Monday, February 11, 2013

African American Sailors of the Civil War Navy

February is African American History Month.  The celebration commemorates the many achievements of figures throughout the experience of the African diaspora.  It is a time to honor and reflect on the struggle faced by countless men and women over the last four hundred years.  Today, we remember those who had a voice, and others who did not.

Over the past two years, blog posts written about African American sailors included those individuals often featured in Civil War historiography.  More often than not, specific names pop up when discussing the role they played in the Union Navy.

On the website "Real African American Heroes,"  their list of notable figures includes a majority of Black Medal of Honor winners:  Robert Blake, William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, John Lawson, James Mifflin, and Joachim Pease.  The official NHHC website offers several other notable additions, including Robert Smalls, William Tilghman, and Aaron Anderson.  Although these men served "above and beyond the call of duty" during the war, they represent only a small fraction of the thousands of Black sailors who fought and died beside them.  Nearly two years into the sesquicentennial, have these familiar stories become familiar?  

Monuments are erected around the country to honor individual units, regiments, and divisions of soldiers.  Sailors of the United States Navy did not have this luxury, as their "battle flag" was universal: the Naval Jack and Ensign (United States Flag).  Any monument or statue commemorating their role is relegated to specific individuals, such as Robert Smalls in Beaufort, SC.   The story of the ship's crew will undoubtedly stay that way.  As certain ships like the Monitor and Hunley receive more attention than others today, many individuals like those listed above will likely do the same.

Many of the images used to show Black sailors of the Civil War have also become repetitive.  Think about the collection of images describing Black sailors in the war.  A select few will stand likely out in your mind:  Siah Carter on the deck of the USS Monitor; crews on the decks of the Hunchback and Miami; "Kroomen" aboard the Sacramento.  The list goes on.  These images, frequently used in on book covers and program announcements, are branded in the minds of Civil War enthusiasts today.  

Other problems deal with depiction.  How can you actively depict a sailor when  no image exists?  The posters produced by the Navy in the 1970s are drawn from whatever scant accounts of the individual survived the war.  Some are better than others, while others show a poor depiction of the individual or their actions.  This is clearly shown in Medal of Honor winner Joachim Pease's poster shown below.

How can you depict the story of the African American sailor if no written documentation exists?  Besides the specific sailors listed above, one must take the story of the collective over the individual.  In many cases, it all comes back to the amount of documentation present in the historic record.  

Unfortunately, much of that documentation does not exist.  Much of their memory is preserved today in commentary or correspondence between flag officers and government officials.  The Federal Writers project did not come around to capture oral histories until the New Deal era, when many of these sailors were already deceased.  There is no time machine to go back and take more pictures or record oral histories of crew members.  It is simply not there.  We must go by what we have.  

Perhaps that is the beauty of history; taking the mass of photographs and accounts that survived the war and turning it into a narrative of history and heritage.  This is an ongoing project for CWN 150 staff and historians everywhere.  It is more important than ever to keep the memory alive of these men who fought one hundred and fifty years ago.

Share your thoughts with the CWN 150 staff here on the blog or on Twitter: @civilwarnavy.  Let us know what you would like for us to highlight this month on the CWN 150 blog.

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