Sunday, February 27, 2011

African Americans in the Union Navy: Honor, Courage, Commitment

Crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson.  The contraband sailor in the foreground of the image is Siah Carter.  

 A Call to Arms
USS Miami, 1864-1865

The enlistment of African Americans changed the makeup of the Union Navy, even if it often split public opinion.  Any attempt to block African Americans from entering the service were halted during the war, allowing them to swell the ranks.  One estimate placed roughly 16% of the total enlisted force as black.  "Rather than restrict black enlisted men to special units," historian James Harrod posited, the Navy "placed the races side by side in the same vessels as they had before the war."  Indeed, a prewar familiarity of black sailors on U.S. Navy ships existed since the American Revolution.  In all, approximately 185,000 African Americans served the Union cause during the Civil War.  Over 20,000 African Americans served in the Union Navy alone.

Proudly They Served

USS Sacramento "Kroomen" from Monrovia, Liberia, on board, in January-February 1867

African Americans fought in every naval campaign during the war, from the blockading squadrons of the Atlantic and Gulf to the brown water tributaries of the southern states.  Black women also played a role in the naval war, offering their services as nurses aboard the hospital ship USS Red Rover on the Mississippi River.  By war's end, eight African American sailors won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military medal offered in the United States to this day.

After the War
Depicting Jim Crow
Restrictions to African American enlisted resumed once the war ended in 1865, flowing into the socially and racially troubled era of Jim Crow.  African Americans still remained a fixture in the peacetime Navy in the thirty years after the war, averaging between 10 and 14% of the total enlisted force.  The necessity of manpower and fresh recruits waned in the late 19th century, as society turned a blind eye to continued service of the African American sailor.  It is the service and dedication during the greatest American crisis, however, that is ultimately remembered and honored today.  Their honor, courage, and commitment provided the stepping stones to the official desegregation of armed forces in 1948.  African Americans continue the pride and tradition in today's United States Navy, owing much gratitude and thanks to those who tread a path of freedom and equality on land and at sea.     

Pictures are produced here courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

For more information on African Americans in the United States Navy, go HERE

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