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

Friday, February 25, 2011

Black History Month Highlight: Aaron Anderson

Aaron Anderson served on USS Wyandank during the Civil War. While part of a boat crew clearing Mattox Creek, Virginia on 17 March 1865, Anderson performed his duties in the face of devasting enemy fire. For his courage during this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

According to the 18 March 1865 account included in the Official Records, Anderson recieved special notice of his courage during the boat expedition. According to T.H. Eastman, commanding USS Don, "the crew of th eboat were all black but two," further adding that a white boatswain's mate and Aaron Anderson were specifically "reported to me by Acting Ensign Summers as having assisted him gallantly."

Although little is known of Anderson's life after the war, his actions merited him the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Medal of Honor citation of Landsman Aaron Anderson (as printed in the official publication "Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy", page 13):
"Served on board the U.S.S. Wyandank during a boat expedition up Mattox Creek, 17 March 1865. Participating with a boat crew in the clearing of Mattox Creek, ANDERSON carried out his duties courageously in the face of a devastating fire which cut away half the oars, pierced the launch in many places and cut the barrel off a musket being fired at the enemy."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Black History Month Highlight: Medal of Honor Recipient John Lawson

Biography and images courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

John Lawson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 16 June 1837. In 1864, he was a member of USS Hartford's crew. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864, while serving as a member of the ship's berth deck ammunition party, he was seriously wounded but remained at his post and continued to supply Hartford's guns. For his heroism in this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. John Lawson died on 3 May 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is buried at Mount Peace Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey.

An August Morning with Farragut
William Heyshand Overend

Medal of Honor citation of Landsman John Lawson (as printed in the official publication "Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy", pages 34-35):
"On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Wounded in the leg and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the six-man crew at the shell whip on the berth deck, LAWSON, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties throughout the remainder of the action."

For more information on the African American experience in the United States Navy, go to THIS LINK

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CW 150 Legacy Project: Virginia Memory Scanning Project

It seems that victories, albeit tiny in comparison to the grand spectacle of the war itself, continue to surface during the sesquicentennial years. Documents, once privately-held, are continuously

There was a recent post on the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission's Facebook page about an ongoing project conducted by the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The article, appearing on progress-index, talks about two members of the Legacy Project scanning documents in Dinwiddie found by a woman who decided to save them from a soon to be demolished house in Sussex County. As with all documents for the project, these rare pieces of history will be made available for download on the Legacy website in due time.

According to the CW 150 Legacy Project Website, its mission is to:

Document Digitization and Access is a multi-year initiative to locate, digitize and provide world-wide access to the private documentary heritage of the American Civil War era located throughout Virginia. Utilizing Local Sesquicentennial Committees established by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and through a partnership with the Library of Virginia and a network of statewide connections, the Civil War 150 Legacy Project will provide individuals an opportunity to have their historic letters, diaries and other collections scanned to preserve their valuable intellectual content.

I figured it might be interesting to see if anything involving the Civil War navies. To be honest, I did not expect anything to come up. Just do a simple Google search between civil war army vs. civil war navy. You can see why there was little hope that any documents have been scanned relating to the "webbed feet" of the war. I was quite surprised with what I found.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Porter and Semmes in FINAL Poll!

Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter and Confederate Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes won this past week's semifinal poll asking readers, "Who Was the Greatest Civil War Naval Officer?"  While Porter was the clear winner for the Union, Semmes went through a slight struggle in the final days of the poll to win 7 votes to 5 (Matthew F. Maury). 

In an effort to gain a pulse to what readers and enthusiasts of the CWN 150 are looking for in these polls, a short "stat sheet" for each officer will be included for the final poll on the left hand side of the blog.  The poll will be left up for two weeks, with the ultimate winner decided in early March.

 David Dixon Porter (1813-1891)

 Greatest Achievements:
  • Second man to be promoted to rank of Admiral, next to adoptive brother David G. Farragut
  • Superintendent at the United States Naval Academy 
  • Commander, Mississippi River Squadron
  • Vicksburg Campaign, Fort Fisher Assault
Service Record:
  • Began naval service at age 10 under his father, Commodore David Porter
  • Midshipman in Mexican Navy, 1824
  • Midshipman in U.S. Navy, USS United States (Peacetime Navy)
  • Promoted to Lieutenant (1841) during his time at the Coast Survey and U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office
  • Mexican American War Service, awarded Captain of Spitfire
  • Commanding Officer, USS Supply
  • Commanding Officer, USS Powhatan
  • Promoted to Commander (Civil War)
  • Commanding Officer, Mortar Boat Flotilla
  • New Orleans Campaign, Vicksburg Campaign, Red River Expedition, Fort Fisher
  • Mississippi River Squadron Commander (1862)
  • North Atlantic Blockading Squadron Commander (1864)
  • Superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy (1865)
  • SECNAV advisor under President U.S. Grant
Raphael Semmes (1809-1877)

