Black Civil War Sailors Project Nearing Completion of Phase I

During the 1970s, a historian studying surviving enlistment records revised the figure downward to ten thousand men

Black Civil War Sailors Project Nearing Completion of Phase I

Since 1992 the Department of Defense's Legacy Cultural Resources Program has underwritten research aimed at exploring the little-known history of black sailors in the integrated U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Of the roughly 130,000 enlisted personnel in the Union navy, approximately eighteen thousand (14 percent) were African Americans. Most vessels in the fleet had black men on board, and they comprised more than half of the crew on a number of ships.

Despite their contributions, general knowledge about the service of black men in the Federal navy during the Civil War is scant. In response to inquiries early in the twentieth century, navy officials quizzed its surviving veterans and calculated that approximately thirty thousand black men served on its ships, roughly 25 percent of the enlisted force. During the 1970s, a historian studying surviving enlistment records revised the figure downward to ten thousand men. So wide a discrepancy in so simple a fact highlights how much remains to be learned about the black naval experience.

Given the shortage of information about these men and their experiences, the Department of the Navy, the National Park Service, and Howard University have joined forces to redress the balance and to illuminate the role of black sailors in the navy. The research team consists of advanced graduate students from Howard University; their work centers on naval records housed at the National Archives. A distinguished panel of experts in the Civil War and in nineteenth-century maritime history meets regularly to advise the researchers.

Phase one, which is nearing completion, will include each black sailor's name, place of birth, age, occupation, place of enlistment, term of enlistment, and duty stations. The information will then be incorporated into the National Park Service's Civil War Soldier and Sailors System (CWSS). The CWSS aims to provide biographical information about every person who served in the Union and Confederate armed forces through an Internet-accessible database at Unlike the Union army, which kept separate records for black regiments, the integrated navy did not keep distinct record groupings based on race. Identifying the men of African descent means combing every extant type of personnel record and relying upon physical descriptions of sailors to determine their race.

The methodology used is far from foolproof, however. Aside from the fact that not all Civil War naval records have survived, the determination that a man was of African descent must rely upon his recorded physical description, often described as "Negro," "mulatto," "black," or "colored." The vagaries of record keeping and the variations in human phenotypes meant that not every person so described had African ancestors. Professional mariners--who made up a sizable portion of Civil War sailors and whose skin was often darkened by exposure to the elements--were often described as colored or even black regardless of nationality. Conversely, light-skinned African-Americans might not have been described in such a way as to reveal their ancestry.

The Union navy's enlistment records were mostly generated at the service's enlistment centers. Known at the time as "recruitment rendezvous," these centers operated in major seaports from Portland, Maine, to Norfolk, Virginia. During the conflict the navy also established rendezvous points along the Great Lakes and in the occupied South. Yet, thousands of sailors--including considerable numbers of blacks--directly enlisted on board vessels, bypassing official centers altogether. Accounting for such enlistments involves examining shipping articles and the quarterly muster rolls of vessels. By carefully studying such source material, the Howard University researchers have been able to arrive at the approximate figure of eighteen thousand black sailors. This number, it should be noted, includes roughly a dozen women who served as nurses and washerwomen, mostly on the hospital ship Red Rover in the Mississippi Squadron.

The second phase of the Black Sailors Research Project is to interpret the black naval experience during the Civil War. Besides analyzing the demographic data accumulated in the first phase of the project, the researchers have begun examining the pension records of individual veterans as well as the standard array of official naval records (such as correspondence, ships' logs, and the like) in order to place the men's service into full perspective. Although the results of this phase of the work will not be available for several more years, a preliminary outline has begun to emerge.

Black men have served in the U.S. Navy from its inception. Although their numbers fluctuated over time, they were never officially banned from the waterborne service, as they were from the army until 1862. Moreover, the navy was integrated, with men of all races and ethnic backgrounds forming mixed crews. Men were rated and paid according to their ability and experience rather than their race or ethnicity. Although large numbers of black men eventually served as officers' cooks and stewards, such service carried a petty officer's rating as well as a substantial increase in pay over that earned by other experienced seamen. Only later in the nineteenth century, amid a rising tide of racial hatred, did Navy Department regulations systematically consign black enlistees to the steward's branch.

The eighteen thousand black men and women who served during the Civil War came from around the world and from all walks of life. Some three thousand were born outside the United States, principally in Canada, in Western Europe, and on Caribbean and Atlantic islands. Of the remaining fifteen thousand, some eighty-five hundred were men from the North (many of whom had prior naval experience), and sixty-five hundred were men born in the South who had been slaves at the start of the war and enlisted after escaping bondage. More than five thousand of them were native to Maryland and Virginia.

Sensing from the start of the war that black men might make useful sailors, navy officials quickly rationalized a special role for black mariners in the unhealthy climates along the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts and the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Although hardly immune to disease, locally recruited black men provided needed manpower in those theaters. Besides performing much of the heavy labor at shore installations, they also served disproportionately in the steamy engine compartments shoveling coal.

Northern-born black men, as well as those recruited in the Chesapeake Bay region, experienced a wide range of service that included pursuing blockade runners in the Atlantic, protecting merchant shipping in the Pacific, as well as operating along coastal and inland waters. Three black men went down with USS Monitor when she foundered and sank off Cape Hatteras in December 1862. Black men were aboard USS Kearsarge when she sank the CSS Alabama in June 1864. By the end of the war, eight black sailors had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. In short, the history of black sailors in the Union navy is intertwined with that of their comrades of all races. The Black Sailors Research Project intends to bring this history fully to light.

The partners in the Black Sailors Research Project have tentatively scheduled to release the names and other personal information about the eighteen thousand black sailors on the CWSS this September. The researchers especially welcome contacts with descendants of black sailors of the Civil War era or people who have conducted research on enlisted personnel in the Civil War navy. For additional information contact the Black Civil War Sailors Project, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 20059.


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