born free. Hardly predictable from the record of black
sailors in the antebellum navy, this demographic division profoundly influenced
the black naval experience during the war.
Quarterly muster rolls of vessels clearly demonstrate the navy's reliance on black manpower between 1862 and 1864, as the following table indicates.(17)
Percentages of Black Enlisted Men Serving on Board U.S. Naval Vessels
|1st Quarter 1862||8
|2nd Quarter 1862 through 2nd Quarter 1863||15
|3rd Quarter 1863 through 3rd Quarter 1864||23
|4th Quarter 1864 through 3rd Quarter 1865||17
|4th Quarter 1865||15
|Source: Muster Rolls of Vessels, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group (RG) 24, National Archives.|
From the spring of 1861 through the fall of 1864, the percentage of black men
increased steadily from a starting point of less than 5 percent to a peak of 23
percent. In this context, the Navy Department's rule-of-thumb estimate from
early in the twentieth century that one quarter of the enlisted force was black
comes very close to describing the reality from summer 1863 through summer 1864.
By the fall of 1865, after most wartime volunteers had been discharged, black
men still constituted 15 percent of the enlisted force, more than three times
the percentage of black men in service at the start of the war.
The racial demographics of the enlisted force varied—often significantly—by squadron and by vessel. In the European Squadron, for instance, a handful of ships cruising the North Atlantic in pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders and blockade runners, the number of black sailors was small. Given that most of the ships were outfitted and manned early in the war, the demographic profile of Kearsarge, perhaps the most famous of the bunch, wherein black men made up 5 to 10 percent of the crew, was entirely typical. In the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which drew men from the traditional enlistment points along the northeast Atlantic seaboard as well as from the coastal regions of Virginia and North Carolina, the proportion of black enlisted men was considerably higher than that of the European Squadron. The Mississippi Squadron, which drew recruits from Cincinnati, Ohio, and Cairo, Illinois, as well as from its areas of operations along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, relied most on black manpower. In David Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron, the proportion of black sailors fell well short of that in the Mississippi Squadron or the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
of Black Enlisted Men Serving on Board U.S. Naval Vessels in
|Source: Muster Rolls of Vessels, RG 24, National Archives.|
At the level of individual
vessels, the racial demographics of crews reflected a more complex array of
variables, including the type of vessel, its tactical mission within a larger
unit of operations, and the personality of the captain, his officers, and the
ship's company. The broader cultural biases that associated persons of African
descent with menial labor and personal service also influenced these demographic
patterns. The disproportionate presence of black sailors on supply ships
illustrates this point. During 1863 and 1864, virtually every man attached to
USS Vermont, moored at Port Royal and serving as the supply ship for the
South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was black.(18)
At Hampton Roads, where another vintage ship-of-the-line, USS Brandywine,
stored supplies for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the proportion of
black enlisted men ranged between 47 and 57 percent during 1863 and 1864.(19)
In analogous fashion, black men filled an inordinately large number of the
enlisted billets on the barks and schooners that served as colliers and ordnance
storeships. Between 67 and 100 percent of the enlisted men serving in Charles
Phelps, Fearnot, J. C. Kuhn, Albemarle, Arletta, and Ben Morgan were black.(20)
In the supply steamers New National (Mississippi Squadron), William Badger
(North Atlantic Blockading Squadron), and Donegal (South Atlantic Blockading
Squadron), the proportion of black enlisted men ranged from 63 to 100 percent.(21)
Conversely, black men made up the smallest proportion of men in the sloops of
war and other ocean-going warships that were the backbone of the late antebellum
navy and the workhorses of the blockading squadrons.
The black enlistees who had been slaves—in many instances down to the time
of enlistment—stood apart from the freemen of all colors and nations. Often
accepted into service on a supposition of inferiority, stigmatized as
"contrabands," and rated and paid at the lowest levels of the rating
and pay scales, these men often could not escape the stereotypes cast upon them
no matter how creditably they performed their assigned duties. In, but not
necessarily of, the crews with which they served, the contrabands performed the
manual labor necessary to keep a steam vessel functioning and the busywork that
officers considered the foundation of good order and discipline on warships:
holystoning, scrubbing, scraping, painting, and polishing. Although black men
routinely served on gun crews at general quarters, they stood a far greater
chance of serving with small-arms crews, armed with swords, rifles, and pistols,
for repelling boarders, and with damage control units, armed with water hoses
for dousing fires and battle-axes for cutting away damaged spars and rigging.
Small-arms crews consisting of contrabands generally exercised separately from
those consisting of white sailors.(22)
The practical segregation of contraband sailors on board vessels of the
Mississippi Squadron affected the broad spectrum of relations between white
officers and enlisted men, on the one hand, and black sailors and civilians on
the other. Whereas some officers and enlisted men viewed the plight of escaped
slaves sympathetically, others scarcely disguised their contempt. On Lafayette
in the Mississippi Squadron, for example, the surviving accounts of two men,
Gunner Alexander R. Miller and Captain's Steward Thomas Lyons, demonstrate this
range. In June 1864, while on the Red River, both men reported the rescue of
several hundred contrabands and the construction of a makeshift shelter for them
on a coal barge. Lyons reported that about eight in the morning "a body of
colored—I can not say Negro, for many of them were almost white) population
appeared on shore, signalling for us to take them away. They seemed to be in
great consternation about some thing—There were about 600 in all, both great,
and small." After the refugees boarded the vessel, a work party under a
picket guard went on shore "to tear an old house down to get lumber"
for the shelter. In contrast, Miller simply noted: "Negroes coming on
board. We dropped down the river and pulled a Shed down for the purpose of
getting some boards to cover a coal Barge to keep the Niggers."(25)
White sailors typically hazed the fugitives—particularly the men who were
shipped for naval service. Although hazing had deep roots in a wide range of
work cultures, sailors practiced it with special gusto. At once a means whereby
experienced men taught the green hands the ropes, hazing also served to
reinforce principles of hierarchy among the crew: those based on race and
national origin as well as those based on experience or physical ability. In an
exaggerated application of regulations requiring the men to observe cleanly
habits, the crew of USS Blackhawk, flagship of the Mississippi Squadron,
subjected contrabands to a ritual cleansing, stripping away their filthy
clothing and showering them with the ship's fire hoses. Following such a shower
in December 1862, a man named Robert Scott contracted pneumonia and died on
The stigma of guilt by association with slavery dogged "contraband"
sailors even when they served thousands of miles from the scene of bondage. The
Maryland men transferred from the army to the navy during the spring of 1864
provide a case in point. Although a number of the nearly eight hundred men had
had experience working small boats on Chesapeake Bay, what defined them most as
a group was their slave past. When navy officials assigned several hundred of
the men to the Pacific Squadron, white sailors offered the newcomers a chilly
welcome. In a postwar memoir, Edward W. Hammond, the white boatswain of USS St.
