Prologue Magazine

Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War, Part 2

Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3

By Joseph P. Reidy

John Lawson John H. Lawson, Landsman, USS Hartford, won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Mobile Bay. (NARA, 64-M-197)

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, signaling 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 January 2.26

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 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 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 in prison.39

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 deck hands.40

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 Daguerreotype Saloon."54

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

Black Men in Navy Blue, Part 1
Black Men in Navy Blue, Part 3

Joseph 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.