Prologue Magazine

Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War, Part 3

Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3

By Joseph P. Reidy

Black Men in Navy Blue, Part 1
Black Men in Navy Blue, Part 2


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:

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 certainly low.

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. 46.

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. 2.

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 University, 1999).

19. See Muster Rolls, USS Brandywine, RG 24, NAB.

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 (1988).

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 24, NAB.

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 Miserable 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, 1830 - 1870 (1995).

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. 2.

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, 1864).

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 ambiguous legacy.

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.

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.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.