Integration in the U.S. Navy
Correcting a Misconception
C. L. Veit, Lieutenant, USNLP


As regards Civil War reenacting there is a misconception that, to be historically accurate, modern black1 Americans are limited to a portrayal in one of the many USCT2 infantry regiments, and that they and their fellow white3 history buffs cannot "take the field" together. This is not entirely true, for there is an avenue for reenactors of all colors to present together what will be for most people a surprising bit of history -- the U.S. Navy.

Naval reenacting is in itself a unique perspective on the Civil War and there have been many times when I have found myself answering the question, "Was there a navy in the Civil War?" Many people are simply unaware that the U.S. Navy existed that long ago4 and most folks are stumped as to what the contribution of the Navy was after the Monitor fought the Virginia5. So naval reenactors stand out in the crowd to begin with6. Another important fact that modern Americans are almost universally unaware of is the fact that the U.S. Navy was integrated before and during the war.

While much is made of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles' orders of 18627 instructing his officers to enlist "contrabands" in the service, in fact, these orders applied to escaped slaves and not to the free blacks already in the naval service. Since the time of the Revolution, black Americans had sailed the Navy's ships and fought her battles side by side with white sailors. This is not to try to present the Navy as being free of the prejudices of the period; certainly not. Laws were passed at several points in time to limit or reduce the numbers of black sailors (as well as sailors of foreign birth). Despite such laws, federal crew lists for ports such as Providence and Baltimore from the 1790s to the 1830s show that 15-20% (sometimes even 30%) of the men signing on in any given year were black. In 1816, 14% of the crew of the frigate Java were black, as were 10% of the Brandywine's compliment in 1842; by the end of the Civil War, fully 25% of enlisted sailors in the Union Navy were black.

The story of black sailors aboard American warships is a fascinating and almost totally unknown part of our heritage. The following description of that story is based upon information contained in James E. Valle's "Rocks & Shoals: Naval Discipline in the Age of Fighting Sail" and W. Jeffrey Bolster's "Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail." As a reenactor, I approached both of these books in hopes of better understanding the time of the person I was portraying (who, of course, would have had decades of experience prior to the Civil War); what I came away with were insights into a world I had had no idea even existed.

Discipline in the "Old Navy"8 of the new American Republic was more harsh than in the fleets of Great Britain. Enlisted sailors were treated with a severity that took no notice of the color of their skin. In part the roots of such harshness can be traced back to discipline problems during the Revolution as officers appointed by the Continental Congress tried to exercise control over the vessels of the various State Navies or as "outsiders" over crews comprised almost entirely of men and boys all from the same seaside town. Other practices can be traced back to notions of naval discipline that were begun by the Romans, adopted by the British, and passed along to the Americans almost totally unchanged. The low level of sailing technology of the day also supported a rigid discipline: almost 80% of a sailing ship's complement was dedicated to serving its guns in battle; the rest of the time these hands would be idle as the relatively small fraction of sailors required to actually sail the ship did any truly necessary work. On a ship-of-the-line with a crew of 500 this could mean almost 400 idle men. The need to maintain a rigid discipline over bored and sullen crews led to routines of tedious and repetitive "busy work" to maintain order.

The Navy -- disbanded after the Revolution because of budget concerns -- was reborn near the turn of the century during the intensely class-conscious Federalist period. Enlisted sailors were seen as being of a lower class than officers. Unlike other navies of the time, American seamen could never be promoted to officer rank; officers were appointed and, barring some extreme breach of policy or conduct, could expect to hold their status for life, moving slowly up a chain of promotion dictated solely by their place in line. Keeping the men in their "proper" places with an iron discipline became the hallmark of both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Merchant Marine. The primary means of discipline was by the lash, which was used freely for such "offenses" as "running in debt ashore" (12 lashes), "slow motion in getting into a boat" (6 lashes), or having "dirty or unwashed clothes" (12 lashes); a death sentence could be passed by sentencing to 300 lashes.

