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Robert Smalls was born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation in 1839. During the beginning years of the Civil War, Smalls became the pilot of CSS Planter, a 300-ton dispatch vessel operating out of Charleston. Smalls and a small group of African Americans, including his family, escaped on Planter just before dawn on May 13, 1862 while its three white officers went ashore for the night. Smalls successfully guided the ship past several Confederate forts in the harbor, including Fort Sumter. He continued on under a white flag until the blockade ship Onward found the escaped slaves near the Federal fleet. For his capture of the Confederate vessel, Smalls received his freedom and $1,500 in prize money. He later became the captain of the Planter in 1863, for which Smalls earned $150 dollars a month in pay. He is credited as the first African American to captain a U.S. Navy ship. After the war, Smalls served on the South Carolina state legislature and later, the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.
B L u e j AC K e tS
African Americans in the Civil War
Siah Carter, Contraband
Like many other African American slaves, Siah Carter sought freedom and refuge in the Union Navy along the myriad waterways of the southern interior. At the time he joined the Union Navy, Carter was working at Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia. He became the first of eighteen slaves to escape from Shirley Plantation in 1862. Twenty-two year old Carter fled down the James River two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, finding USS Monitor laying at anchor. He enlisted aboard the ironclad as a “first class boy,” serving as a coal heaver and cook’s assistant for the duration of the ship’s short existence. Carter survived the sinking of the famed vessel in December 1862, going on to serve on several other Union ships until the end of the war. He was discharged from the Union Navy in May 1865 and returned to Shirley Plantation to wed former slave Eliza Tarrow. They eventually settled in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, and raised thirteen children.
The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial
The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial seeks to disseminate information and activities concerning the 150th anniversary of the Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War. The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial is coordinated under the direction of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C. For more information on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, visit the official blog at:
John Lawson, Landsman
Born in Philadelphia into slavery, John Lawson entered the Union Navy as a contraband sailor. During the Civil War, Lawson served as an ammunition handler on the berthing deck of USS Hartford, commanded by the intrepid Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. During the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, Lawson refused to leave the fight as shells exploded around his gun crew. Lawson himself was thrown against the bulkhead of the Hartford from a shell explosion, which killed or wounded all of his 6-man crew. Both of Lawson’s legs were seriously injured. He quickly gained his composure and returned to his station, refusing treatment and finishing the fierce battle. For his gallantry in action, Lawson received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He became one of twelve sailors to receive such honor that day, and additionally one of eight African Americans to win the United States’ highest military honor during the American Civil War. Lawson left the Navy following the war and earned a living as a huckster in Philadelphia. He died in 1919 at the age of 81.
Robert Blake, Contraband
Born into slavery in Virginia, Robert Blake escaped to freedom and joined the Union Navy as a contraband sailor in 1862. He enlisted in Port Royal, Virginia, and served on the gunboat USS Marblehead as a steward during the Civil War. Operating along the Stono River in Legareville, South Carolina, on December 25, 1863, Marblehead engaged a Confederate howitzer on nearby John’s Island. With no formal training in combat, Blake nonetheless rushed to the gun deck of the Marblehead to assist his comrades. He assumed the duties of a powder boy who was killed by a Confederate shell, running powder boxes to gun loaders. The enemy eventually abandoned its position, leaving its munitions behind. For his heroic contributions, Blake received the Congressional Medal of Honor in April 1864.