Greatest Achievements:
  • As Captain of the commerce raider CSS Alabama, he took a record 69 prizes
  • Only American to have the distinction of holding positions as a General and Admiral simultaneously
  • Destruction of USS Hatteras
  • Accomplished lawyer and professor of philosophy and literature at LSU
  • Member of the Alabama Hall of Fame
Service Record:
  •  Entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1826
  • Commanding Officer, USS Somers in Mexican American War (1846)
  • Promoted to Commander (1855)
  • Resigns from U.S. Navy (1861)
  • Accepts rank of Commander in Confederate Navy (1861)
  • Commanding Officer CSS Sumter
  • Promoted to Captain (1862)
  • Commanding Officer, CSS Alabama
  • Lost battle against USS Kearsarge off the coast of France; avoided capture
  • Promoted Rear Admiral (1865)
  • Commanding Officer, James River Squadron (1865)
  • Appointed Brigadier General in the CSA (1865)
The new poll will be posted on the left side of the blog page for the next two weeks.  Happy voting!

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Port Columbus Celebrates Black History Month

    For immediate release Contact:    Jon Ezzell
    (706) 327-9798 or (800) 742-2811

    Special Black History Month Programming at Port Columbus

    COLUMBUS, GA – 150 years ago, at least 35 African American men from the Chattahoochee River Valley escaped slavery and joined the U.S. Navy. Throughout the Civil War, slaves, former slaves and freemen served on opposing sides in the service of the U.S. and Confederate Navies as both civilians and sailors.

    In recognition the 2011 Black History Month theme of African Americans in the Civil War, Port Columbus will be holding a special program titled Black in Blue: African Americans in the Civil War Navies. Written and directed by Museum Director of Programs Ken Johnston, this program will feature the first-person stories of three black sailors who served on both sides in the battle for the USS Water Witch. The ship was captured by the Confederate Navy near Savannah in 1864 and has been recreated in full-scale on Museum grounds.

    “These are stories you won’t hear anywhere else,” said Johnston. “Guests will see what the events surrounding the capture of the ship looked like from the perspective of each of these three men.” In addition, there will be special interpretive tours highlighting the African American Naval experience, using the Museum’s award-winning exhibits as well as personal stories.

    The event will take place Saturday, February 19, with tours running at 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m, and the main program at 1:00 p.m. At 2:00 p.m., guest speaker Dr. Steven Ramold, author of Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy, will speak on the African American experience in the U.S. Navy, telling the story of black sailors in the struggle of slaves and freedmen to become citizens.

    On Friday the 18th, tours and programs will be offered to school groups, and on Sunday the 20th, tours will be offered at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. for the general public. Only general admission will be charged.
    Port Columbus is located at 1002 Victory Drive, and is open daily from 9 to 5. For more information, visit the museum’s website at or call 706-327-9798.


    Black History Month Highlight: Robert Blake

    Contraband Robert Blake (Photo#: NH 103762)

    Robert Blake was born into slavery in Virginia. After escaping, he enlisted in the US Navy from Port Royal, Virginia and served on USS Marblehead during the Civil War. While off Legareville, Stono River, South Carolina, on 25 December 1863, Blake bravely served the rifle gun as Marblehead engaged Confederates on John's Island. The enemy eventually abandoned its position leaving munitions behind. For his bravery in this action, Blake was awarded the Medal of Honor.

    USS Marblehead engages a Confederate Battery on John's Island, Stono River, South Carolina, 25 December 1863 (Photo#: NH 79920)

    LCDR Richard W. Meade, commanding the Marblehead, wrote in a report to Rear Admiral John Dahlgren off Legareville commending several individual sailors in the conflict.  Among the four who would eventually win the Medal of Honor was Robert Blake.  LCDR Meade had this to say in his report about Blake:

    "Robert Blake, a contraband, excited my admiration by the cool and brave maner in which he served the rifle gun." (Meade to Dahlgren, ORN, 15:190-191)

    Richard W. Meade

    He ends his report to Dahlgren by commending everybody, including Blake, onboard the Marblehead during the tense engagement:

    "I have again to commend the good conduct of everyone on board. Their courage was so well displayed that the enemy, who had doubtless counted on disabling us, were forced to retire [. . .] in confusion and ignominy.” (Meade to Dahlgren, ORN, 15:191)

    It should be of note that Robert Blake was the first African American to actually receive the Medal of Honor (most give that honor to SGT William Harvey Carneyfor his heroism at Fort Wagner).

