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Prologue: Selected Articles | National Archives

Prologue: Selected Articles

Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3

Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War

By Joseph P. Reidy

Given the wealth of available information about Civil War soldiers, the comparative poverty of such knowledge about Civil War sailors borders on the astonishing. Two explanations account for this imbalance. First, the broad narrative of presidential leadership and the clash of armies in Virginia that Ken Burnss The Civil War told so powerfully all but excludes naval forces from the tale. Second, existing accounts of the naval Civil War have focused on the strategic role of naval forces in the contest, the governmental architects of naval policy, the naval officers who masterminded operations, and the innovations in technology and weaponry to the near exclusion of the enlisted sailors war. No image of Jack Tar comparable to Bell I. Wileys classic portraits of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb fills the popular imagination or the works of Civil War historians.1

Because the navy, unlike the army, was racially integrated, understanding the history of black sailors requires some effort but even more interpretive caution to unravel it from that of all Civil War sailors. Exploring the similarities and differences in the experiences of black and white enlisted men must avoid viewing the racial groups in strictly monolithic terms that do not allow for internal complexity and diversity and shifting, if not altogether porous, borders. The work must also beware currently popular understandings of the black soldiers experience. Often framed around the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, that tale depicts stoic sacrifice and daunting perseverance in pursuit of freedom and equality that in the end was crowned with Glory, the impression conveyed by the popular feature film. The black sailors story fits awkwardly, if at all, within that image.

The study of African Americans in the Civil War navy must begin with determining their numbers. During the first decade of the twentieth century, when the

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