Black Americans in the Confederate Navy & Marine Corps
By John Nevins
Black Americans serving in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America is a topic all but unheard of by those with a casual interest in the Civil War. In fact, this aspect of the war doesn’t even occur to the average American.
While a large number of blacks served in various support roles, the estimates concerning combatants’ ranges from 50,000 to 90,000. This latter figure comes from Nelson Winbush, a recognized authority on the subject. Mr. Winbush is a retired schoolteacher and grandson of Louis N. Nelson, a black Confederate veteran who rode with General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Black Confederates were not always "regularly enlisted." Some were slaves (many ran away to join the fight), others free men. There are a number of instances where free blacks brought their own slaves to war with them.
Dr. Edward Smith, Dean of American Studies at American University, estimates that by February 1865, 1,150 Black Americans had served in the Confederate States Navy. This number would equate to approximately 20 percent of this branch of the Confederate military.
Confederate Naval Regulations allowed a ship’s captain a ratio of one black seaman to five white seamen. A higher percentage of black crewmen were allowed upon the captain filing an exemption. Since numerous exemptions were filed, it seems reasonable to conclude that the surface has barely been scratched where blacks in the Confederate Navy are concerned.
Most of the Confederate States Marine Corps records were intentionally destroyed at the end of the war, less they fall into enemy hands. As a result, research of any kind into this branch of service is very much a challenge. What follows are the names and descriptions of Black Americans I have been able to positively identify as having served with the Confederate States Navy and Marine Corps.
The Confederate States Marine Corps
CSMC W.S. Lewis, of Charleston County, South Carolina served aboard the CSS Atlanta and later, the famous raider, CSS Alabama. Lewis was granted a soldiers pension from the South Carolina government on April 14, 1923.
CSMC Lawrence Graves was a body servant of Lieutenant Henry Graves, C.S. Marine Corps. He used a rifle in the trenches of Savannah in December 1864. Iverson Graves, brother of the Marine Lieutenant, wrote home "L.(awrence) was much elated with the idea of having shot at some Yankees before evacuation, and thinks he hit one."
The Confederate States Navy
The Savannah Squadron
CSN Skilled pilots on Confederate gunboats were well paid ($80 to $100 per month) and held an officers rank, albeit without the authority. One such pilot was Moses Dallas, who served with the Savannah Squadron from 1862 to 1864. A letter from the Savannah Squadron Commander to the Secretary of the Navy gives us a small glimpse: "I have also been compelled to increase the pay of Moses Dallas from $80 to $100 per month in order to retain him. He is a colored pilot and is considered the best inland pilot on the coast."
Moses Dallas was on the expedition that captured the Federal gunboat USS Water Witch on the rainy night of June 3-4, 1864. He was among six Confederates killed in action during the firefight that erupted as they boarded the ship. Another black man identified as "Ben" (Newell?) piloted the captured vessel.
While the Confederate government purchased a casket for Moses Dallas and paid his funeral expenses, his story refused to die. A rumor has persisted that Dallas didn’t die – that the foregoing was a cover-up story to hide the fact that he faked his death, then defected to the Union Navy. Truth may very well be stranger than fiction: There were actually two men in that part of the country with the name, Moses Dallas. The Confederate Pilot, Moses Dallas was from St. Marys, Georgia. The Moses Dallas who joined the Federal Navy was from Jacksonville, Florida.
CSN Edward W. Walden was enlisted (shipped) by Moses Dallas (see above) and served as a Landsman aboard the CSS Savannah.
CSN Another pilot who was considered outstanding in his profession was William "Billy" Bugg. He served aboard both the CSS Isondiga and CSS Sampson at Savannah.
CSN Randall Polk was a Landsman aboard the ironclad ram, CSS Georgia (used as a floating battery). He served aboard her from September, 1861 until December 21, 1864, when she was destroyed to avoid capture by Sherman’s army.
CSN James Duncan Moore enlisted in the C.S. Navy on September 1, 1864. He served with Randall Polk aboard the floating battery, CSS Georgia.
CSN Aboard the CSS Macon, Charles B. Stiles served as a Landsman and George Snowden, served as a 1st Class Cabin Boy.
