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Emancipation


Ship's African-American sailors, on the USS Galena, circa the 1880s.
Ship's African-American sailors, on the USS Galena, circa the 1880s. (Credit: : Photo ID NH-53996, U.S. NHHC)


More than 130 years after the end of the Civil War, the story of black sailors remains largely untold although their presence, however, was greatly enhanced during the Civil War as newly freed slaves and an expanded Navy worked together for a common goal.

During the Civil War, more than 18,000 men of African descent served in the U.S. Navy, some 15 percent of the total enlisted force. They served on almost every one of the nearly 700 navy vessels. Eight of these sailors earned the Medal of Honor for their heroism in battle.


Black crew members sewing and relaxing on the forecastle, starboard side of the USS Miami, circa 1864-65.
Black crew members sewing and relaxing on the forecastle, starboard side of the USS Miami, circa 1864-65. (Credit: Photo ID NH-55510, U.S. NHHC)
Details of the lives of these men and women are told through military records and family memories. According to William Fowler of the Massachusetts Historical Society, while the Union Army tried to prevent African Americans from joining the ranks, the Navy did not. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Navy to recruit and integrated black sailors into the service.


African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Carol Highsmith; Library of Congress )
“Many of the recruits, particularly those who served in the deepwater navy, were former merchant seamen,” Fowler wrote. “These were skilled seafarers who had long been accustomed to living and working in the integrated world of the ship's forecastle.”

The Navy recognized the valued black seamen through pay, promotion, and discipline.

“In combat they served with great distinction,” Fowler wrote. “No black sailor, of course, ever became a commissioned officer, but numerous men did join the noncommissioned ranks.” Civil War emancipation was gradual, but by the end of the conflict a transformation in the South had radically altered the social landscape.

 

 

 

 
 
 
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