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“The slaves must be with us or against us in the war.” Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles
A History of Service: Before the War
The Contraband Question
African Americans served in the United States Navy in many capacities dating back to the American Revolution. Faced with discrimination and conflict at home, African American sailors showed great distinction and dignity through every American conflict. Their honor and courage in the face of adversity stand as a testimony to the principles upon which American was founded. During the American Civil War, however, the cause of freedom and liberty brought their proud tradition of Naval service to the forefront. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, African Americans were allowed to enlist in the United States Navy, although their numbers were restricted. Despite South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s insistence to relegate blacks to food service rates, the Navy continued to recruit blacks. Officials in Washington also attempted to maintain the status quo of the white-dominated sea service, keeping African Americans at a steady 4-5% of the entire force throughout the middle 19th century. This order came upon the insistence of Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur in 1842, promising “not more than one-twentieth part of the crew of any vessel” would be men of color. Notwithstanding recruitment restrictions dating back to the post-Revolutionary period, African Americans always appeared on American Naval vessels. Blacks in blue jackets numbered roughly 4.2% of all enlisted in 1850 and 5.6% in 1860. When the newly-installed Republican President Abraham Lincoln entered the White House in March 1861, he inherited more than forty years of heightened racial and regional tension dating back to the Missouri Compromise. At the time he entered his presidency, approximately 4,000,000 of the United States population was African American, the majority of whom resided in the South as slaves. Only 182,000 blacks in the southern states claimed themselves to be free men. If the Union should completely collapse, how would Lincoln effectively deal with the question of using African Americans as potential soldiers and sailors? Should African American men be allowed to take up arms for the cause of liberty and equality under the banner of a unified nation? A war between kindred brethren would touch everyone, North and South; black and white. Indeed, the dilemma grew larger as eleven southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. As the United States entered into open conflict with the Confederacy, the Union Navy took its pre-war familiarity with black sailors to the next level. Recruitment numbers would reach heights never before seen in American naval history.
By the spring of 1862, Gideon Welles grew increasingly aware of the issue of arming the country’s “peculiar institution.” Southern slaves fled in large numbers toward Union lines in the first year of the war, consuming valuable supplies and food needed for the military. Writing from his headquarters in Port Royal, South Carolina, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote to his father, “We have now some 7,000 master-less slaves within our line and in less than two months we shall have nearer 70,000, and what are we to do with them?” Although this was a bitter pill to swallow for the Army, the question of escaped slaves, or contrabands, joining the Union Navy was easy for Welles to answer. Welles could not let them sit unused. Both Welles and Lincoln agreed on the enlistment of African American sailors who were free in the North from the outset of the conflict, but concern grew to the nature of handling slaves running across Federal lines. Slaves began to appear on Union vessels as early as Fort Sumter’s attack, joining ships along the coast and rivers from Charleston to the Potomac. On the heels of Lincoln’s radical racial and social legislation, Welles decided to make decisive changes in the structure of the Navy. In December 1862, Welles approved the enlistment of former slaves as “landsmen,” unskilled sailors with no naval experience. Landsmen became the most common rank in the Navy, regardless of race. Union Navy commanders sometimes returned fugitives back to their owners, but for the most part kept them aboard. By March 1862, Welles made it illegal to return them. Welles’ gamble paid off. He understood that free and formerly enslaved African Americans could aid the war effort dramatically, especially on offensives along the Mississippi River. Historian Steven J. Ramold sums up these sentiments perfectly in a 2004 interview with The Journal of African American History: “From the Navy Department’s perspective, Civil War sailors were just men to be recruited trained, employed, and discharged no matter what their background.” Both occupationally and geographically, African American sailors had more in common with their white counterparts than African American soldiers serving in the Union Army. The existence of contrabands in the Union Navy caused very little attention from a general public who already looked down on sea service as a military profession. While some historians characterize a landsmen’s job as one filled with “menial tasks” for “unskilled men,” the opportunity for former slaves to ascend in rank and pay was key. Any restrictions at face value did not obstruct the rate of African American enlistments. Quite often, the percentage of African Americans holding “skilled” positions of rank in the Union Navy (petty officers, cooks, stewards, firemen, seamen) mirrored that of white sailors. African Americans made the conscientious choice to fight for their freedom regardless of conditions they faced. “These African American sailors were needed,” Ramold remarked in the closing arguments of his 2004 A Call