Mary, recalled the "intense race hatred" that a particularly
belligerent segment of the ship's company displayed toward the
"contrabands." During the evening dog watches, when sailors
customarily relaxed on the main deck, the rowdies made a habit of tossing
gun-chocks at any black man who dared venture from below. The flying missiles
threatened the peace and safety of the entire crew. Even Hammond and his
friends, who used to congregate "about the pumps, or the steerage hatchway,
or the open space about the capstan" had "to abandon entirely these
exposed positions." "By settling down on deck with our back to the
after side of a gun," he explained, "we were comparatively safe"
though mightily inconvenienced. On one occasion when the contrabands threatened
"resistance in force," Hammond recalled, the captain mustered the
guard "with muskets loaded" to avert a "serious riot."(27)
In summary, contrabands made up a considerable majority of black sailors and,
by extension, a significant segment of the navy's entire enlisted force during
the Civil War. In addition to providing valuable labor at shore installations,
they served in large numbers on many vessels and in the Mississippi Squadron
constituted nearly one-third of the men on duty at any given time. Although
generally rated and paid at the lowest levels, three men—Contraband Robert
Blake from South Carolina, Landsman Wilson Brown from Mississippi, and Landsman
Allan Sanderson from North Carolina—received the Medal of Honor for gallantry
in battle. Yet the paucity of such accomplishments proves the rule that the
contrabands largely served as a negative reference point for most officers and
their white shipmates.(28)
Although the Navy Department did not establish a formal system of racial
separation during the Civil War, Secretary Welles's guidelines for recruiting
and rating black sailors nearly accomplished exactly that. For wittingly or not,
the policy reinforced the prejudices of recruiters, naval officers, and white
enlisted men to the effect that black enlistees would contribute to the war
effort as laborers and servants rather than as skilled seamen. Of the
approximately 17,600 men whose base rating is recorded, more than 14,400 (or 82
percent) were rated as boy or landsman.(29) This
discounting of black men's seafaring skill at times plagued even the most
experienced of men. For several of his many enlistments, James Forten Dunbar,
nephew of the prominent Philadelphia sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten,
was rated a landsman rather than seaman, to which his three decades of naval
service more than entitled him.(30)
The strength of such prejudice coupled with the clannishness of the naval
officer corps created insuperable barriers to a black man's being commissioned
an officer during the Civil War. Although navy officials—like their army
counterparts—feared the effects that placing black men in command over white
men might have on discipline, they had little desire to upset the dynamics of
the wardroom. No matter how much officers might depend on black cooks and
stewards to prepare their meals and minister to their comforts, they steadfastly
opposed sharing a table with black men on a basis of equality. But even deeper
prejudices stood between black men and a naval commission during the nineteenth
century: the values and traditions of the naval officer corps simply could not
accommodate black men in the fraternity. Accordingly, no black man held a
regular commission or a warrant as a naval officer during the Civil War.(31)
The overwhelming majority of black men rated as petty officers were cooks and
stewards. Navy officers often favored black cooks and servants, in part due to
the common prejudices of the day—which held persons of African descent as
naturally subservient—and in part due to their experience with black mess
attendants at the U.S. Naval Academy. Academy graduate Lt. Roswell Lamson, for
instance, reported to his fiancée that two men tended him on the Nansemond:
Charles, "my steward and cook," and James, who "waits on the
table and takes care of my room." Claiming that both were "excellent
servants," Lamson took special pride in Charles, "a very fine
cook" who "has been at sea a good deal, and for some time waited on
Admiral Du Pont."(32) Volunteer officers who
lacked an association with Annapolis quickly learned the conventions of the ward
room. When Paymaster William F. Keeler, who before the war had been a
manufacturer and merchant in Illinois, reported to USS Monitor and
learned that he was entitled to a servant, he meticulously went about
"hunting up a contraband." He soon became accustomed to the assorted
amenities that his nameless "darkey" furnished, not least of which
were "a wash bowl of warm water," "well blacked boots," and
breakfast in his room each morning.(33)
Approximately 8 percent of the black sailors (roughly 1,400 men) were rated
as cooks and stewards over the course of the war. Cooks and stewards earned
premium pay (twenty-five or thirty dollars a month), and they were technically
petty officers, yet as petty officers of the staff they generally lacked the
authority over other enlisted men that petty officers of the line possessed.(34)
Moreover, providing personal service to naval officers posed an array of
challenges. The quarters were cramped and the hours long and irregular. Officers
routinely barked orders at their stewards, cooks, and cabin boys—one observer
noted that "growling and swearing at servants" was a staple of the
wardroom—and the more sustained tirades of abuse might reduce a man to tears.(35)
One officer casually noted to his wife having "blowed . . . up" his
black servant for having mislaid a letter from her.(36)
Teenaged attendants did not sacrifice the fraternity of their fellow youth, but
the adult men who served the officers faced snide comments if not outright
ostracism from the ship's company.(37) The relative
freedom that stewards such as Charles B. Fisher of Kearsarge enjoyed as they
made daily trips to the market while in port offered but a partial counterweight
to the larger burdens the officers' servants bore.
In contrast to the significant presence of black men among petty officers of
the staff, they made up an infinitesimally small proportion of petty officers of
the line. Over the course of the entire war, barely one hundred black men (or
0.6 percent of all black enlistees) held such ratings. Most also held base
ratings of ordinary seaman or seaman, indicating prior nautical experience
before enlistment, and all evidently possessed truly impressive leadership
qualities to so distinguish themselves from their peers. This scarcity of black
petty officers highlights the point that throughout the service for the duration
of the war, the senior petty officer command structure was overwhelmingly white.
