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Bluejackets and Contrabands

African Americans and the Union Navy

Barbara Tomblin

Publication Year: 2009

One of the lesser known stories of the Civil War is the role played by escaped slaves in the Union blockade along the Atlantic coast. From the beginning of the war, many African American refugees sought avenues of escape to the North. Due to their sheer numbers, those who reached Union forces presented a problem for the military. The problem was partially resolved by the First Confiscation Act of 1861, which permitted the seizure of property used in support of the South’s war effort, including slaves. Eventually regarded as contraband of war, the runaways became known as contrabands. In Bluejackets and Contrabands, Barbara Brooks Tomblin examines the relationship between the Union Navy and the contrabands. The navy established colonies for the former slaves and, in return, some contrabands served as crewmen on navy ships and gunboats and as river pilots, spies, and guides. Tomblin presents a rare picture of the contrabands and casts light on the vital contributions of African Americans to the Union Navy and the Union cause.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This study of African Americans and the Union Navy would not have been possible without the assistance and encouragement of many persons. Over the past fifteen years I was fortunate to have access to the resources and advice of librarians at the Alexander Library at Rutgers University, the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the ...

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pp. 1-6

When the Civil War began in 1861, the population of the United States included nearly 4 million African Americans, most of them residing in the Confederate states. Of these, only 182,000 in the southern states claimed to be free blacks; the rest were slaves. Almost all these persons of color were affected in some way by the outbreak of war. In ...

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1. Union Navy Policy Toward Contrabands

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pp. 7-30

On a warm July day in 1861, Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, commanding officer of the Union Navy’s Atlantic Blockading Squadron, received an unusual communication from the captain of the screw steamer Mt. Vernon. Unlike most reports from officers on blockade duty, this one from Commander Oliver S. Glisson was hardly routine. Glisson reported ...

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2. Going to Freedom

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pp. 31-62

Within weeks of Fort Sumter’s fall, African Americans began seeking sanctuary on Union Navy vessels. The regular appearance of federal vessels along the coast or patrolling southern rivers and creeks offered slaves, Confederate deserters, and even free blacks golden opportunities to make their way to freedom. Many of the earliest wartime escapes to ...

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3. Contraband Camps

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pp. 63-98

For thousands of contrabands, many of them former plantation slaves, freedom meant the sudden loss of regular sustenance from their white masters. Some possessed valuable skills as carpenters, mechanics, barbers, boatmen, and the like, but the majority of slaves had spent their lives as household servants or field hands dependent on their masters for ...

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4. Informants

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pp. 90-132

Whether liberated in Union raids and expeditions into the interior, captured on rebel blockade runners, or picked up in rowboats, canoes, or sailboats, most black refugees possessed valuable intelligence about Confederate morale, illicit trade, troop deployments and defenses, Confederate blockade runners, and ironclads under construction or in ...

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5. Contributing to Victory

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pp. 133-168

The growing number of contrabands presented Union officials with a difficult challenge. Able-bodied male contrabands were often enlisted as crew on navy ships or worked for wages as stevedores, mule drivers, servants, or military laborers. Initially, however, the army and navy had less use for women, children, and elderly runaways. Not wishing to clothe ...

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6. Contraband Pilots

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pp. 169-188

Of all the important contributions by African Americans to the Union Navy’s North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons and Potomac Flotilla, none proved as valuable as that made by skilled black coastal pilots. Suddenly called on to enforce a blockade of almost 3,500 miles of southern coastline, much of it deprived of functioning lighthouses and ...

Photo insert Follows Page 184

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7. Contraband Sailors

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pp. 189-228

In September 1861 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized navy recruiters to enlist African Americans, thus creating an opportunity for hundreds and eventually thousands of former slaves to serve in the Union Navy. African American sailors serving on navy crews was hardly a new phenomenon. Unlike the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy had always accepted ...

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8. Joint Army-Navy Operations

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pp. 229-248

Enforcing a blockade of the southern coast constituted the Union Navy’s principal Civil War mission, but federal gunboats and other vessels frequently supported Union Army operations by providing gunfire support, convoying and landing troops, defending army depots and supply bases, and participating in joint army-navy expeditions or raids into the interior. ...

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9. The Final Months

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pp. 249-280

As December 1864 came to a close, General William T. Sherman’s army approached its objective: Savannah, Georgia. During the army’s movement across Georgia to Savannah and on toward Columbia, Union soldiers frequently encountered and interacted with African Americans. Although many northern soldiers manifested varying degrees of racial ...


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pp. 281-334

Select Bibliography

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pp. 335-344


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pp. 345-373

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173481
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125541

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2009