More than a century after the end of the Civil War, comparatively little is known about the experience of ordinary sailors in the navies of the belligerents. Whereas few records of the Confederate States' Navy survive, those of the United States Navy exist in abundance. Ironically, this embarrassment of riches makes exploring the social history of African American enlisted personnel difficult. For unlike the army, the navy did not segregate African Americans into separate units administered by a Bureau of Colored Sailors. Accordingly, research concerning black sailors has lagged behind the rich outpouring on black soldiers. Even such basic information of how many African American sailors served during the Civil War remains unresolved.
For years the Navy Department assumed that some 30,000 African Americans served during the Civil War, or roughly 25 percent of the approximately 118,000 Civil War enlistments. A close study of the Navy's official enlistment records undertaken during the early 1970s revised the estimate downward to just under 10,000 men, or approximately 9 percent of the total enlisted force. The researchers at Howard University, a team of graduate students led by Professor Joseph P. Reidy of the Department of History, in partnership with the National Park Service and the Department of the Navy, are attempting to close the gap between these widely divergent estimates and to examine the African American naval experience in all its dimensions.
The first phase of the research, completed in 2000, involved compiling service histories of all the men (and women) of African ancestry who served. These histories were compiled from such surviving personnel records as rendezvous reports and ships' muster rolls. The rendezvous reports (or weekly returns of enlistments) cover enlistment activity at the recruiting centers located in major port cities. For each enlistee, the reports indicate information regarding nativity, occupation, previous naval service, and physical description (height and the color of eyes, hair, and complexion). Muster rolls, which were compiled quarterly and which survive more sporadically for the first two years of the war than thereafter, contain similar information about the men on board each of the Navy's 600-odd vessels. The information about specific individuals taken from these sources was being collated and compared with that contained in the index to service histories prepared by the Navy Department during the World War II era (which presently survives only on microfilm). During the process of collating, the researchers identified by name approximately 18,000 African American enlisted personnel. Their names (along with the appropriate descriptive information) and their service records were incorporated into the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System in November 2000.
Future research will include a survey of the pension files of the African American veterans and their survivors who applied for benefits. Aside from helping to resolve inconsistencies in other records, the pension case files also offer a treasure trove of information about the men and their families and about the subjective aspects of their lives before, during, and after the Civil War. Other surviving records, such as official correspondence, medical and judicial records, and ships' logbooks likewise offer glimpses into the men's service, will be examined as time and resources permit. When completed, the research promises to help flesh out the sketchy portrait of African American sailors in the Civil War Navy.
For additional information, contact Joseph P. Reidy at:
Department of History
2400 Sixth St. NW
Washington, DC 20059
Last updated: June 27, 2012