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Chapter 7 Contraband Sailors It seems strange to send negroes to garrison a fort in “Yankeedom,” but I have no doubt if properly drilled they will make very good sailors. We have always had some on board every vessel in the Navy, and they make valuable men for certain kinds of duty. —Roswell Lamson 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 blacks in the enlisted ranks. Significant numbers of African Americans and other persons of color had served on navy warships prior to the Civil War, but in 1839 the navy limited African American enlistments to 5 percent of the monthly or weekly totals. Most if not all of these black men had been born abroad or as free blacks in northern states. Soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, the Navy Department realized that the fleet’s rapid wartime expansion would require thousands of sailors, and it sent navy recruiters out to recruiting stations, called rendezvous, in large eastern cities and small coastal and river towns to lure men into the service. Only about 300 African American men reported to these stations, and by the end of 1861 they accounted for only about 6 percent of Union Navy crews. These numbers soon grew, however. According to Howard University’s Black Sailors Project, 18,000 African American men (and 11 women) served in the Union Navy over the course of the Civil War. African American sailors constituted about 20 percent of the enlisted force, nearly double the proportion of black soldiers who served in the Union Army during the war. The largest number of black men 190 Bluejackets and Contrabands joining the Union Navy, a total of 5,000, listed their place of origin as either Maryland or Virginia. Of those recruited from states along the eastern seaboard, the majority came from states below the Mason-Dixon Line.1 As these figures indicate, the Union Navy recruited a generous portion of its African American sailors from slave states, but determining the exact number of contrabands or former slaves who joined the Union Navy during the war is a difficult task. As the Union Navy did not request an enlistee’s race or his prewar status, free blacks from southern states had no way to indicate their free status. Only about 4 percent of the black men entering naval service identified themselves as “slaves,” most of them enlisting in western states. Few recruits from southern coastal states gave their occupation as “slave,” although most were probably former slaves or contrabands. According to historian Joseph Reidy, more than 11,000 black men enlisting in the navy were born in slave states, versus 4,000 from free states. Based on this figure and the fact that only a small portion of those born in slave states would have been free blacks, Reidy argues that “nearly three men born into slavery served for every man born free.”2 Each Union Navy ship kept muster rolls, but many have not survived, and few specifically listed contrabands or their dates of enlistment. One of the exceptions is the muster roll of the USS Housatonic. As of January 1, 1863, its muster roll listed 20 contrabands, some of whom may have remained aboard as contract employees after their enlistments ended. The muster rolls of the store and receiving ship USS Vermont provide even more information. Of the 339 men in the Vermont’s crew as of March 31, 1863, 175 were contrabands. By July 1, 1863, the ship had begun including the names, dates, ages, heights, and terms of enlistment of contrabands. Most of those contrabands who joined the Vermont’s crew in Virginia were men in their twenties picked up in the Norfolk or Richmond area.3 Union Navy recruiters found African American recruits among the populations of small eastern coastal villages; in large urban areas such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; and among slaves and free black men seeking sanctuary on Union vessels, in contraband camps, and in Union-occupied areas. In the North recruiters put up colorful recruiting posters in places frequented by potential sailors and took out newspaper advertisements that offered travel expenses to a rendezvous and advance wages—three months’ wages for...


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