Tag Archives: war of 1812

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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1812: The Year of the Frigates

USS Constitution

This is the second of a series of articles I will write commemorating the 236th anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy. This article discusses the actions of the USS Constitution and USS United States at the outbreak of hostilities in which they defeated three British Frigates in battles that are legend in the annals of Naval History. I grew up reading the stories of naval actions during the War of 1812 with rapt fascination.  I could describe the battles, the ships and the brave Captains in detail even at a young age.  I can close my eyes and see the paintings, drawings and the diagrams of the ships, their sailors and the battles that they fought. I guess that I was destined to end up in the Navy. But then how could I not? My birthday falls on March 27th, the anniversary of the founding of the current United States Navy.  

On March 27th 1794 the Congress of the United States appropriated funds to establish a Navy built around six powerful Frigates, the 44 Gun USS Constitution, USS President and USS United States and the 38 Gun USS Congress, USS Constellation and USS Chesapeake.  The 44 gun ships were larger and had a heavier armament than the majority of their British, French or Spanish counterparts.  Although rated as 44 Guns they mounted 56 guns, 30 of which were the heavy 24 pound cannons and 22 were the short range but powerful 32 pound carronades. They were built of oaken timbers that were of the size used to build Ships of the Line in other navies.  In comparison the standard Royal Navy Frigate of the day was the 38 gun ship mounting 18 pound cannons.  The ships would serve during the Quasi-War withFrance from 1798-1800 and the First Barbary War from 1801-1805.

Chase of the Constitution

When the United Stateswent to war with Britainin 1812 neither side was well prepared. The British were deeply engaged in the Napoleonic Wars and the bulk of the Royal Navy was engaged in blockade operations against Franceand its allies on Europe’s Atlanticand Mediterranean coasts.  Deployed the Western Atlantic was a 64 Gun Ship of the Line HMS Africa 9 Frigates and assorted and about 75 smaller vessels.  The United States Navy was minuscule even compared with the forces deployed by the Royal Navy to the Western Atlantic.

Captain Isaac Hull

When the Federalist administration of John Adams left office the Navy was on the ascendant.  Built around a nucleus of 13 Frigates with six 74 gun Ships of the Line under construction the Navy was reduced to just 8 Frigates, most of which were laid up in dry dock at any given time.  There was an anti-Navy sentiment in the Republican administrations of  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  The building program was ended and replaced with a program of gunboat construction.  About 174 of these were built between 1805 and 1812 but only 62 were in service at the time of the war.   They were particularly unsuited to engaging any substantial British ship as they were too lightly built and were poor sea boats with a light armament and it would take 40 gunboats to match the firepower of a single British Frigate.  Likewise instead of being cheap to build and maintain the cost per gunboat came out to $10,000 each instead of the budgeted cost of $5000 and their cost to maintain one gunboat per year was more than that of a Frigate.

Captain Stephen Decatur

The reduction of the “blue water” Navy was a move of political ideology. Despite the obvious need to protect commerce as was displayed during the Quasi-War and the First Barbary War the Jefferson administrations was intent on a coastal defense strategy to which the gunboats were key.  However it was poor naval policy because there was no way to determine where any actual British strike would take place and the dispersion of the gunboats meant that there would never be enough at any port to repel the Royal Navy.

Captain William Bainbridge

When war was declared the United States Navy comprised of just 8 Frigates and 14 smaller Sloops and Brigs and the worthless gunboats.  Since the build program was stopped the Navy had no Ships of the Line.   The Secretary of the Navy was an incompetent named Paul Hamilton and the Jeffersonian strategy of coastal defense was embraced by Albert Gallatin who recommended that all the Navy’s large ships be turned into floating batteries for harbor defense.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerrière

The Navy was fortunate to have bold officers with the combat experience of the Quasi-War and the Barbary War under their belt.  The ships had fine crews of well trained professional sailors who excelled at seamanship and gunnery.  Taking advantage of the thinly stretched Royal Navy a squadron under Commodore John Rodgers was already at sea when the administration decided on the coastal defense strategy and forced the Royal Navy to divert many ships that could have decimated the merchant marine of the time allowing many American flagged ships to safely reach port with their cargo.

