Tag Archives: continental navy

Blacks in the U.S. Navy: 1798-1917

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I’m back with something fresh, a short article from my text A Great War in a Revolutionary Age of Change. As I was looking at the text I realized that there were some major gaps to fill in regarding the service of African Americans in the military. So over the past couple of weeks I have been working on covering those gaps in order to smooth out the text and show how the social and political changes that began during the Civil War continued to work their way through our history to the present day. This section is about the African American experience in the U.S. Navy from 1798 until World War One.

There will be more so enjoy and have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

uss-miami-crew

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]

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.

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]

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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The United States Navy: 236 Years of a Global Force for Good

The Grand Union Flag being raised on the Frigate Alfred  

This is the first in a series of articles that I will post this month on significant events and personalities that make up the history of the Unite States Navy which celebrates its 236th anniversary on October 13th 2011. I have had the distinct honor of having grown up in a Navy family and after almost a full career in the U.S. Army to be able to serve in the Navy to the present day.  

First Blood: The Battle of Nassau

“It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” George Washington 15 November 1781 to the Marquis de Lafayette

On October 13th 1775 the Continental Congress passed legislation to establish a Navy for a country that did not yet exist.  It was the first was the first in a long line of legislative actions taken by it and subsequent Congresses that helped define the future of American sea power.

The legislation was the beginning of a proud service that the intrepid founders of our nation could have ever imagined.  Less than two months after it was signed on December 3rd1775 Lieutenant John Paul Jones raised the Grand Union Flag over the new fleet flagship the Alfred. The fleet set sail and raided the British colony at Nassau in the Bahamas capturing valuable cannon and other military stores.  It was the first amphibious operation ever conducted by the Navy and Marines.

Jones received the first recognition of the American flag shortly afterFrancerecognized the newUnited States.  In command of the Sloop of War Ranger his ship received a nine-gun salute from the French flagship at Quiberon Bay.

“I have not ye begun to fight!” The Battle of Flamborough Head 

When the war ended very few of these ships remained most having been destroyed or captured during the war. But these few ships and the brave Sailors and Marines who manned them blazed a trail which generations of future sailors would build on.  The Navy has served the nation and the world as a “Global Force for Good” for 236 years.

Tonight as you go to bed and sleep soundly after eating well and spending time with family, friends or enjoying some form of entertainment remember those of our Navy who serve at sea, in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, the cities of Iraq, the desolation of the Horn of Africa and around the world defending our interests, caring for our military personnel and their families and deploying to serve in harm’s way and in areas of devastation.  They are America’s “Global Force for Good.”  They are my shipmates.  They are the United States Navy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“I have not yet begun to Fight!” John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head

Battle off Flamborough Head September 23rd 1779

Two hundred thirty one years ago today a small naval battle occurred off the coast of Yorkshire England. From a purely military perspective the battle was rather insignificant. A squadron of five American and French ships intercepted a convoy guarded by two British ships. However, the battle was one that had immense psychological significance for the Americans as a ramshackle converted French East India ship with an inferior main battery forced a materially superior British warship to strike her colors. In fact the battle is so significant to the United States Navy that the body of the victor, Captain John Paul Jones was returned to the United States in 1905 from an abandoned site in northeastern Paris known as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants to be interred in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy. Jones had an unusual career as a British merchant skipper accused of murdering a mutinous crewman at Tobago and escaped to Fredericksburg Virginia out of fear that he would be tried in a local versus and Admiralty Court.

John Paul Jones

Jones went to the United States and due to his friendship with Henry “Lighthorse” Lee and other friends in the Continental Congress including a man who became a lifelong friend, Benjamin Franklin obtained a commission in the Continental Navy as a First Lieutenant.  At that time the “First Lieutenant” was the senior officer among the Lieutenants on a ship and often served as the First Officer or Executive Officer.  His first assignment was on the fleet flagship Alfred where he hoisted the first US Ensign aboard an American Naval vessel.  He took part in the raid on Nassau and upon his return assumed command of the Sloop of War Providence where he captured 16 prizes of war and escaped capture by the a British Frigate. He then assumed command of Alfred for a brief time capturing a key supply vessel that had winter clothing for British troops commanded by General Burgoyne in New York.  Following this he took command of the 18 gun Sloop of War Ranger in France received the first ever salute to an American man-of-war by a foreign power 8 days after the French had recognized the American Colonies as an independent nation.

Ranger receives the first salute rendered to an American warship by a foreign power

The nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship recognized this and the new Franco-American alliance. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.” After this made an epic raid on the port of Whithaven and captured the British 20 gun Brig HMS Drake in an hour long fight.  Jones’ raid on Whithaven struck fear into the British populace and forced the British to allocate more resources to the defense of British seaports than had previously been the case.  The capture of the Drake was of immense psychological importance and along with Jones’ other victories would ultimately lead to the formation of the United States Navy.