to Arms interview; “They were Americans who didn’t hesitate to fight for their country.” The outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter allowed the slow pre-war trickle of African Union Naval officer Admiral David Dixon Porter offered American enlistments before the war to steadily gain speed. The prospect of fresh, ablea sobering comment to Assistant Secretary Fox on his bodied recruits enticed top officials in Washington, including Secretary of the Navy Gideon personal opinions of contraband sailors working among Welles and his competent assistant, Gustavus Vasa Fox. their white counterparts on the Arkansas River in An increase in the number of men in the Union Navy was warranted. Lincoln’s call for an additional 1863. Porter declared black sailors “better than the 18,000 sailors to complement the 7,600 seasoned Navy veterans following Fort Sumter did little to meet the white people here, who I look upon as brutes, and necessities of war. The Navy needed adequately manned crews for countless ships, which had been either half savages.” While others in the squadron were less newly constructed or acquired for wartime use. Union Naval officers reported as early as July 1861 that their enthusiastic about the idea of an increased presence ships were “undermanned, poorly repaired, and inadequately armed.” The role of Union sailors patrolling the of contrabands, Porter was progressive enough to 3,000 mile Southern Blockade outlined by the “Anaconda Plan” could prove to be a deciding factor in bringing realize their value to take the fight to the enemy, about an early end to the war. There was no possibility of formally training new recruits due to the immediate often in patriotic fashion. It was no surprise need for the sailors, so the Navy chose to tap into a familiar resource. then that the influx of sailors on the western The pressure for Welles and Fox to satisfy the manpower issue in the early months of the war was instantly offensive allowed officers and squadron answered with the enlistment of African Americans. The Union Navy expanded black enlistment, integrating commanders like Porter to assist in combined them with their white counterparts. African Americans were not officially allowed to join the Union Army. Army-Navy forces against the Confederate Welles waived the 5% monthly pre-war limit of African American enlistment established in 1839 because it bastion at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last attracted little attention from the outside world. Indeed, Welles mastered the delicate balance between manpower, remaining obstacle to splitting the southern necessity, and political assertiveness. Issues of necessity and political correctness reached fever pitch for the states in half. newly-installed Navy Secretary by the second year of the war, forcing him to make tough decisions that would forever shape the face of the United States Navy.
Proudly They Served
It is important to note why African Americans flocked to the Union Navy. Many served because whites did not desire the conditions, pay, and discipline of sea service. Yet for many black men in the 1860s, opportunities at sea far exceeded any offered on land. Black sailors chose to cede personal freedoms for the restrictions of military service. Every challenge faced by white men on Union ships would be equaled by their black counterparts. Even with evidence of racial prejudice aboard Union naval vessels, the institution remained egalitarian by 19th century standards. A sailor’s pay was the greatest measure of egalitarian practice. Compared to the Union Army, wage directly reflected ability, not race. The Navy rewarded skill with pay increases, allowing the average black sailor an opportunity to increase in rank from ship’s boy to ordinary seaman much faster than an Army private’s ascendency to a non-commissioned officer. Status was not preset or static. Rather, it was earned. The enlistment of African Americans changed the makeup of the Union Navy, even if it often split public opinion. Any attempt to block African Americans from entering the service halted, allowing them to swell the ranks. One estimate placed roughly 16% of the total enlisted force as black. “Rather than restrict black enlisted men to special units,” historian James Harrod posited, the Navy “placed the races side by side in the same vessels as they had before the war.” In all, approximately 185,000 African Americans served the Union cause during the Civil War. Over 20,000 African Americans served in the Union Navy alone. Some sources place the number closer to 29,000. Such numbers are still debated today, mostly due to the Union Navy’s lack of a standardized racial classification during the war. African Americans fought in every campaign and battle in the American Civil War, from the blockading squadrons of the Atlantic and Gulf to the brown water tributaries of the southern states. Black women also played a role in the naval war, offering their services as nurses aboard the hospital ship USS Red Rover on the Mississippi River. By war’s end, eight African American sailors won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military medal offered in the United States. Restrictions to African American enlistment resumed when the war ended in 1865, flowing into the socially and racially troubled era of Jim Crow. African Americans still remained a fixture of the peacetime Navy in the thirty years after the war, averaging between 10 and 14% of the total enlisted force. The necessity of manpower and fresh recruits waned in the late 19th century, as society turned a blind eye to continued service of the African American sailor. It is the service and dedication during the greatest American crisis, however, that is ultimately remembered and honored today. Their honor, courage, and commitment provided the necessary stepping stones to the official desegregation of armed forces in 1948.