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Civil War Navy 1861-1865
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African Americans in the Civil War Navy 1861-1865

African Americans have a history of maritime service that dates back before the American Revolution.  African Americans have served this Nation's Navy in every conflict that America has been involved in.  In most of the accounts of the Civil War, emphasis has been placed on land battles that were fought in various regions of the Southern and Northern States.  Very little has been told of the “War on the 
Waters”.  Battles and strategies that were acted out on the oceans, seas and inland waterways,
played an important part in the war and have long been neglected.  Even more neglected, has been the history of African Americans in the Union Navy.

How many served

It was difficult to determine the number of men of color who served. That was because the Navy was racially integrated and did not keep separate records for blacks and whites.   Unlike the Navy, the Army was segregated and grouped all men of color under the Bureau of Colored Troops, organized into regiments and commanded by white officers.  This made it much easier to determine numbers and data.


The Numbers

    The first estimate of 29,511 was revealed by the Secretary of the Navy  around the turn of the Century.  This estimate was reached by dividing the overall navy enlistment figure of 118.044 by four [25%].

    In 1973 David L. Valuska’s dissertation downsized it to slightly less than 10,000. [9,600] This figure was reached by his review of existing navy enlistment records.

    Over the last ten years, a special research partnership between Howard University, the Department of the Navy and the National Park Service has been able to examine a much larger number of records and have confirmed that nearly 18,000 men and 11 women served.

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation:

Black enlistments were limited to 5% of the navy's enlisted force.

Although Black enlistments were limited to 5% at the start of the Civil War, only about 2.5%  of U.S. Navy sailors were men of color. By the second quarter of 1862 enlistments had increased to 15% By the third quarter of 1863 thru 1864 the numbers had increased to 23%. By the third quarter of 1864 thru the third quarter of 1865 it was 17%.  At the end of the war after many men had been discharged the number of black sailors was down to 15%


 President Lincoln orders a blockade of Southern ports.

  At the start of the war the Union Navy had less than 70 vessels. Less than 50 that were operational and around 30 of those were away on duty at various stations around the globe.   By the end of the war there would be around 700 navy vessels in operation.


The Anaconda Plan

The Anaconda Plan called for cutting off Confederate commerce by the blockading of over 3,400 miles of coastline and  patrolling  the high seas.  The next phase was to patrol inland waterways and divide the South by a major thrust along the Mississippi River.  These actions along with coordinated land operations were designed to overcome the Confederate war effort.



1.    Blockade of Southern ports

2.    Protect merchant shipping from Confederate Commerce Raiders.

3.    Hunt down and destroy Confederate Commerce raiders in both European and Caribbean waters.

4.    Control the inland waterways in order to stop the movement of supplies, troops and to take charge of the land area and divide the Confederacy.





Prior to Jan 1, 1863

  Navy enlisted blacks and assigned them ranks fitting their skill level.  Unskilled men were rated as boys or landsmen according to their age and capabilities. Many men enlisted from the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay area (Del, MD and VA)  A large number of men from states located along the Mississippi River helped to meet the Navy's manpower requirements.

  Recruiting was done at Navy recruiting stations set up in cities and port areas mostly on the east coast in the New England and Mid Atlantic areas. The Navy offered inducements such as better pay, prize money, and regular promotions.  Recruits were promised and received, a fair justice system.  Better medical care in modern naval hospitals was available to sailors. 

   After Jan. 1863

 Secretary Of the Navy Gideon Wells stated that unskilled Contrabands would be enlisted into the Navy with the rating of Boy.  Civilians were hired as civilian contractors for positions that would otherwise require a officer or petty officer such as pilots, etc. Some pilots were paid as much as Navy officers up to $1500.00 per year or more.

 Black women were enlisted into the Navy  originally as cooks, bakers, laundresses, etc. some of them served as nurses aboard the Red Rover, the Navy’s first Hospital Ship and other vessels.  Treating of wounded was difficult aboard navy ships and gunboats due to the limited number of medical personnel, lack of space and medical equipment.  It was very difficult to make a wounded man comfortable in a hammock.   Harriet Ruth, a black nurse, served onboard the U.S.S. Black Hawk.  Harriet Little served as a nurse along with her husband, also a nurse aboard the U.S.S. Hartford.   Ann Stokes drew a Navy pension for her service as a nurse from Jan. 1, 1863 to October 25, 1864 aboard the hospital Ship Red Rover.


   Ranks and positions held by Blacks

1.    Contrabands:  Boys and Landsmen

2.    Experienced sailors: able Seaman and Seaman

3.    Petty Officers, Petty Officers of the Staff & Petty Officers of the Line

4.    There were no black Commissioned U.S. Naval Officers during the Civil War.

5.    Free blacks hired on as civilian contractors, pilots, engineers, mechanics, etc.  Some pilots, engineers and mechanics were paid salaries that equaled the pay of some Commissioned Officers.


Blacks served on nearly all Ships and in all areas of operation.

Blockading Squadron.

Docks and Yards

Mediterranean Squadron

African Squadron. (interdicting the slave trade

Riverine Squadron.


   Racial prejudice existed in the 19th Century U.S Navy as it did in all other walks of life during that period.  Racism was a fact of life.   Navy policy treated blacks and whites the same according to regulations.  This sometimes depended on the attitudes of local Commanding Officers.  Some blacks suffered under racist officers and shipmates (Irish sailors seemed to be the most hostile towards blacks) There had been trouble in Navy yards and dock areas in some cities.  Some unskilled white workers feared that free blacks would take their jobs and work for lower wages. (the same claims that you hear even today but directed towards South American and Asian emigrants)

Some veteran black sailors sometimes held themselves apart from contrabands.  They felt that they were professional seaman and did not want to be identified as contrabands.  Some recruits who had been classified as Contrabands took a lot of hazing from some white sailors.  Still Black sailors in most instances faired better in the Union Navy as opposed to the Army.


