Book Review: Black Sailors in the Civil War: A History of Fugitives, Freemen and Freedmen Aboard Union Vessels

Black Sailors in the Civil War: A History of Fugitives, Freemen and Freedmen Aboard Union Vessels. By James H. Bruns. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2023. Softcover, 238 pp. $39.95.

Reviewed by Neil P. Chatelain

The African American community was integral to the United States war effort during the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Black men volunteered to fight the Confederacy to liberate families, abolish slavery, and stake a claim to citizenship. James Bruns’s Black Sailors in the Civil War: A History of Fugitives, Freemen and Freedmen Aboard Union Vessels adds to a growing body of scholarship examining how thousands of these men assisted the United States Navy as civilians and through direct enlistment.

The topic of Black sailors who served in the wartime U.S. Navy has received deserved attention over the last thirty years, via David Valuska’s The African American in the Union Navy, 1861-1865 (1993, based on his 1990 dissertation), Steven Ramold’s Slaves, Sailors, Citizens (2001), and Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands (2009). In addition, Micah Bellamy completed his Ph.D. with a dissertation last year titled “Becoming Men, Consequently: From ‘Contraband’ to Men Through Naval Service in the American Civil War.” Bruns’s study is shorter than these previous works, and less academically toned, thus helping bring this important topic to a greater audience.

Having previously directed the Department of the Navy’s Museum System, including the National Museum of the United States Navy, Bruns is well qualified to write on this topic, and he crafts a good narrative. I was particularly excited upon reading the book’s subtitle. Already aware that the U.S. Navy enlisted Black sailors before the war, I was happy the book explored this specific aspect of the subject. Bruns took this concept further, offering additional insight on how the Navy recruited enslaved men from military-controlled refugee camps, freemen from loyal states with previous ship experience, and those who fled enslavement and provided intelligence to the U.S. Navy about enemy positions and supplies.

Early chapters explore each of the ways Black men assisted the U.S. Navy. Following these are chapters examining life on the blockade, on river service, in raids ashore, and in squadrons attacking ports. An entire chapter is devoted to the eight wartime Black sailors awarded the Medal of Honor.

Service by the Navy’s Black sailors was far different than men serving in U.S. Army units. African Americans made up a higher percentage of the Navy’s manpower—upwards of twenty percent as compared to about ten percent in the U.S. Army. In most circumstances, Black and White sailors served on integrated vessels. Despite this, officers often relegated Black sailors to the lowest grades and ratings. It was far rarer for the Navy to have Black petty officers as compared to the thousands of Black noncommissioned officers in the Army.

To get firsthand accounts from the Black community, Bruns relies on two resources. The National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors Database lists 18,000 Black sailors. This information includes their birthplace, enlistment dates, and the ships they served on. These records proved invaluable in determining trends of Black enlistment and numbers of Black sailors serving on each ship in the Navy. Bruns also utilizes the Library of Congress’s Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1938-1938, which are Great Depression-era interviews of formerly enslaved people. Numerous interviewees spoke of encountering Navy warships that helped bring freedom, or told of family members joining the Navy.

Bruns makes excellent use of Civil War photographs. The book contains many familiar photos taken on the decks of ships. These highlight how Navy crews operated on integrated vessels. There are also many rarer images of individual Black sailors made in photography studios. The book’s choice of imagery greatly enhances its argument, readability, and depth.

There were several noticeable omissions that could have complemented the work’s thesis had they been included. Though most African American sailors and formerly enslaved men who assisted the Navy were illiterate, there are a small number of primary accounts that give their perspective during the war. It is surprising that Bruns did not include the likes of Diary of a Contraband, the published diary of William B. Gould, a self-emancipated man who served on warships performing blockade duty and hunting Confederate commerce raiders. The book would have also benefited from a chapter offering a comparative view of how the Confederate Navy impressed free and enslaved Black men to work in shipyards and support naval operations. Finally, there are numerous quotations that would have benefited from more detailed citations.

While there are lengthier academic studies covering the U.S. Navy’s Black sailors during the Civil War, Black Sailors in the Civil War: A History of Fugitives, Freemen, and Freedmen Aboard Union Vessels provides a readable introduction to the numerous avenues that brought African Americans into the Navy and the diverse duties they performed. Bruns’s book also provides a good starting place for those interested in learning about the impact enslaved people had on the conflict, and war’s effect on the enslaved.


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