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Black Navy Nurses
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Red Rover

Black women served both the Army and Navy as Nurses during the Civil War.

During the Civil War, it was not unusual for black women to serve as nurses for both the Union Army and Navy.  Black women who served the Army as nurses were either civilian volunteers of civilian contract workers.  Union Navy muster rolls show that several black women shipped (enlisted) as Navy personnel.  They usually received a rating of "1st - 3rd class Boy".  The rating of boy was usually assigned to male recruits under the age of 18.  Although a large number of  Contrabands (run-away slaves or recently liberated slaves) over the age of 18, were shipped as boys.  The enlistment of contrabands at the rank of "boy" had been authorized by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells early in the war.  The ratings of boys were the lowest of the enlisted pay grades with rates of pay from 7 - 9 dollars per month.  Although under Navy regulations it was forbidden to enlist females, it seems that it was done to meet the need for workers such as cooks, nurses, and laundresses and also to limit the cost of employing contrabands. 

The first Navy hospital ship, the U.S.S. Red Rover operated as part of the Mississippi Squadron.   Several black women served in various positions, including as nurses aboard the Red Rover.  These women were not civilian contract employees nor were they  civilian volunteers.  Most are listed on the rolls as employed by the hospital as nurses  The Red Rover was administered under the jurisdiction of Fleet Surgeon Ninian A. Pinckney.  Many of these women served as aides to the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross who were part of the medical staff.  These lay nurses were the forerunners of the Navy Nurse Corps.

One case in particular was that of  Ann Stokes who served as a nurse on the Red Rover.  according to enlistment records, Ann Stokes enlisted as a nurse on January 1, 1863 and served until October of 1864.  Ann Stokes applied for and was granted a pension under the Act of June 27, 1890.  The second section of the Act of June 27, 1890, provides, "that all persons who served ninety day or more in the military or naval service of the United States during the late war of the rebellion, and who have been honorably discharged there from*** shall upon making due proof, be placed upon the list of invalid pensioners of the United States"  There is nothing in the section quoted or in the Act itself that say weather said person shall be a man or woman.  Ann Stokes remained on the pension roll until her death in 1903.  It is believed that she was the first woman to enlist in the US Navy.  She along with others pioneered the way for women of all races to serve in the armed forces of this nation.  We must keep her story and those of the other first Navy Nurses alive.

Byron W. Childress


Notes and Announcements In Search of Women of African Descent who Served in the Civil War Union Navy: by Lisa Y. King, Journal of Negro History

Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: by Steven J. Ramold, Northern Illinois University Press


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