Throughout its history, the United States Navy has never barred free African Americans from enlisting, and in September 1861, it adopted the policy of recruiting former slaves. This was done two years before the Army even allowed African Americans to enlist. During the Civil War, colored sailors comprised approximately one-quarter of the entire Union naval fleet.
Aboard the U.S.S. Cairo there were four colored sailors holding the rank of Seaman. Of the 175-man crew, only 28 had any sort of sailing experience – the colored sailors represented four of the 28. They brought with them a wealth of experience having served on sea-faring vessels in the private sector. Eager to recruit colored sailors and to have them re-enlist, the Navy tended to treat them fairly well. Segregation and discrimination were at a minimum with colored sailors being messed and quartered with the other crew members.
Much has been written about the colored soldier’s display of courage during the Civil War, yet the colored sailor had been quietly fighting for his country since the Revolutionary War. Because of the long history of colored sailors in the Navy, little is written about them during the Civil War. This was not due to their lack of participation, but because the United States Navy has always been desegregated.
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[Image #1 Description: Black and white photograph of the U.S.S. Cairo docked. The crew can be seen on deck.]
[Image #2 Description: Photograph of the diverse crew of the U.S.S. Hunchback posing on deck. Photograph courtesy of the National Archives.]