Bluejackets and Contrabands

Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy

Barbara Brooks Tomblin
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Bluejackets and Contrabands
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7348-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (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 the southern states, the new Confederate government put many able-bodied black males to work as laborers building fortifications, working in plants that produced armaments and other war-related products, and in shipyards constructing warships. Other African American males followed their...

    (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 steamerMt. Vernon.Unlike most reports from officers on blockade duty, this one from Commander Oliver S. Glisson was hardly routine. Glisson reported that on the morning of July 15, 1861, one ofMt. Vernon’s lookouts had observed a small boat adrift near Stingray Lighthouse, a hexagonal screwpile built in 1858 in the Chesapeake Bay, east of the entrance to the Rappahannock River. Glisson sent an officer with a...

    (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 Union Navy vessels occurred on the wide Potomac River, which connected the nation’s capital to the Chesapeake Bay but also divided the border state of Maryland from the Confederate state of Virginia. The Potomac’s numerous creeks and bays offered pro-southern smugglers myriad possibilities for transporting contraband goods...

    (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 food, provisions, and clothing. Slaves often tended their own small garden plots, fished or collected oysters for their own use, or earned money by trading items or hiring themselves out. When they fled to safety on Union warships, however, most arrived with few provisions or household...

    (pp. 99-132)

    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 commission. Within weeks of the fall of Fort Sumter, African American refugees seeking sanctuary on Union naval vessels offered valuable information to the ships’ commanding officers. Commander Stephen Rowan’s June 1861 rescue of a black man who told him about rebel troops patrolling at Mathias Point was just one of many such instances...

    (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 and feed them at government expense, army officers offered the women employment as cooks, laundresses, nurses, seamstresses, and servants. Union naval commanders also sent dozens of contrabands to Union military posts or navy yards to be employed as laborers. Contrabands with specific skills, such as machinists,...

    (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 stripped of navigational markers, the Navy Department quickly realized a need for experienced, loyal pilots. At the beginning of the Civil War, senior Union Navy commanders looked first to officers of the U.S. Coast Survey for assistance in piloting vessels in and out of harbors,...

  12. Photos
    (pp. None)
    (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 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...

    (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. In addition to previously discussed joint operations, Union Navy vessels cooperated with the army in attacks on James Island and Fort Fisher, the capture of Fort Pulaski and Plymouth, North Carolina, and dozens of smaller operations. African Americans provided intelligence that prompted or supported these operations, contributed to them...

    (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 prejudice, historian Joseph Glatthaar concludes that “most of the soldiers treated blacks reasonably well.” There were minor incidents, of course, and some serious cases of mistreatment of blacks by soldiers. The most famous of these involved the Fourteenth Corps on its march from Augusta to Savannah, with Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry in pursuit. The...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 281-334)
  17. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 335-344)
  18. Index
    (pp. 345-374)