The USS Constitution under the command of Captain Isaac Hull sailed from Boston at the outbreak of hostilities and nearly met disaster when it ran into a Royal Navy squadron comprised of the HMS Africa and 5 Frigates.  Becalmed Hull and his crew used every device known to escape in an epic 57 hour close quarter chase.  He returned to Boston, replenished his stores and set sail again.  On August 19th some 600 miles out of Boston Constitution came across the 38 Gun Frigate HMS Guerrière. The Captain of Guerrière was James Dacres who had a low opinion of the United States Navy. Hull directed the fire of his powerful 24 pounders into Guerrière shredding her rigging and smashing her hull. Two hours after the fight began Dacres struck Guerrière’s colors.  Guerrière was so badly damaged that she was burned and sunk with her crew taken back to Boston as prisoners.  During the action a sailor aboard Constitution noted that Guerrière’s shot was bouncing harmlessly off of the thick oaken sides of the ship. He is quoted as shouting “Huzza, her sides are made of iron,” which provided the ship her nickname Old Ironsides. Constitution lost 7 men killed and 7 wounded in the battle while Guerrière lost 15 killed and 78 wounded of her 272 member crew.

USS United States vs. HMS Macedonian

The USS United States under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur found the 38 Gun HMS Macedonian under the command of Captain John S. Carden 600 miles west of the Canary Islands.  The battle commenced at 0920 and firing from long range Decatur’s gunners partially dismasted Macedonian leaving her hard to maneuver. Decatur then positioned United States on the quarter of Macedonian and pounded the helpless British ship into submission.  Macedonian surrendered about 1200.  Damage to the United States was light and 7 sailors were killed and 5 wounded.  Macedonian lost over one-third of her 301 man crew killed or wounded.  The Americans took over the British vessel and after temporary repairs at sea the United States and the newly christened USS Macedonian sailed for New York arriving on December 4th 1812.  The ship would serve in the U.S. Navy until 1828 when she was broken up at Norfolk.

USS Constitution vs HMS Java

In late October 1812 the Constitution now under the command of Captain William Bainbridge sailed from Boston.  This time she encountered the 38 Gun Frigate HMS Java under the command of Captain Richard Lambert off the coast of Brazil on December 29th 1812.  Java was a fine ship with a well drilled crew and brave Captain and she was faster than Constitution.  Though she was rated as 38 Guns she had 49 mounted making her a far tougher opponent than Guerrière or Macedonian. In addition to her own crew she had on board 100 additional sailors to reinforce ships inIndia. She was carrying Lieutenant General Thomas Hislop who was to command British forces inIndia, officers from his staff and several other high ranking Royal Navy officers enroot to commands inIndia.

The action commenced about 1410 and Lambert was able to maneuver across Constitution’s stern 3 times shooting away her helm at 1430 and wounding Bainbridge. Constitution was able to close with Java and the ships became fouled which took away the advantage Java had temporarily acquired.  Java had her bowsprit and jib boom shot away at 1500 and in the next 55 minutes Constitution dismasted Java with the exception of part of her mainmast which went over the side at 1620.  The gallant Captain Lambert was mortally wounded at 1530 and command was assumed by Lieutenant Henry D. Chads.  At 1725 Constitution took up a raking position and Lieutenant Chads after consulting with his surviving officers struck the colors.  The battered Java was not salvageable and was burned and sunk the next day but not before Java’s helm was salvaged and installed on Constitution.  In an ironic twist Commodore Henry Chads in command of a British squadron at Singapore in 1845 provided medical assistance to Constitution when her crew suffered an outbreak of Dysentery and fevers during her around the world cruise.

Within the space of four months the Royal Navy lost three Frigates and forbade their Frigate Captains not to engage the American “Super-Frigates” one on one.  Only Ships of the Line or squadrons would be allowed to engage the American ships.

Over the next two years the British tightened their blockade of American ports bottling up most of the Navy.  The Navy lost two of the Super-Frigates to the British during the war, the 36 gun USS Chesapeake which was captured by HMS Shannon on June 1st 1813 and the USS President on January 15th 1815.

Neither was a fair fight, Chesapeake’s Captain James Lawrence was new to the ship which had a new and poorly trained crew and Shannon was one of the most combat effective ships in the Royal Navy whose Captain was Philip Broke had been her skipper for 7 years and trained the crew into a well drilled machine.  Lawrencewas mortally wounded but uttered the cry which immortalized him “Don’t give up the ship, fight her until she sinks.” Lawrence’s friend Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry would name his flagship on Lake Erie the USS Lawrence and fly a flag that read “Don’t give up the Ship.”  The USS President under the command of Stephen Decatur was lost after she was badly damaged in a winter gale and snowstorm when pilots navigated her onto a sand bar.  Although Decatur was able to move the ship off the bar she was badly damaged and caught by a superior British squadron and captured.

