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Eleven Years in the U.S. Navy: The Strange Saga of Robert Shorter

In the account below historian Lorraine McConaghy uses the story of black sailor Robert Shorter to indicate that while the Civil War freed nearly four million slaves, it also set in motion the status decline of antebellum African American seamen.

The eleven years Robert Shorter served in the U.S. Navy tell us much about the profound change affecting him and all black sailors during the Civil War.  Shorter served on the sloop-of-war DECATUR throughout that ship’s commission in the Pacific Squadron, 1854-1859, and continued to serve in the Navy during the Civil War, first on the frigate BRANDYWINE, and then on the steamer FAHKEE, through the war’s end in 1865.  His experience is typical of many free black men whose skills on warships under sail earned him a responsible antebellum position, only to lose ground because of the ascendancy of steam-powered warships and seagoing prejudice against unskilled black sailors, often escaped or recently freed slaves or “contraband” as they were often called.

At the time of his enlistment on the sloop-of-war DECATUR, Robert Shorter was forty-one, and thoroughly experienced at sea.  In late December 1853, he reported on board the receiving ship in Boston’s Charlestown Harbor, and was required, like all sailors, to pass a variety of tests of character, health, and skill.  The officers on the receiving ship were to guard against enlistment of “improper, unsound or incompetent persons” or any man “known to be convicted of a felony,” or who was drunk at the time of his enlistment.

Like every recruit, Shorter underwent a rigorous physical examination, demonstrating that his hearing, vision and speech were “good.” He was then stripped naked for the navy surgeon’s inspection where he was directed to “move about, exercise [his] limbs,” to show that he had “free use” of them.  If he suffered from epileptic seizures, or had visible tumors, or if he had ever received a head wound “which may produce occasional insanity,” he was to be rejected.  Shorter would have been vaccinated against

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