Today’s post was written by Damani Davis, Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC and Subject Matter Expert for records related to the African American experience.
During the Civil War, approximately 17,000 men of African heritage served in the Union Navy. As noted by historian Joseph P. Reidy, this number represented approximately 20 percent of the enlisted men in the U.S. Navy at that time, which was “nearly double the proportion of black soldiers who served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.” This clearly indicates that sailors of African descent “constituted a significant segment of naval manpower.”
Despite this disproportionate representation of Afro-American enlisted men in the Union Navy, much of the American public and the larger popular culture are often unfamiliar with this history—especially when compared to the service of Black soldiers in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War, or the “Buffalo Soldiers” during Reconstruction. Accordingly, some researchers may fail to consider federal records associated with this history as a viable source of research.
The initial source of the Union Navy’s Black recruits sprang from a long maritime tradition of free Afro-Americans serving as seamen on merchant and whaling vessels throughout the port cities of the Northeast and among skilled enslaved workers serving on small vessels throughout the many waterways of the Chesapeake region and the Carolina low country. This robust tradition of Black seamen extended as far back as the colonial era and throughout the post-Revolutionary antebellum period. During the nineteenth century, serving as a merchant seaman or whaler was one of the few occupations that offered free Blacks a relative level of independence and self-sufficiency, along with the opportunity to travel the world. And even for those who were enslaved, skilled work on the waterways provided a degree of autonomy and mobility unavailable to their compatriots confined to the fields and plantation houses.
During the antebellum era, the numbers of Afro-Americans among seamen were overrepresented when compared to their population in most states. Accordingly, as one historian notes, their experience on the “merchant ships and whaling vessels…served as training schools for the United States Navy.” But similar to the difficulty that Black Civil War sailors have had in gaining prominence in the popular historical consciousness of the American public, the vibrant history of Black seamen during the antebellum period is also not well-known among many.
Notable Black figures in American and African American history had careers as seamen. Among these Black seamen were distinguished individuals such as: Crispus Attucks, the first American to die at the onset of the Revolution; Paul Cuffee, successful businessman, ship captain, abolitionist, and advocate of Black emigration to Sierra Leone in Africa; and James Forten, sailmaker, wealthy businessman, abolitionist, civil rights activist, and opponent of Black emigration to Africa.
Likewise, Robert Smalls, Union Navy veteran and a Reconstruction era congressman and businessman, had long worked as a skilled, enslaved waterman in Charleston, SC before later capturing a Confederate vessel and turning it over to the Union. As a spy and scout for the Union Army, Harriet Tubman relied on the services of local Black mariners and sailors who were intimately acquainted with the coastal Carolina waterways. Finally, Frederick Douglass, although not a seaman, successfully escaped from slavery by posing as one after borrowing a copy of his friend’s “seaman’s protection certificate.” Fortunately for Douglass, the early seamen’s protection certificates only contained a written physical description of the holder, but no actual photographs (unlike the later certificates of the early twentieth century).
Old Seamen’s Protection Certificates, 1795-1875 (from the Records of the US Customs Service)
Among the pertinent records that document these seamen are “Seamen’s Protection Certificates.” Seamen’s Protection Certificates are part of the Records of the US Customs Service (Record Group 36). The Seamen’s Protection Certificates were required to verify the identity and citizenship of American seamen. The use of the certificates was enacted by the US Congress (Act of 1796, 1 Stat. 477) as a means to protect American seamen from impressment by the British Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The act required US Customs agents to issue the protection certificates to qualified seamen, maintain registers of certificate applications, keep accompanying proofs of citizenship on file, and forward quarterly lists of registered seamen to the Department of State. The National Archives (NARA) holds the registers of seamen who received these certificates as the actual certificates were kept by the seamen themselves.
The records of certificates are held variably at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC and at NARA’s regional facilities based on the location of the port (primarily at NARA’s facilities in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Fort Worth). Some records have also been published on microfilm, or are digitized and available in the National Archives Catalog.