The exploits of the small force of Frigates and smaller ships on the high seas and Perry’s squadron onLake Erie proved to be the only real military successes of the war.  But even more it was the three engagements in the closing months of 1812 that defined the spirit of the United States Navy for generations.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Naming of a New Aircraft Carrier and the Centrality of the Navy in Future National Security Strategy

USS HUE CITY CG-66 Enforcing the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq in April 2002

“Control of the seas means security. Control of the seas means peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the sea if it is to protect our security.” —John F. Kennedy

“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.” Admiral Arleigh Burke

Over the Memorial Day weekend Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the naming of the second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier.  The name selected was significant as the ship will be named the USS John F. Kennedy CVN-79, her namesake being President John F. Kennedy who served as a junior officer in the Second World War commanding a Patrol Torpedo Boat, PT-109 in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy’s boat was rammed and split in two by the Japanese Fubuki class destroyer Amagiri in the early hours of August 2nd 1943.  Over a period of six days he made herculean efforts to save his crew and was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.

The United States has always been a seafaring nation and today the vast majority of our commerce is borne by ships from the world over. The United States learned during the Revolution and the War of 1812 the importance of sea power when the Royal Navy for all intents and purposes rules the waves. Even the land victory of Washington at Yorktown was sealed by the intervention of the French Fleet which prevented the British from evacuating the garrison.  During the Civil War the Union Navy was the deciding factor as it blockaded Southern ports and forced the Mississippi River cutting the Confederacy in two and sealing its fate even as Confederate armies battled Union forces in the bloodiest battles ever seen on this continent. The Navy was the deciding factor in the Spanish American War sweeping the Spanish Navy from the seas and dooming its garrisons around the world.  The U.S. Navy began the First World War late but by the end was the ascendant naval power in the world and was one of the major reasons that the British in spite of the superiority that they had at the time agreed to the Washington and later London Naval accords.  When the Second World War erupted the United States was in the beginning stages of a Naval build up to reinforce and replace the fleet that was still dominated by the ships built prior to the Naval treaties.   In the Pacific the Japanese Navy steamrolled its scattered and ill equipped opposition while in the Atlantic German U-Boats decimated convoys very nearly breaking the back of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. However it was the Navy initially stretched to its limits by the Two Ocean War which regained the initiative which in an unprecedented build up of Naval Power defeated its adversaries and safeguarded the vast convoys of merchant ships carrying American troops and equipment into battle and bringing American Lend Lease aid to reach Britain and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam the Navy was a flexible and mobile response force to crises around the globe military, diplomatic and humanitarian, often diffusing situations without a shot having to be fired in anger and eliminating the need for large numbers of ground forces. In the 1980s the Navy secured the Gulf of Sirte against the threats of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and kept the Persian Gulf open during the Tanker Wars initiated by Iran on merchant ships transiting the Gulf. American naval power was again on display during the Gulf War and subsequent United Nations sanctions on Iraq.  After 9-11 the Navy has been a response force around the globe in the War on Terrorism as well as numerous natural disasters and humanitarian crises. When a crisis develops which might require a military response the first questions on the mind of every Presidential administration has been where is the nearest Carrier Strike Group and Marine Expeditionary unit.  Today the Navy supports military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa and against piracy.

The vast majority of the world’s populations now live on the littorals, or the land areas adjacent to the ocean.  The bulk of world commerce is maritime commerce; the United States depends on secure sea lanes to support our economy.

While sea power is essential to American national power, diplomatic, economic and military large standing armies are not. Yes our land forces must be strong and in quality the best in the world. At the same time whenever we have committed large numbers of land forces to ill defined campaigns we have squandered national power and prestige in wars that have been at best stalemates and at worst strategic defeats. This of course excemts the two World Wars where those large land forces were engaged they had a specific mission that was directly tied to national strategy.

We have come to a place in our national life where our strategic thinking still largely influenced by the World Wars and the Cold War has to be modified.  The major land wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven incredibly costly in terms of manpower and economics and it is clear that the Obama administration and bipartisan Congress will seek to disengage sooner rather than later from those wars.  One knows that once those wars are over that land forces will shrink as plans are already on the table with cuts already beginning in some services.