Bonhomme Richard

Jones’ exploits made him a celebrated figure and after giving up command of Ranger took command of the Bonhomme Richard a converted 42 gun former French East India ship named after Benjamin Franklin’s book “Poor Richards’ Almanac” and a mixed squadron of American and French ships including the 36 gun American Frigate Alliance, the 32 gun French Frigate Pallas and two 12 gun warships the Vengeance and Le Cerf. Detailed to provide a diversion for a combined French and Spanish fleet the squadron menaced Ireland and Scotland before moving into the North Sea.  As they came into English waters the Americans intercepted a 50 ship convoy on the 22nd of September. The convoy which was enroute to the Baltic was escorted by the 44 gun two-decker Serapis. Serapis was brand new and powerful in comparison with Bonhomme Richard though a larger ship was not designed as a warship nor had as powerful battery as Serapis. A second ship, the 20 gun Countess of Scarborough accompanied Serapis.

Jones directing the battle from the Bonhomme Richard

The battle was joined about 1800 on the 23rd and the Serapis which was more maneuverable than Jones’ flagship pounded the Bonhomme Richard holing her below the waterline and seriously damaging her with little damage to herself and Jones’ problems were compounded when with the first broadside two of Bonhomme Richard’s elderly 18 pounders burst damaging the ship and killing most of the gun crews on the lower deck.  Jones attempted to close the range in order to grapple the Serapis and make the battle a close aboard action. Eventually the bow of Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of Serapis and the Captain of Serapis Captain Richard Pearson hailed Jones to ask if he had struck his colors (surrendered.) The First Lieutenant of Bonhomme Richard Richard Dale recorded Jones’ response for posterity “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Alliance opens fire on Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

Serapis then collided with Bonhomme Richard and in his attempt to extricate his ship from the American Captain Pearson ended up causing the ships to come side to side and Jones’ crew lashed the ships together.  The fight now became a close quarter fight with the remaining guns on both ships blasting large holes in the other at point blank range while Marines in the rigging poured relentless musket fire and grenade volleys on the exposed crews of their opponents. An American grenade thrower was able to drop a grenade down an open hatch of Serapis where it exploded near a charge of gunpowder placed in readiness setting off a chain reaction of explosions which knocked out five guns and killed or wounded most of the gun crews.

Bonhomme Richard had taken a severe beating with most of her guns knocked out, taking water and burning from fires ignited by the British onslaught. The Bonhomme Richard’s Carpenter and Master of Arms thinking that Jones was dead took it on themselves to hail the British to say that the Americans had struck their colors, which had been shot away in the engagement.  Pearson hailed Jones asking of he had really struck and Jones responded “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” The battle continued and the Alliance under the command of a Frenchman with an American commission Pierre Landais came up and delivered a devastating broadside much of which hit Bonhomme Richard, holing her again below the waterline and causing her to settle rapidly. At the same time she caused additional damage to Serapis. With his ship badly damaged and Alliance threatening Pearson stuck his colors in person at 2230 hours.  Jones would take possession of Serapis and the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard would sink the on the 25th of September despite Jones’ best efforts to save her.  Jones made temporary repairs Serapis and sought refuge in the Netherlands.

The battle was militarily insignificant but again a major psychological victory as Jones had for the second time defeated a British warship in British waters within sight of the local population.  Even though Jones had taken Serapis the British warships completed their mission of protecting the convoy. Jones’s post war career would leave him embittered. His opportunity to command the first US Navy Ship of the Line, the 74 gun America disappeared when that ship was given to France. Made a Chevalier of France by Louis the XVI and awarded a gold medal by Congress Jones found employment in the Imperial Russian Navy of Catherine the Great. Though successful against the Turks  jealous Russian commanders conspired against him and had him removed from his command of the Black Sea Fleet.  He retired to France where he died of a brain tumor on July 18th 1792.

In the years since that victory the United States Navy went from a militarily insignificant force to the most powerful Navy in the world. Jones and the ships that he captained would not be forgotten. Two Aircraft Carriers were named after Jones’ Sloop of war Ranger, while several destroyers have born his name.

The odds against Jones in his battle with Serapis were heavily weighted against him.  His victory over Serapis was another demonstration that the Americans should not be taken lightly and began a tradition of valiant service for the Navy that has endured throughout the centuries.  The victory off Flamborough Head reaches into the present as American sailors and their ships ply the world’s oceans keeping the sea lanes open and protecting American interests abroad.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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