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Black History Month Highlight: William Tillman

    "The Attack on the Second Mate." NHHC Photograph
    The National and Department of Defense theme for this year's observance is "African Americans and the Civil War." In honor of this year's theme and every African American past and present in the United States Navy, we will be highlighting several African Americans who served during the American Civil War. Today, we will be highlighting civilian ship's cook William Tillman (also spelled William Tilghman).

    This brief biography of William Tillman's courageous actions during the Civil War are reprinted here, courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command:

    William Tilghman was serving as cook on board the American schooner S.J. Waring when she was captured by the Confederate Privateer Jefferson Davis at sea off the U.S. east coast on 7 July 1861. While she was en route to a Confederate port on 16 July, Tilghman, who as an African-American had every reason to fear for his future in Southern hands, used an axe to kill the prize crew and recapture the vessel. He then took S.J. Waring to New York City, where he received a hero's welcome. Reportedly, he later was given a six-thousand dollar award for his actions.
    "Schooner 'S.J. Waring', Recaptured from the Pirates by the Negro Wm. Tillman," from Harpers Weekly 3 August 1861
    The New York Tribune spoke highly of Tillman's bravery and conduct in the face of adversity:
    "To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor on the sea. Another public journal spoke of that achievement alone as an offset to the defeat of the Federal arms at Bull Run. Unstinted praise from all parties, even those who are usually awkward in any other vernacular than derision of the colored man, has been awarded to this colored man. At Barnum's Museum he was the center of attractive gaze to daily increasing thousands. All loyal journals joined in praise of the heroic act; and, even when the news reached England, the negro's bravery was applauded."
    Please check back, as this is the first of many posts dedicated to African Americans serving in the Civil War.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia

    There is no doubt that a bevy of scholarship on the Civil War navies will arise during the sesquicentennial year. Dr. Craig Symonds' 2010 monograph Lincoln and His Admirals is an excellent example of the level of scholarship that will be presented. Perhaps the most famous living Civil War historian, James McPherson, is currently writing a book about African Americans and the Union Navy. This became a fact well known to many at the September 2010 Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Conference in Norfolk, VA.

    A recently published work that will no doubt serve as a valued resource is the Civil War Naval Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia, the first ever to focus solely on the battles on the rivers and oceans, is edited by historian Spencer C. Tucker.

    According to the publishers description of the Encyclopedia:

    "The entries in this sweeping text provide comprehensive treatment of overall strategies on each side, the role of diplomacy, leading naval officers and other personalities, battles and important engagements, ship types, well-known individual warships, naval ordnance and weapons systems, and new developments such as mines and submarines. Topics such as shipboard life, major waterways, prominent seaports, and the role of logistics in determining the outcome of the war are also covered."

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Matthew F. Maury Wins Final Quarterfinal Poll; Semifinal Polls Posted

    Matthew Fontaine Maury, the intrepid astronomer turned Confederate won the final "Greatest Civil War Naval Officer" Quarterfinal Poll. A brief biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury can be found HERE, courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
    Thus, the "final four" naval officers will square off each other to determine who will represent their respective organizations in their final round. David Dixon Porter will go up against William Cushing for the Union Navy, and Matthew F. Maury will be pitted against Raphael Semmes in this week's semifinal polls for the Confederate side. BOTH polls will be available to vote on the website, and will be up a few days longer than normal.

    Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    New Updates and Links: 1 February 2011

    CSS Shenandoah being repaired at the Williamstown Dockyard in February, 1865. Image courtesy of The Age.

    Here are some interesting links around the interwebs concerning the Civil War navies:

    "Rebels Down Under Exhibition" - The ship that brought the American Civil War into Port Phillip in 1865 is the focus of a new exhibition at Seaworks at Williamstown (Victoria, Australia).

    Confederate Navy Prisoners of War on the Civil War Days & Those Surnames Blog.
    Here is a nice link to our friend Craig Swain on his great contributions thus far to the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial. If you have not had a chance to check out his blog (To the Sound of the Guns), it is highly recommended.
    For our Pennsylvania fans, you can also keep in mind that there will be a free lecture at Gettysburg National Military Park: “‘One of the most cowardly and disgraceful acts’: The Destruction of the Norfolk Navy Yard." The lecture will be held at the Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center at 1:30 pm. For more information, go to or call 717-334-1124 extension 8023.