Of course one has to ask what the military should be composed of in light of a coherent national security strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of threats to our nation many of which are not military in a traditional sense. To sustain large numbers of land forces on foreign territory is expensive and often fraught with peril when there are changes in the leadership of allied nations on which we depend for the basing of such forces. Even forward deployed Air Force assets are subject to these constraints.  Such basing was necessitated by the Soviet threat during the Cold War.  All previous overseas conflicts were viewed by American leaders as expeditionary in nature, land forces would go in with a specific goal for a limited time. If forces were left in place they were generally small and of a constabulary nature.

Only the Navy-Marine Corps team provides the flexibility to provide a rapid military or humanitarian response to overseas contingencies.  Critics call it “gunboat diplomacy” but then we have found what we are doing is not sustainable and we need an alternative.  That alternative is the Sea Services, which also include the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.  The Bush administration reduced the Navy in terms of ships and personnel in order to support land wars of questionable strategic value, even turning thousands of Sailors into soldiers to support Army missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without reducing and even expanding the requirements of Naval forces.  This was a mistake of unmitigated proportions, no strategic goal that we have accomplished in either Iraq or Afghanistan could not have been accomplished by the Navy and Marine Corps and contingents of Special Forces, military and civilian advisors and the CIA.

Theodore Roosevelt had a saying, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was not an isolationist by any means; he advocated engagement with the world but also protections, military, economic and ecological for Americans.   A strong Navy was central to his thinking as were good relations with other nations.  He understood the importance of the Navy in supporting American interests. In his annual address to Congress on December 6th 1904 he stated:

“In treating of our foreign policy and of the attitude that this great Nation should assume in the world at large, it is absolutely necessary to consider the Army and the Navy, and the Congress, through which the thought of the Nation finds its expression, should keep ever vividly in mind the fundamental fact that it is impossible to treat our foreign policy, whether this policy takes shape in the effort to secure justice for others or justice for ourselves, save as conditioned upon the attitude we are willing to take toward our Army, and especially toward our Navy. It is not merely unwise, it is contemptible, for a nation, as for an individual, to use high-sounding language to proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force. If there is no intention of providing and keeping the force necessary to back up a strong attitude, then it is far better not to assume such an attitude.”

Roosevelt understood better than most of his peers around the world of the necessity of worldwide engagement and the protection of American interests.  As interdependent as the United States and our allies are on international cooperation in anti-terrorism, humanitarian response and the free flow of commerce the Sea Services have to be the primary means of response.  Land forces are important but it is clear that they will need to be reorganized and rebuilt after the long and arduous conflicts that they have shouldered and ultimately they are dependent on the Navy for the bulk of their support when deployed overseas.

Any new national security strategy must prioritize our nation’s goals with diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic assets. We must leverage power and not squander it.  Naval forces are among the most flexible and economic means of exercising the military aspects of such strategy and are not hostage to unstable governments as are forward deployed land forces.   Naval power leverages national power in ways that forward deployed land forces cannot and are far more connected to goodwill than are ground forces which are seen by many around the world as occupying forces.

British Maritime strategist Julian Corbett in his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategyprovides a clear understanding of how sea power is best suited to the principle of a true national strategy for a maritime nation which emphasized limited and asymmetrical warfare.  Such strategy sustained the British Empire until it allowed itself to become mired in the trenches of Flanders and the shores of Gallipoli during the First World War killing off the flower of the nation’s youth and nearly bankrupting the nation and alienating much of the empire.

Corbett maintained that naval forces were best suited to controlling lines of communications, focus on the enemy, and maneuver for tactical advantage.  He also believed that naval forces best suited the political, economic and financial dimensions of waging war as well as war’s technological and material aspects.  One key aspect of this was the Corbett believed that continental war where large land armies are deployed inherently act against opponents limiting their political aims and increase the chance of total war with all of its destructive effects.  Corbett understood, as Clausewitz did before him the primacy of politics in war and necessity to devise appropriate strategies to protect the national interests while emphasizing efficiency in battle while preserving costly assets.

Ultimately the United States is a maritime power. When we try to become a continental power by engaging in protected land wars overseas we lose our strategic and economic advantage.  One can argue that we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan today had it not been for the deployment of land and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf War.

The new USS John F. Kennedy when completed will be one of the key platforms of American power projection in the middle part of this century and it is important that we strengthen and modernize the Navy so that it might meet the tasks required of it by our nation and our friends around the world.  It is imperative that we as a nation remember our heritage and return to it as we develop a strategy that is at last freed from the World War and Cold War model.  The time for that is now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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