“I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: African Americans in the Navy

farragut-at-mobile-bay

African American Sailors formed part of the crew of Admiral Farragut’s flagship at the Battle of Mobile Bay

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing my foray into African American History which for those that don’t know is really a key and often neglected part of American History. This is a several part series dealing with Emancipation, and the social revolution that it brought about in the United States Military. The process that began in 1862 has taken another century and a half to come to a much better state, and the men who pioneered the way deserve the credit for persevering in spite of prejudice, in spite of discrimination, and in spite of a country not appreciating them as they should have been. Their sacrifice not only pioneered the way for African Americans, but women, other minorities, and LGBTQ people. As a nation we are indebted to them.

Please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

black-sailor

Civil War African American Sailor

Unlike the Army, African Americans had served aboard United States Naval vessels since the Revolution, and were an important part of ship’s crews all through the age of sail and the Civil War. In 1798, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, a slaveholder “barred “Negroes or Mulattoes” from serving in the new navy, and the Marine Corps did the same. Given the need to fill out their crews, however, captains often took free blacks as crew members. Both free blacks and slaves had served in the Continental Navy, the state navies, and privateers during the revolution, but that precedent had been forgotten.” [1] Even so, the Navy would continue to recruit free African Americans and they would make up a significant percentage of the crews of U.S. Navy ships, part of the reason that since the earliest times in the colonies, free blacks had taken up a seafaring way of life serving on merchantmen or in the Royal Navy. Likewise, “life at sea during the eighteenth century was difficult and dangerous. Therefore navies were forced to enlist practically anyone who was willing to serve.” [2]

uss-miami-crew

The Integrated Crew of the USS Miami

During the War of 1812 free blacks comprised between ten and twenty percent of the crews of U.S. Navy ships. Captains like Oliver Hazard Perry who initial complained about having blacks on his ships became believers in their ability. At the battle of Lake Erie “blacks constituted one-fourth of his 400 man force aboard the 10-vessel fleet.” He was so impressed by their performance under fire that he wrote the Secretary of the Navy “praising their fearlessness in the face of excessive danger.” [3] During the war, the Secretary of the Navy lifted Stoddert’s ban on blacks serving and free blacks responded by joining in increasing numbers.

Unlike the Army, the Navy became a place for free blacks to find a place to serve their country, and when the Civil War erupted these men continued to serve, and they would continue to serve throughout the war, and the Union Navy enlisted a proportionally higher number of its personnel from free blacks, nearly seventeen percent than did the Army, a force of approximately 30,000 sailors. Navy officers like David Dixon Porter praised them. He recruited them for his Mississippi Squadron as “coal heavers, firemen, and even gun crews.” He wrote “They do first rate work, and are far better behaved than their masters,” he declared. “What injustice to these poor people, to say they are only fit for slaves. They are far better than the white people here, who I look upon as brutes.” [4]

In 1862 the Union Navy was facing a manpower shortage the Federal and state governments discouraged whites from serving in the Navy due to the vast manpower needs of the Army. The government did not provide “bounties for those who joined nor counting them in local recruiting quotas.” [5] When confronted with the thousands of escaped slaves, or “contrabands” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles authorized their enlistment, and they were treated comparatively well. There were no segregated quarters due to the cramped conditions of shipboard life and as a result the men messed and were quartered in common spaces. Black sailors had complete control of their pay and had the same privileges as their white shipmates.

uss-galena-sailors

Most Naval officers had never been abolitionists before the war, and some had been defenders of slavery before the war, but their wartime experiences converted them to the abolitionist cause. Samuel Francis Du Pont wrote “I have never been an abolitionist… on the contrary most of my life a sturdy conservative on the vexed question.” He explained that he had “defended it all over the world, argued for it for it as patriarchal in its tendencies,” he admitted in 1861. “Oh my! What a delusion…. The degradation, the overwork, and ill treatment of the slaves in the cotton states is great than I deemed possible, while the capacity of the Negro for improvement is higher than I believed.” He noted that no officer in his squadron had voted for Lincoln, by April 1862 he wrote “there is not one proslavery man among them.” [6]

Affectionately known as “Black Jacks” these sailors served in some of the most critical actions fought by the Navy during the war, and aboard every kind of warship, including the new ironclads. Sadly after the war the opportunities for blacks began to decrease in the Navy. They still served but as the Navy became more technological, recruiters began to seek out more educated men to crew the ships of the new steel and steam navy. Increasing segregation and Jim Crow affected naval recruiting and by 1917 only about 7,500 blacks were still in the service. In the 1890s the navy began to exclude blacks from “all but the most undesirable jobs. Moreover, whites still would not tolerate blacks in blacks in positions of authority over them.” As a result promotion was rare, they worked in segregated conditions, and “to avoid friction between the two races,” commanders also segregated their eating and sleeping areas.” [7] With the exception of a successful experiment by Secretary of the Navy to integrate crews of certain auxiliary ships in 1944, these conditions would continue until President Truman ordered to integrate all branches of the military in 1948.

Notes 

[1] Daughan, George C. If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy – From the Revolution to the War of 1812 Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York 2008 p.320

[2] Fields, Elizabeth Arnett African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience – Before the Civil War, Blacks in the Union and Confederate Armies, Buffalo Soldier, Scouts, Spanish American War, World War I and II, U.S. Government, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington D.C. 1998, Amazon Kindle edition Progressive Management location 624  of 11320

[3] Ibid. Fields African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience location 668 of 11320

[4] McPherson, James M. War Upon the Waters: The Union and the Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2012 p.137

[5] Ibid. Fields African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience location 844 of 11320

[6] Ibid. McPherson War Upon the Waters: The Union and the Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 p.137

[7] Kraeczynski, Keith The Spanish American War and After in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience – Before the Civil War, Blacks in the Union and Confederate Armies, Buffalo Soldier, Scouts, Spanish American War, World War I and II, U.S. Government, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington D.C. 1998, Amazon Kindle edition Progressive Management location 2842  of 11320

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Military, US Navy

One response to ““I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: African Americans in the Navy

  1. Pingback: Americans in the Navy — Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland | Colouredjustice Blog – colouredjustice.wordpress.com

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