Since the purpose of these records was to identify each seaman, they document personal information such as: name; age; date of birth; place of birth; citizenship and how citizenship was obtained; and give a detailed physical description (including complexion, color of hair and eyes, height, weight, and other identifying information). There was no standardized racial designation required for these certificates, but the apparent race of individuals was usually disclosed within the physical description. Some examples of these records are as follows:
“On this 9th day of Jany. in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and 11 before me John Lynd, Notary Public, and Justice of the Peace, dwelling in the city of New-Orleans, personally came Lyman Littlefield and made oath that he is a native of Newport state of Rhode Island and a citizen of the United States, that he is aged 21? years, or thereabouts, of the height of 5 feet, 3 inches, black hair, black eyes, black complexion. A free blackman….”
“Be it Known, That on the date of the day hereof, before me, Peter Lohra, of Philadelphia, Notary Public,…personally appeared Joseph Maloney, an American Seaman aged twenty four years or thereabout, of the height of five feet, four inches, dark complexion, black wooly hair, black eyes, and has a scar on his right arm above the elbow, who being by duly sworn, according to law, did declare and say, That he a Native of Bucks County in the State of Pennsylvania and is a Citizen of the United States of America, he being a free born Man of Colour….”
“Be it Known, That on the date of the day hereof, before me, Peter Lohra, of Philadelphia, Notary Public,…personally appeared Charles Mendoza an American Seaman aged twenty five years or thereabout of the height of five feet five inches, Yellow complexion, black wooly hair, and bald on the top of his head, dark eyes. When being by me duly sworn according to law did depose and say that he is a native of Burlington in the State of New Jersey and is a citizen of the United States of America, being a free man of colour….
“Be it Known that on the day of the date hereof, before me…Personally appeared Mathias Moore, Col.’ Man [colored man], an American Seaman, aged 50 years, or thereabouts, of the height of 5 feet 5 inches, has wooly hair and black complexion, has a small scar in front of his forehead, who being duly sworn by Law, did on his solemn oath depose and say, that he is a native of __ in the County of Dorchester and State of Maryland, and a Citizen of the United States of America….”
“On this 9th day of Jany in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and 10 before me John Lynd, Notary Public, and Justice of the Peace, dwelling in the city of New Orleans, personally came John Wright and made oath that he is a native of the State of Virginia and a citizen of the United States, that he is aged 38 years, or thereabouts, of the height of 5 feet, 6.5 inches, black hair, black eyes, yellow complexion. A free man of colour….”
 Although the term African American has been widely adopted since the early 1990s (gradually replacing Black American), in this post I prefer to use the older term “Afro-American” to describe people with varying degrees of African heritage. During the antebellum period, these persons were variably referred to as Black, Negro, Mulatto, Persons of Color, Colored, etc. This was a diverse population with differing self-conceptions, consisting of those who had been in America for generations (since the early colonial era), others who were recent arrivals from Africa, a majority who were enslaved, a significant population who were free, many who were racially unmixed, others who were multiracial. In some instances, I use Afro-American interchangeably with long-used term “Black.”
 Recounted in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: “One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other seaports at the time, towards ‘those who go down to the sea in ships.’ ‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ expressed the sentiment of the country just then. In my clothing I was rigged out in sailor style….My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’ On sped the train, and I was well on the way to Havre de Grace before the conductor came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine the papers of his black passengers. This was a critical moment in the drama. My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor…. He was somewhat harsh in tone and peremptory in manner until he reached me, when, strangely enough, and to my surprise and relief, his whole manner changed. Seeing that I did not readily produce my free papers, as the other colored person in the car had done, he said to me in a friendly contrast with that observed towards the other: ‘I suppose you have your free papers?’ To which I answered: ‘No, sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me.’ ‘But you have something to show that you are a free man, have you not?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I answered; ‘I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me round the world.’ With this I drew from my deep sailor’s pocket my seamen’s protection, as before described. There merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business.”
- Bolster, Jeffrey W. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998
- Farr, James Barker. Black Odyssey: The Seafaring Traditions of Afro-Americans. New York: Peter Lang Inc., 1989
- Finley, Skip. Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press
- Gould, William Benjamin. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002
- Karper, Luther Scott. Dum Spiro, Spero: Chambersburg’s Black Civil War Soldiers and Sailors. lulu.com, 2013
- Knocblock, Glenn A. “Strong and Brave Fellows:” New Hampshire’s Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003
- Putney, Martha. Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1987
- Ramold, Steven. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2001
- Schoeppner, Michael A. Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2019
- Tomblin, Barbara Brooks. Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009