Thursday, February 4, 2010

Celebrating African-Americans in the Civil War Navy

Pictured: Racial integration on the USS Hunchback

This is the first of a series of blog postings celebrating the African-American involvement in the Navy.

Although it was a revolution in racial equality in the armed forces, African-Americans faced some equality issues during the Civil War. Escaped slaves, commonly known as “contrabands,” were initially barred from any rating beyond “boy” on a ship. African-Americans at the time were also excluded from the officer corps. Pay rates for African-American sailors were also $4 less a month than other white enlisted sailors, who received $16 per month. By December 1862, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles fixed problems of race and budget by approving the enlistment of former slaves as “Landsmen,” adult sailors with nautical experience. Welles understood that free and formerly enslaved African-Americans could help the war effort dramatically, especially on the offensives along the Mississippi River. Historian Steven J. Ramold sums up these sentiments perfectly in a 2004 interview with The Journal of African American History: “From the Navy Department’s perspective, Civil War sailors were just men to be recruited trained, employed, and discharged no matter what their background.” The lack of compartmentalization seen during the Revolutionary War was making an appearance once again in a time of great struggle.

While some historians will credit the rating as a job filled with “menial tasks” for “unskilled men,” the opportunity for former slaves to now ascend to rank of petty officer is key. Any restrictions at face value did not impede the rate of African-American enlistments. Regardless of the conditions they faced, African-Americans made the conscientious choice to fight for freedom. “These African American sailors were needed,” Ramold remarked in the closing arguments of his 2004 interview; “They were Americans who didn’t hesitate to fight for their country.” Their choice provided ample reason for ultimate victory of the Union in April 1865.

Hannon, Hannon “African Americans in the Navy During the Civil War,” The Journal of African American History 89, no. 4 (Autumn 2004): 361.

Nalty, Bernard C. Long Passage to Korea: Black Sailors and the Integration of the U.S. Navy. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 2003.

Ramold, Steven J. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

"The Negroes' Historical and Contemporary Role in National Defense," November 26, 1940. Miscellaneous, Record Group 220: Records of the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

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