During the third quarter of 1864, for instance, when the navy's enlisted force
consisted of approximately 23,200 men, only 13 black men (or 0.05 percent) were
rated petty officers of the line.(38) The senior
petty officers represented a mere 0.3 percent of the 4,200 black sailors in
service at the time. By way of contrast, the army's regiments of Colored Troops
relied entirely on black men to serve as senior noncommissioned officers. During
the fall of 1864, it is likely that between 5 and 10 percent of black enlisted
men were company or regimental sergeants. Small wonder that George E. Smith, an
ordinary seaman from New York who left his ship in Norfolk to enlist as an
orderly sergeant in a black regiment, cited "the general, treatment men of
Color receive" as his reason for deserting the navy. His brigade commander
interceded with navy authorities, explaining that that no "mean
motive" animated Smith "as he showed himself anxious to fight for his
country under circumstances more hazardous than he would be likely to encounter
in the naval service, and where he could find more scope for personal
ambition," but to no avail. Smith was convicted and sentenced to five years
Although the men born free in the northern states and in places outside the
United States often found themselves guilty by racial association with the
contrabands, several measures also separated them from the men who had recently
escaped slavery. Paramount among these was their status as free men, which both
officers and enlisted shipmates respected—if at times grudgingly—for its
implications of manly independence. The freeborn men also spoke with familiar
accents, and their cultural compasses bore reference marks similar to those that
oriented white sailors from the northern states and the maritime nations of the
north Atlantic basin.
More than any other attribute, however, the prior maritime experience of the
free black men distinguished them from the contrabands. Although the amount and
range of this experience varied, several broad patterns appear. First, men who
lived in the major port cities of the northeast Atlantic coast (and their
counterparts in the other seaports of the world) often had commercial maritime
experience. Hundreds of men from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Boston
fit the profile of James Forten Dunbar even if they could not match his three
decades at sea. By the 1840s and 1850s, as packet steamship lines began serving
the coastal cities on regular schedules, some men found regular employment on
the packets. A number found positions as stewards, cooks, and barbers as well as
A second pattern characterized the men who grew up in the villages that lined
the Atlantic coast and its estuaries. Along the shores of Chesapeake and
Delaware Bays and Long Island Sound, they were familiar with the variety of
small craft used in oystering, crabbing, and fishing the local waters. Some had
shipped on a commercial vessel and some—particularly those in the vicinity of
the naval installation at Norfolk, Virginia—on a warship.(41)
Young men from towns and villages of coastal New England typically went on a
two- to three-year whaling voyage as a rite of passage to manhood. They returned
with a storehouse of knowledge about ships and the sea, and not infrequently
with a tattoo of a whale or some other nautical symbol to signify their
membership in the seafaring fraternity. More than four hundred of the black men
who entered the enlisted ranks during the Civil War bore such tattoos.(42)
A third pattern of maritime experience characterized the men who lived along
the internal waterways of North America, particularly the Ohio, the Missouri,
and the Upper Mississippi rivers. Although these men could not claim familiarity
with the exotic regions of South Pacific that were the whalemen's bragging
rights, they knew the rivers well. In addition to working as deckhands and
service workers (stewards, cooks, barbers, and cabin attendants), thousands of
African American men gained experience in the engine compartment of the
steamboats, both stoking the furnaces and tending the boilers. Hundreds of these
men found similar employment in the navy during the Civil War.(43)
Two sets of naval traditions—one formal and the other informal—offer
insights into points at which the Civil War experiences of black sailors
overlapped with and diverged from those of white sailors. The formal traditions
both expressed the reciprocal relationship between the government and every
person serving under arms and governed the responsibilities of each party to the
other. For risking their lives on behalf of the nation and subjecting themselves
to rigid discipline, the naval volunteers of the Civil War gained the
government's protection, an especially significant boon to the men only shortly
removed from slavery. In the first place it meant clothing, food, and shelter,
the likes of which must have appeared princely to many a former slave. Second,
naval service meant access to arms and training in their effective use. Third,
naval service promised mobility. Apart from mere acquaintance with new
places—nothing to scoff at—this mobility brought black sailors into
circumstances in which they might offer assistance and perhaps even protection
to persons fleeing, as one termed it, "from the horrible pit of
bondage."(44) Fourth, wartime service enabled
black sailors to take part in the struggle to save the Union and destroy
slavery, which in postwar years paid assorted dividends, most notably government
pensions. Although black naval veterans appear to have sought such support in
significantly lower proportions than either their white comrades or army
veterans, black or white, the benefits provided both financial support and a
tangible measure of the nation's gratitude in the men's later years.(45)
For freeborn black men no less than former slaves, navy regulations offered a
mixed measure of impartiality and caprice, perhaps the most ambiguous feature of
their relationship with the federal government during the Civil War. Because
captains of a naval vessel wielded nearly omnipotent power—akin, as many a
contemporary noted, to that of slave masters—all sailors faced the risk of
arbitrary punishment. By the time of the Civil War, naval reformers had
succeeded in reducing the incidence of abuse, though former slaves, by virtue of
their past vulnerability, may have been disproportionately subject to the
exceptions to that rule.(46)
The case of USS Ethan Allen, a number of whose black sailors were
former slaves from coastal South Carolina and Georgia, serves to illustrate.
Master-at-arms Tufton K. Stanley, a white northerner, recoiled at the officers'
treatment of several of these men. In one case, Fielding Troupe, who was
sentenced to five days in double irons for destruction of government property
and disobedience of orders, "had been very badly beaten" by the
captain. As Stanley confined him to the brig, Troupe "could hardly help
himself as his arms were very sore and lame from the blows." In another
case, a "mean, contemptable, lieing set of Officers" confined William
Newton and Charles Tyson on trumped-up charges because the two "would not
hunt for them every day." "Ships meat cost .30cts per pound,"
Stanley observed bitterly. "Deer meat cost nothing if Newton killed it for
them."(47) In not a single one of the scores
of cases involving white sailors did Stanley note such excesses.
