The First Contraband Combatants

USS Minnesota (

“The scene on board the flag-ship was novel and thrilling. The thunder of the conflict drowned all other noises,” wrote historian John S. C. Abbott.[1]

In one of the first Civil War histories, written while it happened, Abbott employed elegant Victorian prose to describe the Battle of Hatteras Inlet, August 28, 1861, including the distinguished service of African-American sailors.

This first combined Union Army-Navy operation ensured Federal domination of the strategically important North Carolina Sounds.

The formidable steam frigate USS Minnesota (550 men, 40 guns) led several warships under Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham with transport vessels carrying troops commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin Butler. The ships began blasting away at Confederate sand forts Clark and Hatteras flanking the inlet on the outer banks.

The men on Minnesota’s big guns were “enveloped in volcanic billows of smoke, and straining every nerve,” continued Abbott. “Almost every man there was true to his flag. Here a stalwart Kentuckian and an impetuous Carolinian worked side by side, with the sons of Maine and Massachusetts. In the bow of the ship, half a dozen contrabands worked a gun with such skill and energy, as to prove that warlike chivalry can inflame Ethiopic as well as Caucasian blood.

“These contrabands had been instructed by the rebels in the batteries at Yorktown, and had escaped and joined our forces at Fortress Monroe. Gen. Butler accepted them. Some of our other generals would have driven them out of our lines, or with alacrity would have surrendered them to our enemies, their former masters.

“This is the first instance, so far as we can learn, in this war, that the negro and the white man stood side by side fighting for the North. The incident deserves especial notice, as introducing a new era. It is the testimony of an eye-witness, that the negroes fought energetically and bravely, —none more so. They evidently felt that they were thus working out the deliverance of their race.”[2]

The weak Rebel forts quickly collapsed and were overrun by Butler’s men. Minnesota suffered no casualties at Hatteras, but there would be worse to come. She again was flagship of U.S. Navy forces on March 8-9, 1862, in Hampton Roads when the dreaded Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia sallied forth to wreak havoc on the Federal fleet.

Minnesota set off in pursuit of Virginia and ran hard aground. Her men watched in helpless horror as the Rebel behemoth first rammed and sank the USS Cumberland and then obliterated the USS Congress with hot shot and shell. The next day, they witnessed close hand the revolutionary contest between Virginia and the USS Monitor.

Rendered immobile on the shoal, Minnesota was immersed in the action as Virginia tried several times to complete her destruction. Minnesota engaged Virginia in hot duels of heavy guns, while receiving similar attention from several Confederate gunboats. Severe damage and heavy casualties resulted.

A sailor with Farragut at New Orleans described naval combat: “And now the shot and shell were flying and bursting around us in all directions, crashing through our ship, scattering splinters and bolts on all sides, killing and wounding our men in a terrible manner…. I must confess for my part, though, I cordially disliked the business, as these big 100-pound shells, moving with fiendish velocity within a few feet of a man, make the most hellish and disagreeable noise imaginable. I thought every shot was within a few inches of my head, or aimed directly at me, and, as a matter of course, I felt, as it were, compelled to dodge frequently to avoid them.”[3]

Minnesota’s Captain Gershom Van Brunt reported: “It gives me great pleasure to say that during the whole of these trying scenes the officers and men conducted themselves with great courage and coolness.”[4]

Union crew manning a Dahlgren 9″ naval gun.

We may readily imagine that former contrabands observed at Hatteras again manned their guns with great courage alongside their shipmates. The 10-inch aft pivot gun, one of the most powerful and critical weapons aboard, had an all African-American crew. Minnesota’s official list of killed and wounded included the following:

18. Joyce Moore (colored), landsman, wounded.
19. Eli Parris (colored), landsman, wounded.[5]

A previous article in this blog, Slaves and Sailors in the Civil War, discussed recruitment of freedmen and former slaves in the U.S. Navy during the war, which occurred much earlier, much more quietly and out of public view than in the army. African-American sailors made a major contribution and played a critical role. Their percentage increased steadily from less than 5 percent to a peak of 23 percent—a significant segment of manpower and nearly double the proportion serving in the army. The story of the USS Minnesota is just one example.

[1] John S. C. Abbott, The History of the Civil War In America; Comprising A Full and Impartial Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rebellion, of the Various Naval and Military Engagements, of the Heroic Deeds Performed By Armies and Individuals, and of Touching Scenes in the Field, The Camp, The Hospital, And The Cabin, 2 vols. (New York: Henry Bill, 1863), vol. 1, 202.

[2] Ibid.

[3] W. F. Boyer and O. F. Keydel, Acts of Bravery: Deeds of Extraordinary American Heroism, from the Personal Records and Reminiscences of Courageous Americans Who Risked Everything for Their Comrades and Country (1903; reprint, Conn.: Longmeadow Press, 1994), 21-22, quoted in Dennis J. Ringle, Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 133.

[4] Van Brunt to Gideon Welles, March 10, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 2 series, 29 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1894-1922), Series 1, vol. 7, 12.

[5] Ibid., 13.

2 Responses to The First Contraband Combatants

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. We shouldn’t find it too surprising that the USN had black crew serving on combat ships, since many served aboard combat vessels in the War of 1812, both at sea and on the lakes. This was despite the “official” prohibition.

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