Monthly Pay

·       Boy 3rd Class $8.00

·       Boy 2nd Class $9.00

·       Boy 1st Class  $10.00

·       Landsman $12.00

·       Ordinary Seaman $14.00

·       Seaman $16.00 - $18.00

·       Petty Officers $30.00 - $70.00  Average ($40.00)

·       Stewards and cooks $30.00 - $55.00

·       Surgeons Assistants $30 - $55.00

·       Reenlistment bonus of three months pay if reenlisted within 30 days of discharge date.

·       Pay was posted to the books and paid to the sailor upon discharge.  Small amounts could be drawn for liberty.  The Navy unlike the Army had a pay allotment program where a portion of a sailors pay could be sent to his family on a Monthly basis.


Clothing and equipment

·       Uniform: There was no standard mandatory uniform until 1864.  The dress of enlisted men was left up to the local  Commander.

·      One winter blue wool jumper and pair of trousers.  One blue wool flat hat.

·       Tropical white cotton Mostly for dress or shore liberty.  ( most sailors made their own extra uniforms or had them made by other sailors who had sewing skills)

·       Silk scarf

·       Shoes: brogans or marine boots

·       Sailors could decorate with embroidery (up to the discretion of the Commanding Officer)

·       Weapons:  Cutlass, 36 cal Navy Colt pistol, boarding Ax, boarding pike.  (weapons were property of the ship and were kept locked in weapons lockers or chest.  They were issued when needed for battle stations during combat or for shore operations.  After the action was completed weapons were again secured under lock and key)

·       Sea bag

·       Ditty bag

·       Blanket

·       Canvas hammock


  ·       Grog rations (rum or whiskey mixed with water) was issued first thing in the morning and again with the evening meal. Men who did not drink could receive a credit of five cents per day on the pay books.

·       Grog rations were abolished on Aug. 31, 1862.  The navy  compensated its sailors with an additional five cents per day in pay.

·      3 regular meals each day

·       Dry bed

·       Good medical care regardless of race.


Medal of Honor winners

Eight black sailors won the Medal of Honor.  (seven were awarded)  

(coming soon special articles on Medal of Honor winners)

  Robert Smalls

First African American Hero of the Civil War (go to the Robert Smalls Page)

  Black sailors played an important role in the Union Navy.  Many had a chance to contribute their skills and expertise to the Union war effort.  Unskilled contrabands supplied the much-needed manpower  during the buildup of the Navy.  

Life in the Union Navy offered several advantages to black Americans.  They were treated fairly in most instances, faired much better under the navy’s judicial system than soldiers in the army, had better medical care, better food and could look forward to promotion as long as they developed skills and avoided disciplinary problems.  The US Navy was the first armed service that offered blacks a chance to strike a blow for freedom by contributing to the war effort as a fighting member of the armed forces.

The transition from sail to steam powered vessels eliminated the need for large numbers of seamen to crew both naval and merchant ships.  Blacks were the first to be effected by the cutbacks.  Following reconstruction racism and Jim Crow practices nearly eliminated blacks from naval service for a number of years.  It took a World War to open the doors of opportunity again.

by: Byron W. Childress
September 20, 2002 

The Web Foot Flotilla

African Americans in the Civil War Navy 1861-1865



September 20, 2002


bulletBlack men in Navy Blue During The Civil War…Dr. Joseph P. Reidy Prolog Magazine Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No.3
bulletNotes and Announcements, Journal of Black History Vol. 32, Fall 1995
bulletCivil War History Magazine, June 2001 “Frictions”: Shipboard Relations between White and Contraband Sailors. Author/s Michael J. Bennett
bulletLife in Lincoln’s Navy By Dennis Ringle, U.S. Naval Institute Press
bulletBlack Jacks by Dr. W. Jeffery Bolster Cambridge University Press, Copyright 1997
bulletBlack American in the Navy All Hands 634 (Nov, 1969): 2631
bulletHailey, Leonard W. “Role of Black Sailors In the Major wars of America” All Hands 679 (Aug. 1973): 5561
bulletHope, Richard O. Racial Strife in the U.S. Military: Toward the Elimination of Discrimination.  New York: Praeger, 1979. OCLC 5491621.
bulletNelson, Dennis D. The Integration of the Negro Into the Navy1776 – 1947. New York: Farrar, Straus
bulletQuarles, Benjamin A.  The Negro in the Making of America. 3d ed. New York: collier Books, 1996
bulletNaval Landing Party, Integration in the U.S. Navy “Correcting a Misconception, By C.L. Veit, Lt., USNLP
bulletA Grand Army of Black Men By Edwin S. Redkey, Letters from African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861 – 1865, Chapter 9, The Navy, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
bulletDivided Waters, The Naval History of the Civil War, Ivan Musicant, Castile Books 1943
bulletSlaves, Sailors, Citizens, African Americans in the Union Navy, Steven J. Ramold, Northern Illinois Press, 2002
bulletUnder the Blue Pennant or Notes of a Naval Officer 1863-1865, by John W. Grattan, Acting Ensign, U.S. Navy, Edited by Robert J. Schneller John Wiley & Sons Inc.1999

Byron W. Childress


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