Despite such blatant discrimination, sailors of every color and nationality
appreciated that, for better and worse, regulations prescribed a degree of
uniformity over judicial proceedings. Like other stewards, Charles Fisher
relished visiting shore for fresh provisions, understanding at the same time
that punishment would surely follow any abuse of the privilege. On one occasion
when he and several other stewards returned late from marketing, he resigned
himself to "Double Darbies [that is, irons on wrists and ankles] for five
days on bread and water." The brig awaited any man who flouted orders in
such a fashion.(48)
At the level of infractions, including capital cases, that came before courts
of inquiry and general courts-martial, black sailors particularly welcomed the
impartiality of the regulations. Take, for instance, the inquiry into the death
of James (or Owen) Conlan on USS Pampero in February 1864. The case grew
out of a fistfight between Conlan, an Irish sailor, and James Dixon, a
contraband. When Conlan leaned against a deck gun for which Dixon claimed to be
the captain, the two exchanged insults. According to witnesses, Dixon invited
Conlan to "Kiss my ass you Irish son of a bitch," upon which Conlan
called Dixon "a damned bastard son of a bitch" and cursed "all
his (Dixon's) generation." When words turned to punches, Dixon gained the
upper hand, but at one point both men fell to the deck. Conlan struck his head
and died instantly. Upon examination, the ship's surgeon concluded that the
victim had fractured his skull. The court ruled that because "death was not
premeditated by the accused" there was "no necessity for further
proceedings."(49) In civilian life North or
South, a black man in Dixon's shoes would have had a difficult time walking away
from such charges.
The second set of naval traditions, the informal ones governing recreation
and relaxation on board warships, adds additional perspective on the comparative
experience of black and white sailors. During the evening dog watches, men
customarily read mail and newspapers from home, played games, told tales, sang
and danced, even if on some vessels they also had to beware of flying gun
chocks. Charles Fisher recalled that in a season of "cold cruising . . .
the only comfort a fellow has is his hot coffee in the morning and then at night
sit on the berth deck and sing or spin cuffers to your messmates."(50)
Although the men but shortly removed from slavery may have lacked the
reading and writing skills to communicate with families or learn the news of the
day firsthand, literate black men from the northern states subscribed to such
African American newspapers as the New York Anglo African and the African
Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder, passing copies among the
literate and reading the news aloud for the benefit of those who could not read.
Even absent the Anglo or the Recorder, black sailors had access to other
northern newspapers and periodicals, copies of which arrived with each mail and
circulated among the crew until they were reduced to tatters.(51)
Musical diversions ranged from the plaintive guitar ballads that touched the
men's heart strings to the raucous harmonies of pipes, fiddles, and banjos that
set their feet in motion. The widespread practice of minstrelsy provides an
especially fascinating window into the culture of shipboard rest and relaxation.
Widely popular in the mid-nineteenth-century United States, minstrel
performances meshed neatly with shipboard practices common on merchant as well
as naval vessels throughout the world. By the time of the Civil War, sailors had
ready access to mass-produced as well as handcrafted musical instruments for
their personal enjoyment and collective entertainment. Sailors valued the
musicianship of their shipmates, and men with command over instruments prided
themselves in that expertise, as witnessed by the presence of a banjo
player—in one case black and in another white—in the photographs of
Hunchback and Miami. On some vessels, ensembles of musicians provided
accompaniment for minstrel shows, in which elaborate costumes and props aided
the players in impersonating female, African American, and Irish characters.
Fresh drafts of recruits from the urban centers of the Northeast guaranteed
fresh supplies of material from current minstrel shows.(52)
The convergence of civilian and naval tradition around such performances
obscures the fact that, given the dynamics of interactions on board any single
ship and the mix of personalities that fate cast together, only a thin line may
have separated voluntary from involuntary participation in the ritualized
merriment. On USS Minnesota, for instance, when the officers determined
that a number of the "plantation darkies" on board could "sing
and dance," "[al]most every night their services were brought into
requisition and the roars of laughter that greeted their comical efforts could
be heard" from one end of the ship to the other.(53)
On vessels such as USS Brazileira, where a regular "Theatrical
Company" staged elaborate productions, "contrabands" were
relegated to the "Colored Gallery" to observe the performances. Given
the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes in the entire genre of minstrel
material, Henry G. Thayer, ship's yeoman and one of the prime movers behind the
company, could not resist casting "all our darkies" in a scene of
"Bombastes Furioso" wherein they impersonated a squad of soldiers
"armed with broomsticks." White officers and sailors, some doubtless
in blackface, seem to have played all the parts in "Nigger in the
|Despite the demeaning character of the minstrel stereotypes, black
sailors often experienced a degree of ambivalence toward minstrelsy,
whose tunes and lyrics might strike sentimental rather than strictly
demeaning chords. Upon his transfer to Brazileira, Stephen B.
Wales brought from New York not only proficiency in the guitar and the
banjo but also familiarity with the latest tunes. Although Thayer looked
down upon Wales as a "darkey" or a "'Cullie'"
("a very civil & well behaved" one, to be sure), the
impresario readily subordinated himself to hours of instruction at the
hands of this "Colored preceptor."(55)
The steward Charles B. Fisher, who had been born free in Alexandria, Virginia, took a leading part in the "band of minstrels" aboard Kearsarge. His diary records the "gay time" that he and two of his shipmates enjoyed in Cadiz, Spain, purchasing instruments—"guitars, violin cello, violin, accordian, Tambour, triangle, & c."—for the band's use.(56) Fisher's observations about specific performances further illustrate the place of minstrelsy in the lives of black Civil War sailors. In the fall of 1862, for instance, at Fayal in the Azores, the musicians performed a two-and-one-half-hour concert "for the benefit of the poor of these Islands." Of all the entertainers, the audience especially favored George Williams (a.k.a. "Hamfat"), Fisher's good friend and fellow African American steward, who "brought down the house: he was in his element and sang 'Round De Home' and danced the 'Essence of Old Virginny' better than ever before. Everytime he appeared on the stage roars of laughter greeted him from every part of the house and his Spiritual Rapping was encored, indeed he was the creme of the performance and the observed of all observers."(57)
Nearly a year later while at Algeciras, the "Kearsarge Minstrels"
entertained their shipmates on the quarterdeck with "sketches from
Othello—Spiritual Rappings—songs—dance and instrumental
solos—duets—trios." Fisher noted an impending battle of the bands with
their counterparts from Tuscarora when "we will try for who can win
the most praise and give the best concert." Besides the honor of such
bragging rights, the minstrels provided both "amusement" and relief
from the "tediousness of the blockade."(58)
When William Gowan, a white man whom Fisher described as "the leader of the
minstrels," succumbed to wounds sustained in the battle with Alabama in
June 1864, his death "cast a deep gloom over the whole ships company."(59)
On naval warships, like playhouses on shore, minstrelsy provided much more than
simply a stage for reinforcing racial stereotypes. It held the power to bridge
racial and ethnic divisions by transporting both performers and auditors home,
removed from harm's way and surrounded by loved ones.(60)
In conclusion, the experience of black men in the Union navy not only adds a
new chapter to the history of the Civil War but also suggests a need to revise
the narrative of the African American military experience during that era, much
of which is presently cast as an heroic struggle against the dual enemies of
slavery and discrimination. Implicitly at least, men bear the major burden,
fighting for the "manhood rights" of freedom and equality. Having its
origins in antebellum abolitionism, the struggle contended mightily against long
odds early in the war, reached a turning point with the Emancipation
Proclamation, and began winning victory after victory with the enlistment of
black men in the army, the successful tests at arms at Fort Wagner and
elsewhere, and the achievement of equal pay. Although the war ended on a
somewhat discordant note with the exclusion of black units from the victory
procession after Appomattox, Reconstruction assuaged that disappointment.