The James River Squadron
CSN Robert Cole was assigned to the CSS Patrick Henry. He was a slave owned by Confederate President, Jefferson Davis.
CSN James Price served with the James River Squadron.
CSN David Green and Henry Leonard also served with the James River Squadron. They were transferred from Drewry’s Bluff (a C.S. Marine and Navy base located approximately eight miles down river from Richmond, Virginia) to the ironclad, CSS Virginia II at Richmond. Green and Leonard served as Landsmen aboard this vessel.
The Wilmington Squadron
CSN Benjamin H. Gray was a twelve-year-old youth who enlisted in the C.S. Navy at Wilmington, North Carolina. He saw combat as a Powder Boy on the famous ironclad, CSS Albermarle. As a Powder Boy, his job was to carry bags of gunpowder from the magazine below to the gun deck.
In June 1917, while a resident of Bertie County NC, Gray applied for a Confederate Pension from North Carolina. It was approved the following month. After his death in 1924, his widow, Margaret was granted a pension based upon his service.
CSN There were at least two black seamen who served on the raider, CSS Shenandoah, one of whom was named Edward Weeks.
CSN In addition to Marine, W.S. Lewis (described above), Sailor David White served on the famous raider, CSS Alabama. White went down with his ship after doing battle with the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864. A photo exists of several crewmen aboard the Alabama that includes an unidentified black sailor. This man may, or may not be David White. So there is a possibility of a third black crewman serving aboard this ship.
The Charleston Squadron
CSN Johnny Robinson enlisted in the C.S. Navy in early 1863 and served aboard the ironclad warship, CSS Chicora. He was discharged when found to be a runaway slave.
CSN There were three other blacks regularly enlisted on the Chicora. These men were free before the war and enlisted early on. They were, Charles Cleaper (also spelled, Charley Cleaper and Chas. Cleoper), James Hicks and Joe Johnson.
When Charleston was evacuated towards the end of the war, navy and marine personnel withdrew to Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia (described above). Drewry’s was also the site of the Confederate States Naval Academy.
At Drewry’s Bluff, Cleaper, Hicks, Johnson and the other men of the Charleston Squadron joined with remnants of the Wilmington (NC) Squadron and Virginia based personnel to form a combat unit that has come to be known as "Tucker’s Brigade" after it’s commander, Commodore John R. Tucker. The terms "Marine Brigade" and "Naval Brigade" are also used interchangeably in identifying this unit.
Tucker’s Brigade was assigned to the rear guard of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during their withdrawal from the Richmond/Petersburg line which began April 2, 1865. Four days later, the Federal army intercepted and cut off the rear of Lee’s army. This resulted in the Battle of Sayler’s Creek.
During the battle, Tucker’s Brigade was the only Confederate unit that didn’t break under the first Federal charge. After repulsing the charge, the Brigade – numbering 300 to 400 men, was then surrounded by six Union divisions. Rather than surrender, Tucker counterattacked, smashing the 37th Massachusetts Infantry into fragments and tearing into the 2nd Rhode Island in hand to hand combat.
Withdrawing to a wooded pocket, the unit repulsed several more Federal attacks. The performance of Tucker’s Brigade was so intense and the damage they inflicted so devastating, that the Federal generals estimated the "Marine Brigade" to number some 2,000 men.
Tucker was ultimately talked into surrendering towards the end of the day, but many of his men escaped to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia. Sayler’s Creek occurred three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Cleaper, Hicks and Johnson were among those who managed to escape and were with the remnants of Tucker’s Brigade when Lee surrendered. The surrender roll lists their ranks as "Private." Sailors captured during land-based operations were often listed as "private."
Mainstream historians have largely overlooked the topic of Black Americans serving with the Confederacy. Elsewhere, the role of Southern Blacks in the War Between the States has been dismissed as just so many servants along for the ride. The names Charles Cleaper, James Hicks and Joe Johnson were only added to the exhibit on Black Americans at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in late 1998.
It is indeed unfortunate that neglect, indifference and the unrelenting march of time have ravaged the record of these brave Americans. However, with the unprecedented amount of grass roots research going on today, there is hope that we may yet be able to discover significant information concerning this important aspect of our history.
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