Sunday, September 27, 2009


African American Sailors in the Civil War

They weren’t the typical Civil War soldiers. They weren’t white. In fact, they weren’t soldiers at all. They were sailors, seamen of the United States Navy. This is the story of seven native born east-central Georgians who served in the almighty Federal Navy while it maintained its stranglehold over shipping lanes along the
southeastern coasts during the Civil War.

The United States Army developed a policy of seizing slaves from Southern plantation owners and employing them as laborers. Up and down the South Atlantic Coast former slaves were freed. They flocked into camps along coastal islands. It became readily apparent that these people could provide both army and navy commanders with valuable information. These former slaves provided the Union Navy with invaluable intelligence information, including the location of Confederate fortifications, navigation information along inland waterways, and foraging of supplies and food.

Originally the Negro sailors were considered mere laborers and were paid a minuscule salary. Eventually the men were treated for pay purposes as equal to the whites and were allowed to be promoted for outstanding performance of their duties. Some sailors rose to the rank of pilot. These river pilots provided vital services to the Federal navy.

While the true number of black soldiers on both sides of the conflict will never be known, most historians believe that at least fifty thousand or more Southern blacks served in the Confederate Army. Many were used in support roles, but company commanders needing bodies to fill in the lines were not opposed to filling their ranks with blacks, in complete deference to the official policy of the Confederate government. Among the most famous black Confederate soldiers was Private Bill Yopp of the 14th Georgia Infantry. A Laurens Countian by birth, Yopp, who surrendered with his company at Appomattox, is the only African-American Confederate soldier buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia.

Records of black Confederate casualties are virtually non-existent, though black Union casualties have been estimated to have been nearly forty thousand.

It has been estimated that some eighteen thousand former slaves served in the United States Navy during the Civil War. Four hundred seventeen of them are known to have been born in Georgia. A good portion of native Georgians serving in the Union Navy gave the place of their birth as Georgia, with no indication of the county of their birth. At least three Laurens Countians are known to have served in the Union Army during the war. Unfortunately, further efforts to trace the lives of these three men after the war were futile. Neither of the three men appear in any Federal censuses after the war.

Myers Blackshear, the oldest of three native Laurens Countians to serve in the Union Navy, was born in 1826. A five-foot five-inch tall farmer, Blackshear enlisted for a three-year term on December 31, 1863. Blackshear was assigned as a 3rd Class Boy aboard the U.S.S. Restless. On April 1, 1864, Blackshear was reassigned to the U.S.S. San Jacinto.

The San Jacinto, named for the climatic battle of the War for Texas Independence, was the Navy’s second screw frigate. The ship participated in the Virginia Peninsula campaign of 1862. In the last year of the war, the San Jacinto was assigned to blockade duty along the Southeastern and Gulf coasts. The ship was lost on New Year’s Day in 1865, when she sunk on a reef near Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

Francis Hughes, a barber by trade, was born in Laurens County in 1827.  Hughes enlisted for one year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1863. He was assigned as a landsman aboard the U.S.S. State of Georgia. A landsman in 19th Century language was a sailor on his first voyage or one who is inexperienced in sailing. The USS State of Georgia was a side wheel stern steamship and was often in dry dock for repairs. The ship saw limited action in the first half of 1864 during Hughes’ tenure on the ship.

George Hozendorf, born in 1836, listed himself as unemployed when he enlisted in the United States Navy at Fernandina Island, Florida on March 31, 1864. This five-foot three-inch tall native of Laurens County was assigned as a landsman aboard the U.S.S. Para. The Para, a 190-ton mortar schooner, saw action throughout the war, primarily off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.  In the summer of 1864, the Para participated in a mission up the Stono River in South Carolina.

Joseph Crawford, a forty-six-year-old Emanuel County laborer, enlisted in the navy for the duration of the war at St. George’s Sound on July 27, 1863. He served as a First Class Boy aboard the USS Somerset until the summer of 1865. Crawford served aboard the Somerset with his younger brother Cato Crawford. The younger Crawford enlisted for the war on July 15, 1863 at St. George’s Sound. The Somerset, a wooden-hulled side-wheel ferry boat was used primarily to block Southern blockade runners. On March 30, 1865, the ship destroyed the salt works on St. Joseph’s Bayou.

Andrew Brown, a five-foot eleven inch Twiggs County native, was born in 1825. He enlisted “for the cruise” at Key West, Florida on March 4, 1863. He served from April 1, 1863 to September 1863 aboard the San  acinto. In that month he transferred to the USS James L. Davis until December. Brown returned to San Jacinto for few days before returning back to the James L. Davis once again. His last assignment was aboard the San Jacinto.

Sampson Freeman, the third man of the group to serve aboard the USS Somerset, was born in Wilkinson County, Georgia in 1832. He enlisted for the duration of the war on July 1, 1863. He was a laborer by profession and served aboard the Somerset until June 1865.

Records of the participation of the black soldiers and sailors in both armies are scant. As a result of the popularity of the movie “Glory,” more attention has been drawn to the former slaves and free blacks who served in the Union Army.

However, much less attention has been paid to those who were slaves and fought in defense of their homeland despite its dogged determination to maintain the abomination of slavery. Many historians, including the highly respected Ed Bearrs of the National Park Service, believe their was a coverup to obscure the service records of those slaves who served the Confederacy.

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