The naval experience requires another narrative that, while not denying the
significant contribution that persons of African descent made to the struggles
against slavery and for equality, begins on a more optimistic note and ends on a
less romantic one than the heroic saga chronicles. Its plot moves not in a
direct line from exclusion and repression to participation and fair treatment
but rather in circles, with numerous arcs that overlap or run counter to others
and some that proceed in tangents to inconclusive ends. Among other things, the
revised framework must accommodate discrimination within a structure of nominal
impartiality and the contribution of backbreaking labor rather than brave
assaults against overwhelming odds of success. The fact that black women served
and that large numbers of men performed duties often denominated women's work on
shore reinforces the sense that the narrative of manly struggle will not
suffice. In this, as in many other particulars, the heroic framework simply
breaks down or cannot accommodate the evidence from the black naval experience.
The new explanation must emphasize ambiguity rather than clear definition and
struggles lost as well as won. To the extent that it succeeds, it may just come
close to capturing the messy lives that people actually live rather than the
neat ones that historians are inclined to construct.(61)
Earlier versions of this article benefited from comments by a number of
persons at the Great Lakes Regional Naval History Symposium in Chicago and at
the History Department Seminar at the Pennsylvania State University. I am
grateful to Scott Forsythe and Glenn Longacre in Chicago and Nan Woodruff,
William Blair, and Benjamin DeGrow in State College for their hospitality and
insightful comments. I owe special thanks to Christopher McKee of Grinnell
College and Michael J. Bennett of St. Louis University for particularly careful
readings of the manuscript. The research was made possible through a partnership
among Howard University, the U.S. Department of the Navy, and the U.S. National
Park Service under Cooperative Agreement No. 1443CA000192030.
I am grateful to Rebecca Livingston, Richard Peuser, and Michael Musick at the National Archives, and to the following students and graduates of Howard University for research assistance: Roger A. Davidson Jr., Homer Fleetwood II, Joy P. Jackson, Barbara P. Josiah, Lisa Y. King, Learie B. Luke, Sharon Pierre-Luke, Wanda R. Porter, Craig A. Schiffert, Michael A. Southwood, James Peckham Stephens, Robert T. Vinson, Bennie Visher III, and Yohuru R. Williams. Thanks also to the National Endowment for the Humanities for support through a fellowship for university teachers.
1. Exceptions to this rule are the publications of
William Still, Jr., particularly "The Civil War's Uncommon Man: The Common
Sailor. Pt. 1: Yankee Bluejackets; Pt. 2: Confederate Tars." Civil War
Times Illustrated (February 1983): 24–39; (Mar. 1983): 12–19, 36–39;
and James M. Merrill, "Men, Monotony, and Mouldy Beans—Life on Board
Civil War Blockaders," American Neptune 16 (January 1956):
49–59. See also Dennis J. Ringle, Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy (1998).
Michael J. Bennett's recently completed study, "Union Jacks: The Common
Yankee Sailor of the American Civil War, 1861–1865" (Ph.D. diss., St.
Louis University) departs radically from traditional interpretations of Civil
War sailors. Wiley's classics are The Life of Johnny Reb (1947), and The
Life of Billy Yank (1952).
2. See Herbert Aptheker, "The Negro in the Union
Navy," Journal of Negro History 32 (April 1947): 179.
3. David L. Valuska, "The Negro in the Union Navy,
1861–1865" (Ph.D. diss., Lehigh University, 1973), which was published in
slightly modified form as The African American in the Union Navy:
1861–1865 (1993). See also Aptheker, "The Negro in the Union
Navy"; Aptheker, "Negro Casualties in the Civil War" Journal
of Negro History 32 (January 1947): 10–80; and Harold D. Langley,
"The Negro in the Navy and Merchant Service, 1798–1860" Journal
of Negro History 52 (October 1967): 273–286. Other studies include
Michael H. Goodman, "The Black Tar: Negro Seamen in the Union Navy,
1861–1865" (Ph.D. diss.: University of Nottingham, 1975), and Steven John
Ramold, "Valuable Men for Certain Kinds of Duty: African Americans in the
Civil War Navy" (Ph.D. diss., University of Nebraska, 1999).
4. For descriptions of the project, see Joseph P. Reidy,
"Black Jack: African American Sailors in the Civil War Navy," in New
Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Twelfth Naval History
Symposium Held at the United States Naval Academy, 26–27 October 1995,
ed. William B. Cogar (1997), pp. 213–220; and "The African-American
Sailors' Project: The Hidden History of the Civil War" CRM: Cultural
Resource Management 20 (1997): 31–33, 43.
5. This figure was determined by examining surviving
naval enlistment records and quarterly muster rolls of vessels. See,
respectively, the Weekly Returns of Enlistments from Recruitment Rendezvous
(known as Rendezvous Reports), Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record
Group (RG) 24, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC; Muster Rolls of
Vessels, RG 24, NAB. The names, along with other personal information about
each, may be found on the Internet web site for the Civil War Soldiers and
Sailors System maintained by the National Park Service: www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/sailors_index.html.
