Monday, February 6, 2012

African American Sailors and the Sesquicentennial: A Trend Worth Following

The social history of the sailor will take priority in how we continue to interpret the navy’s role.  Scholarship continues to detail how sailors dealt with the tedium of the blockade and the horrors of close-quartered combat on western rivers.  Sailors who fought were a historically diverse group of individuals dating back to the Revolutionary War.  When you begin to narrow down the focus of social history in the navies, one critical aspect merges each commemorative anniversary of the past to the current one: African American sailors.  Problems of race and reconciliation during the semi-centennial and centennial are now rectified in a bevy of recent events, including the 2010 Signature Conference of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission at Norfolk State University.  Their involvement during the war will likely take center stage throughout the next four years.

National recognized organizations like the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) are working to document and record the names of every Civil War sailor, black and white.  Pushing this index forward is a historian’s steering committee comprising historians and researchers representing Howard University, the Naval History and Heritage Command, National Park Service, and other academic experts.  According to the CWSS website, the online database, which features African Americans sailors as its primary focus, has approximately 8,000 names to search through.  With over 18,000 African Americans serving in the Union Navy during the war, their work so far covers almost half of those accounted for.

Even if the Union Navy’s rank and file were not always progressive towards the abolition of slavery, one blogger commented that “the demands of war caused them to adapt to the vagaries of war and they were soon singing the praises of the African Americans serving on their vessels.

The naval “melting pot” on both sides best represents how the majority of Americans want to remember the Civil War.  The title of the 2010 Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial was “Race, Slavery, and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.”  Despite disagreements over the institution of slavery by both sides, all different races, colors, and creeds marched to the flag.  For the Union Navy in particular, the role of the African American sailor is a way for Americans today to connect with their history and heritage.  African Americans made the conscientious choice to fight for their freedom, regardless of conditions they faced.  “African American sailors were needed,” historian Stephen Ramold remarked in the closing comments of a 2004 interview with The Journal of African American History.  According to Ramold, “they were Americans who didn’t hesitate to fight for their country.” He goes on to say that the Union Navy “was remarkably modern [. . .] where everything was not a racial struggle.”

In the century before Executive Order #9981 ordered the full racial integration of American armed forces in 1948, sailors operating around the world during the war fought and died amongst their black brethren.  Military equality paved its way on the shoulders of these sailors, although some are more notable than others within the public consciousness.  The armed forces couldn’t ask for better PR today.  Robert Smalls, the South Carolina slave pilot of the Planter who escaped with his family to the Union lines for freedom, became “the closest thing to a national black war hero from the Civil War.”

Long before the 54th Massachusetts gloriously attacked Fort Wagner, African Americans forged the identity of today’s Navy through their service.  Blacks in blue jackets represented the fighting spirit for the cause of freedom.  This will undoubtedly arise and draw interest from the public in an ever-increasing time of uncertainty with military service in general.  The story of black sailors serves as a constant reminder to Americans how far we have come.

Jimmy Price, “James Mcpherson - Slavery, Freedom, and the Union Navy,” The Sable Arm, entry posted September 24, 2010, (accessed December 13, 2011).

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

David Blight, Race and Reunion, 195.

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