While military law has always been distinct from and less forgiving than civilian law, the severity of discipline in the Old Navy was hardly an inducement to enlistment for the sons of the new Republic, used as they were to the more lenient practices of the civilian courts. Because native-born citizens would not join in the numbers needed, this employment niche was open to black seamen and foreign-born whites. Unlike most white sailors many of the blacks were supporting families ashore. While white sailors (native or foreign born) were seen as occupying a very low rung on the social ladder, for black sailors a life at sea represented a freedom unobtainable on land. The extremely close and crowded conditions and the monotonous unison labor that was required to run a sailing man-of-war dictated an impartiality on the part of the officers that, in effect, made all enlisted men equal. For whites, the life of a sailor was as close as they could come to the slavery practiced upon blacks in the Southern States. The disciplinary records of the Old Navy make no mention of the color of an enlisted man's skin. One legacy of this environment is the continued reference to time spent ashore on leave as "liberty."

The abolition of slavery is the best known of the reform movements of the nineteenth century, but there were others. One was the elimination in 1862 of the rum ration traditionally issued to sailors. Another was the abolition in the Navy of flogging as a means of punishment. This movement was an integral part of the larger attempt to end slavery. The naval disciplinary reform movement aimed to address the entire naval justice system, which by default treated all enlisted sailors as lower-class citizens. While the justice system had long been the subject of protest, the forces of reform could never make much headway against the united front of Federalists and Southerner congressmen. As James Valle says in "Rocks & Shoals,"

"During the decades after 1815, the North, having shed Federalism, began to move toward more enlightened methods of social control. As the sectional and ideological dispute between the North and the South grew deeper and more heated, the question of naval discipline and its reform became a small part of the larger struggle. The Southerners perceived that a liberalization or humanization of naval discipline would give aid and comfort to those forces which opposed the flogging of slaves and the draconian treatment meted out to runaway bondsmen. Northerners felt that if they could liberalize military discipline, it would have the effect of leaving the Southern slaveholders standing in embarrassed isolation as the last remaining practitioners of flogging and arbitrary justice in general."

In short, as long as the federal government sanctioned flogging in the Navy, the slave states could not be singled out as the sole practitioners of this means of discipline. Having been born in the Federalist period, the U.S. Navy was heir to its tradition of strict class distinction and harsh discipline even after the Northern states moved beyond this.

Efforts to reform the harsh disciplinary practices of the Merchant Marine and of the Navy were aided by the writings of authors Richard Henry Dana and Herman Melville in their books, "Two Years Before the Mast" (1840) and "White Jacket" (1850), respectively. The scenes described in their works shocked the nation and did much to lead to necessary changes. Flogging was abolished in the U.S. Navy in 18509; it would be thirteen more years and a terrible war before slavery was abolished.


The influx of blacks into the Navy during the war was occasioned primarily by their availability at a time when the Navy had a great need for increased manpower. Wartime attrition – due to combat as well as disease – took a toll on the Navy’s pool of sailors. There were occasions when newly purchased or constructed vessels sat idle for want of crews. The Southern climate also adversely affected Northern sailors unused to the heat and humidity;10 witness Admiral Porter’s comment that, "White men cannot stand the Southern sun, an exposure to which inevitably brings on the disease of this climate, remittent fever..." It was reasoned that Southern blacks, used to the climate, could serve in those duties that required exposure to the sun, namely as ship’s boat crew or as coal heavers. Large numbers of escaped or freed slaves flocked to "Abe Lincoln’s gunboats." While there is evidence that the Army in some instances pressed such people into service without their consent, the Navy insisted that any potential recruit meet the necessary physical tests and join of their own free will. Groups of runaway slaves that reached U.S. vessels were polled for recruits, as were the large populations of ex-slaves that resided at the various Navy yards and bases. These "contrabands" were enlisted initially as ship’s boys and later as "landsmen" (recruits). The Navy paid them at the same rate as whites. Like most of the volunteers who enlisted for the war, the majority of black sailors remained landsmen. This had nothing to do with the color of their skin -- the American Navy simply did not promote from the ranks. Also, to be fair, it took years to make a raw recruit into an "Ordinary Seaman" with the experience necessary to earn such rating. One vessel, the Darlington, was crewed entirely by "contraband" sailors and white officers.11 From the ranks of more veteran black seamen came a variety of petty officers: captains of the hold, captains of the foretop, carpenter’s mates, coxswains, gunner’s mates, cooks, stewards, and quartermasters. In the course of the war, eight black sailors earned the Medal of Honor.