A brief comment on the vexed question of numbers and percentages is in
order here. The fact that Valuska's estimate of the number of black men based
upon the rendezvous reports overlooks nearly an equivalent number of men who
either enlisted directly on board a vessel or who simply were not recorded on
the rendezvous reports suggests that the navy's estimate of 118,044 enlistments
probably errs on the low side, but probably in the range of 10 to 20 percent
rather than 100 percent. Although thousands of black men recently escaped from
slavery in the Confederacy sought refuge on naval vessels and ultimately
enlisted in the navy, comparatively few white Confederate refugees followed a
similar path into the naval service. Assuming that the 118,044 recorded
enlistments represented approximately 75,000 men (discounting for reenlistments)
and that the latter figure is inflated by 20 percent to account for
underreporting, then the total number of enlisted men is 90,000. The 18,000
black men represented 20 percent of that total. See Donald L. Canney, Lincoln's
Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861–65 (1998), pp. 117–118,
138, and (for the estimate of 75,000 total men) 216. Given the nature of
surviving official documentation, these estimates are likely to remain
conjectural. For a treatment of the enlisted women, with particular emphasis on
the remarkable career of Ann Stokes, see Lisa Y. King, "In Search of Women
of African Descent Who Served in the Civil War Union Navy," Journal of
Negro History 83 (Fall 1998): 302–309.
6. See Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S.
Rowland, The Black Military Experience. Series II of Freedom: A Documentary
History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 (1982), p. 733.
7. Rendezvous Reports, vols. 13–15, RG 24, NAB.
Although over the course of the entire war the rendezvous reports that recorded
men's enlistment data reported the years of prior naval service irregularly—in
some cases omitting it or in other cases including time at sea in civilian
vessels—at the start of the war, when prior service was recorded, the service
credited was years of naval service as such and not simply years of experience
at sea. In any case, the reports of prior service significantly underestimate
the amount of sea experience the recruits brought into the navy.
8. These summary data derive from the nearly 5,000
surviving quarterly muster rolls examined by the researchers of the Black
Sailors Research Project. Note that comparatively few muster rolls survive for
1861 and 1862; by 1863, thanks in part to the stricter enforcement of
traditional reporting regulations, commanders of vessels dutifully forwarded
their muster rolls to the Bureau of Navigation at the end of each quarter, even
though not all these muster rolls survive in the naval records at the National
Archives. Note, too, that the extant muster rolls from 1861 do not usually
identify men by physical description, but by tracking men from later musters (on
which physical descriptions appear) backward to the earlier musters, it has been
possible to identify numerous men of African descent who served during the first
year of the war. Given the limitations of this method, these estimates are
9. See Rendezvous Reports, Baltimore, week ending April
30, 1864, vol. 33, p. 296 1/2, RG 24, NAB. Another 480 men native to the
District of Columbia enlisted.
10. These figures, like those in the preceding
paragraph, derive from the database of names and descriptive information
described in n. 5 above.
11. See Adele Logan Alexander, Homelands and
Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846–1926 (1999), p.
12. Order of Sept. 25, 1861, file NR—Naval Personnel,
Recruitment and Enlistments, 1860–1870, Subject File, U.S. Navy, 1775–1910,
Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, RG 45, NAB.
In December 1862 Welles removed the restriction that contraband enlistees be
rated exclusively as boys. On the evolution of official policy regarding the
enlistment of black sailors, see Valuska, The African American, chap.
13. See Roger A. Davidson, "A Question of Loyalty:
The Potomac Flotilla and Civil Insurrection in the Chesapeake Region"
(Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 2000). See also Robert M. Browning, From
Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the
Civil War (1993).
14. General Orders No. 76, July 26, 1863, in Official
Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN),
30 vols. (1894–1922), 25: 327–328.
15. Extant muster rolls of vessels in the Mississippi
Squadron provide the clearest indication of this phenomenon. See Muster Rolls,
RG 24, NAB. Because most of the men enlisted directly on board the vessels,
their enlistment information for the most part does not appear in the enlistment
returns of the recruitment rendezvous at Cairo and New Orleans. On black men in
the Mississippi Squadron, see Charles C. Brewer, "African American Sailors
and the Unvexing of the Mississippi River," Prologue: Quarterly of the
National Archives and Records Administration 30 (Winter 1998): 278–286;
and Steven Louis Roca, "Presence and Precedents: The USS Red Rover
during the American Civil War, 1861–1865," Civil War History 44
(June 1998): 91–110.
16. Recruiting poster, "Men Wanted for the
Navy," dated Roanoke Island, NC, Dec. 8, 1863, in file NR—Recruiting and
Enlistments: Regulations, Posters, Shipping Articles, Subject File, RG 45, NAB.
17. Muster Rolls, RG 24, NAB.
18. See, for instance, Muster Rolls, USS Vermont,
Mar. 31, 1863, July 1, 1863, Oct. 1, 1863, Dec. 31, 1863, July 31, 1864, RG 24,
NAB. Information about the service of the warships noted in this discussion
derives from Paul H. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies
(1989). For additional details on the service of these men and glimpses into
their postwar lives, see Lisa Y. King, "Wounds that Bind: A Comparative
Study of the Role Played by Civil War Veterans of African Descent in Community
Formation in Massachusetts and South Carolina" (Ph.D. diss., Howard
19. See Muster Rolls, USS Brandywine, RG 24,
20. See Muster Rolls, USS Charles Phelps, USS Fearnot,
USS J. C. Kuhn, USS Albemarle, USS Arletta, and USS Ben
Morgan, RG 24, NAB.
21. See Muster Rolls, USS New National, USS William
Badger, and USS Donegal, RG 24, NAB. On other supply steamers
black men formed less than a majority but still more than the aggregate average
on all naval vessels. See, for instance, muster rolls of USS Massachusetts,
RG 24, NAB.
22. Log book of USS General Sterling Price,
Mar. 11, 1864; Log book of Judge Torrence, Nov. 4 & 5, 1863, Log
Books of Vessels, RG 24, NAB; Thomas Lyons Journal, Library of Congress (LC),
Washington, DC; Alexander R. Miller, "Memorandum Book of the U.S. Str.
'Baron de Kalb' and 'Lafayette'," entry for June 11, 1863, Louisiana and
Lower Mississippi Valley Collection, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State
University (LSU), Baton Rouge, LA.
23. Muster rolls, USS Miami, RG 24, NAB. For a
detailed study of Plymouth (and Washington County), North Carolina, in the Civil
War, see Wayne K. Durrill, War of a Different Kind: A Southern Community in
the Great Rebellion (1990).
24. Muster rolls, USS Hunchback, RG 24, NAB.
25. Lyons Journal, pp. 41b–42 (entry for June 11,
1863), LC; Miller, "Memorandum Book," LSU. For fuller treatment of
these matters, see Michael J. Bennett, "'Frictions': Shipboard Relations
between White Sailors and Contraband Sailors during the American Civil
War," Civil War History 47 (June 2001) 118–145. Lyons's
fascination with the near whiteness of some of the "colored" refugees
is symptomatic of what George Fredrickson describes as "romantic
racialism"; see Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The
Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (1971), chap. 4.
26. Death Certificate of Robert Scott, died Jan. 2,
1863, vol. 9, p. 121, Death Certificates and Reports of Medical Surveys, Records
of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, RG 52, NAB.
27. "A Personal Reminiscence by Edward W. Hammond,
Boatswain, U.S. Navy, of an Incident on board the U.S. Ship St. Mary's in
Valparaiso Harbor 1865," dated Wimer, Jackson Co., Oregon, Apr. 5 1894 (pp.
4–5 regarding the flying gun chocks and p. 16 regarding the near riot), in
folder "1865: NJ—Attempt by crew members to run the USS St. Mary into the
mole," file NJ—Discipline and Minor Delinquencies, Subject File, RG 45,
NAB. The dog watches, wherein the port and starboard watches alternated duty on
two-hour intervals instead of four, assured that the same group of men would not
have the midnight watch night after night. Sailors aboard merchant and whaling
ships as well as warships employed the dog watches for recreational purposes.
28. ORN, 15: 191, 197 (Blake); 21: 437
(Brown); 5: 535 (Sanderson). Five other black men were awarded the Medal of
Honor for Civil War gallantry: William H. Brown, Clement Deas, John Henry
Lawson, James Mifflin, and Joachim Pease.
29. At enlistment a man's rating was fixed as boy,
landsman, ordinary seaman, or seaman, depending on his age, experience, and
other circumstances. Upon being attached to a vessel, he might, at the pleasure
of the captain, be rated as a petty officer. Upon transfer or discharge from a
vessel, a man shed his petty-officer rating and assumed his original rating. A
man might advance his base rating either by reenlisting or displaying
conspicuous valor in combat.
30. Rendezvous Reports, vol. 7, p. 33; vol. 9, p. 6;
vol. 13, p. 60; vol. 18, p. 73; vol. 26, p. 306; vol. 26, p. 363, RG 24, NAB.
For background information on Forten's Philadelphia, see Julie Winch, Philadelphia's
Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787–1848
31. This general statement requires qualification in
one particular. During the war, the navy authorized the commissioning of pilots
in certain circumstances; at least one African American, James Taliaferro from
North Carolina, was commissioned in this fashion. See Act. Ens. Cmdg. Fred. B.
Allen to Rear Adm. D. D. Porter, off Yorktown, Va., Feb. 6, 1865, file
NP—Pilots, Individual Cases, Subject File, RG 45, NAB. Despite the fact that
before the Civil War dozens of African American seafarers had served as captains
and mates of vessels (sometimes owning the vessels as well), the Department of
the Navy chose not to tap into this reserve. See Martha S. Putney, Black
Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seaman and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War
(1987). On the origins of the naval officer corps, see Christopher McKee, A
Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer
Corps, 1794–1815 (1991). Only during World War II were the first black
men commissioned as naval officers. See Paul Stillwell, ed., The Golden
Thirteen (1996); Dennis D. Nelson, The Integration of the Negro into
the U.S. Navy (1951). For the fascinating account of Michael Healy, the
U.S. Revenue Cutter Service captain of mixed Irish and African American descent,
see James M. O'Toole, "Racial Identity and the Case of Captain Michael
Healy, USRCS," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records
Administration 29 (Fall 1997): 190–201.
32. Roswell H. Lamson to Kate, Aug. 20, 1863, in Lamson
of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S.
Navy, James M. McPherson and Patricia McPherson, eds. (1997), p. 126. The
names of Charles Adams and James R. Frisby appear on the muster rolls of the
ships Lamson commanded: see the rolls of USS Nansemond, Aug. 24 and
Sept. 30, 1863; USS Gettysburg, May 10, June 30, and Sept. 30, 1864; RG
33. William F. Keeler to his wife, Feb. 13, 1862, Mar.
4, 1862, Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Paymaster
William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy To his Wife, Anna, Robert W. Daly, ed.
(1964), pp. 12, 23.
34. Canney, Lincoln's Navy, pp. 128–129, and
especially Lester B. Tucker, "History of the Petty Officer Grade," Pull
Together 32 (Spring/Summer 1993): 1–7. Tucker, "History," table
1, provides a neat synopsis of the respective ratings according to naval
regulations of March 12, 1863. Petty officer of the line ratings included
boatswain's mate, gunner's mate, captain of the forecastle, quartermaster,
quarter gunner, captain of the maintop, captain of the foretop, captain of the
hold, captain of the mizzentop, coxswain, and captain of the afterguard. Petty
officer of the staff ratings included master-at-arms, yeoman, surgeon's steward,
paymaster's steward, master of the band, schoolmaster, ship's corporal, armorer,
painter, carpenter's mate, sailmaker's mate, fireman first class, cooper,
armorer's mate, steward, and cook.
35. Lamson to Kate, June 4, 1863, Lamson of the
Gettysburg, p. 111. Thomas Lyons Journal, p. 5b (entry for Jan. 26, 1863),
LC. On a number of other occasions, Lyons, a white sailor from Ohio who served
as steward for Capt. Henry Walke, first on USS Carondelet and later on
USS Lafayette, frequently recorded his humiliation in the face of
Walke's outbursts and reported one day remarkable in that he "Did not get
Scolded to-day." See p. 6 (entry for Jan. 28, 1863).
36. Keeler to his wife, Mar. 5, 1862, Aboard the
USS Monitor: 1862, p. 24.
37. For a youthful perspective on naval service, see
Alvah E. Hunter, A Year on a Monitor and Destruction of Fort Sumter,
Craig L. Symonds, ed. (1987); on his relationships with black shipmates, see pp.
9, 40, 65, 76, 91–92, 113–114, 119–120, 145. The full range of demands and
rewards that seafarers who served as stewards and cooks experienced is treated
in Michael Sokolow, "'What a Misearable Life a Sea Fareing Life Is': The
Life and Experiences of Nineteenth-Century Mariner of Color" (Ph.D. diss.,
Boston University, 1997), but see also W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks:
African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997); and "To Feel Like a
Man: Black Seamen in the Northern States, 1800–1860," Journal of
American History 76 (March 1990): 1173–1199.