While all black sailors played a part in winning the war, it is important to note that the "contrabands" were not the first sailors of color in the Navy. There had always been black sailors. It has only been in the retelling that their story has been overlooked or omitted.12 If, as reenactors, we are dedicated to relating history "as it really was", then this is a largely unknown part of the American story that definitely needs to be included.

1I detest hyphens before the word "American." As I do not style myself "German-English-Scottish-Welsh-Dutch-Austrian-Seneca-Danish-Swiss-Irish-American", so I choose to avoid hyphenating everyone else. I am sensitive to current usage, however, and apologize to anyone I might offend with these now somewhat outmoded usages. Please bear in mind that the intent of this article is to promote an understanding of a common experience shared by sailors of all colors during the Civil War; as such, using those divisive hyphens seemed self-defeating.
2 United States Colored Troops.
3 About as accurate as "black"…
4Since 1794 actually.
5Somewhat better known by her previous name, Merrimack; the Confederate States Navy renamed her CSS Virginia.
6We typically attribute this to the sharper uniforms and the fact that we are far more handsome than the Army fellows…
7Navy Department orders concerning "contrabands" progressed from allowing enlistment at a rating of "Ship's Boy" (September 1861) [a matter of necessity due to the overwhelming numbers of freed slaves residing at Navy yards and aboard ships]; to countenancing service in boat crews (April 1862); to allowing advancement to "Landsman" and then "Ordinary Seaman", "Fireman", and "Coal Heaver" (December 1862); and finally to granting permission to include them as part of gun crews (July 1863). "Contrabands" were specifically cited in the later orders as being ineligible for advancement to petty officer ratings; this is in keeping with the spirit of the Navy at the time. Even among the officers enlisted for the war a distinction was maintained between "career" and "volunteer" officers, and only the former could sit in courts-martial. Such restrictions did not apply to veteran black crewmen. (Source for all orders are The Official Records of the Navies.)
9As an interesting footnote, some of the most vocal opponents of the abolition of flogging were the sailors themselves -- because they feared what more deviant and creative punishments awaited them at the hands of officers denied the lash.
10If you think Southern heat and humidity was rough on soldiers, the temperatures inside an ironclad gunboat could reach incredible highs. The engineers aboard the Monitor measured the temperature at 146 degrees in the engine room, 164 degrees in the galley, and 126 degrees in the crew quarters.
11For protection against Confederate reprisals during expeditions, this ship enjoyed the added protection of anywhere from ten to forty armed men specially placed aboard her. 12Bolster explains why this is so in an online interview with Seacoast NH:
"For a variety of reasons, in the 20th century, the late 20th century, people haven’t looked for [African-American mariners]. What are those reasons? For African American people the memory of going to sea has been lost from their communities because by the early 20th century Jim Crow unions prohibited black men from shipping out… Another reason is that in the early 20th century a lot of the maritime history museums that were created were children really of the colonial revival. They were created by well-to-do, white easterners, wishing to capture a certain vision of their past and there was an airbrushing out of black people in a variety of roles, specifically in the maritime roles. In the kind of iconography – the placemats, the posters, the film casting, the statuary -- that was meant to evoke the maritime past became transformed. No longer did you see, like in the Federal crew list, 20 or 25 percent black men in a given ship. You didn’t see any. So for various reasons within the white communities, within the black communities in seaports up and down the east cast, the memory of what was once a very important part of African American, what was once a very important part of maritime America, was lost."

Source works:
Bolster, W. Jeffrey, "Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail"
Bolster, W. Jeffrey, online interview at
Canney, Donald L., "Lincoln's Navy"
Kelley, J. Patrick, "Contrabands,"
Valle, James E., "Rocks & Shoals: Naval Discipline in the Age of Fighting Sail"

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