38. Muster Rolls, RG 24, NA.
39. George E. Smith to Gen. Wise, U.S. Frigate Minnesota,
Jan. 4, 1864, with endorsements (including that of Brig. Gen. Edwd. A. Wild,
Jan. 14, 1864), case number 3516, Records of General Courts-Martial and
Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799–1867 (National Archives
Microfilm Publication M273), roll 122, Records of the Office of the Judge
Advocate General (Navy), RG 125.
40. For general treatment of black merchant seamen
during the pre–Civil War era, see Bolster, Black Jacks; Putney, Black
Sailors; and James Barker Farr, Black Odyssey: The Seafaring Tradition
of Afro-Americans (1989).
41. George Teamoh, God Made Man, Man Made the
Slave: The Autobiography of George Teamoh, ed. F. N. Boney, Richard L.
Hume, and Rafia Zafar (1990), pp. 82–84.
42. See affidavit of John T. Handy, County of Bristol,
MA, Mar. 31, 1893, pension file of Joshua J. Handy, Pension Records, Records of
the Veterans Administration, RG 15, NAB. More generally, see Margaret S.
Creighton, Rites and Passages: The Experience of American Whaling,
43. The rendezvous reports from Cincinnati suggest the
extent of this experience: 179 of 419 men enlisted there (42.7 percent) were
rated fireman at the time of enlistment. See Thomas C. Buchanan, "The Slave
Mississippi: African-American Steamboat Workers, Networks of Resistance, and the
Commercial World of the Western Rivers, 1811–1880" (Ph.D. diss., Carnegie
Mellon University, 1998).
44. Letter from George W. Reed, May [14,] 1864, in
Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African
American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (1992), p. 272.
45. Impressionistic sampling of naval veterans' pension
applications suggests that not more than half of the eligible black men applied
for pensions. This proportion appears to be less than the proportion of white
naval veterans who applied and is substantially lower than the estimated 64
percent of eligible black soldiers who applied. The fact that numbers of the men
simply left service at the end of the Civil War (rather than having been
formally discharged) resulted in their being reported to the Department of the
Navy as deserters surely accounts for a portion of the low proportion of
applicants. More significant, however, may have been the large percentage of men
who enlisted as fugitives from slavery and whose lives may well have remained
unsettled for years after the war. For men who continued to pursue maritime
employment, the mobility that resulted may have stretched their ties to stable
communities and networks of advisers and contacts that would have been necessary
to make the pension process work in their favor. It is also likely that numbers
of them did not survive long enough after the war to avail themselves of the
pension process. While the maritime trades were notoriously dangerous, wartime
veterans may have also fallen victim to respiratory and other diseases
ultimately traceable at least in part to their naval service. See Donald R.
Shaffer, "'I do not suppose that Uncle Sam Looks at the skin': African
Americans and the Civil War Pension System, 1865–1934" Civil War
History 66 (June 2000): 132–147, esp. 133–134; see also his
"Marching On: African-American Civil War Veterans in Postbellum America,
1865–1951" (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 1996).
More generally, see Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The
Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (1992), esp. chap.
46. See Harold D. Langley, Social Reform in the
United States Navy, 1789–1862 (1967); and Myra C. Glenn, Campaigns
against Corporal Punishment: Prisoners, Sailors, Women, and Children in
Antebellum America (1984), esp. chap. 5.
47. See Leon Basile, ed., "Harry Stanley's Mess
Book: Offenses and Punishments Aboard the Ethan Allen." Civil
War History 23, 1 (March 1977): 79, 78.
48. Diary of Charles B. Fisher, ed. Paul E.
Sluby, Sr., and Stanton L. Wormley (1983), p. 72.
49. Court of inquiry into the death of James Conlan,
Naval Court of Inquiry No. 4301, Records of General Courts-Martial,
M273, roll 167. The best study of the navy's judicial system treats the
antebellum period: James E. Valle, Rocks and Shoals: Naval Discipline in the
Age of Fighting Sail (1980).
50. Fisher Diary, p. 62 (entry for Feb. 22,
51. Redkey, Grand Army, p. 277.
52. H. G. Thayer, "Log of the Brazileira," p.
29 (entry for Feb. 23, 1863), p. 44 (entry for Mar. 17, 1863), LC. Sailors often
impersonated women in dances, too; see, for instance, John W. Gratton, Under
the Blue Pennant: Or Notes of a Naval Officer, Robert J. Schneller Jr., ed.
(1999), p. 72. On minstrelsy more generally, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft:
Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993); Louis S.
Gerteis, "Blackface Minstrelsy and the Construction of Race in
Nineteenth-Century America," in Union and Emancipation: Essays on
Politics and Race in the Civil War Era, David W. Blight and Brooks D.
Simpson eds. (1997), pp. 79–105.
53. Gratton, Under the Blue Pennant, p. 60.
54. Thayer, "Log of the Brazileira," p. 58
(entry for Apr. 13, 1863), p. 7 (entry for Jan. 1, 1863), LC. For a somewhat
different treatment of minstrelsy, particularly the incidents on Brazileira,
see Valuska, The African American, pp. 86–87. See also Merrill,
"Men, Monotony and Mouldy Beans," pp. 199–200.
55. Thayer, "Log of the Brazileira," pp.
50–52 (entry for Mar. 30–Apr. 2, 1863), LC.
56. Fisher Diary, pp. 9–10.
57. Ibid., p. 24; William Marvel, The Alabama and
the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War (1996), p. 90.
58. Fisher Diary, p. 38; Marvel, Alabama
and Kearsarge, p. 47.
59. Fisher Diary, p. 92.
60. Lott, Love and Theft, stresses this
61. Thanks to William Blair for calling my attention to
Edward L. Ayers, "Worrying About the Civil War," in Moral Problems
in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen
and Lewis Perry (1998), pp. 145–165, which views current perspectives on the
Civil War through a similar lens.
P. Reidy has taught U.S. history at Howard University since 1984 and
for the past three years has also served as the Associate Dean of the Graduate
School. He has published widely on slavery, the Civil War, and slave
emancipation in both scholarly and popular journals. At present he directs the
African-American Sailors Project at Howard University, from which work the
present article derives.
Return to table of contents