Friday, September 24, 2010

James McPherson - Slavery, Freedom, and the Union Navy

James M. McPherson was born in North Dakota and grew up in Minnesota, where he graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1958. In 1963 he received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. From 1962 until retirement in 2004 he taught American history at Princeton University, where he is now the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History Emeritus. He is the author of 15 books and editor of another 10 books, most of them on the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His books have won several prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize (1989) for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, a Lincoln Prize (1998) for For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, and a second Lincoln Prize (2009) for Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. He has received a number of other awards, including the Pritzker Prize for lifetime achievement in military writing. In addition to his membership in several professional associations and historical preservation societies, he is an elected member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is now working on a book about the navies in the Civil War.

Dr. McPherson began by telling the familiar story of Robert Smalls, the slave from South Carolina who famously escaped from slavery by stealing a steamboat and piloting it into Union lines. He then stated that this famous story was by no means unique.

McPherson told of 15 slaves who had escaped to the Union Navy just weeks before Small’s celebrated exploit. He then told of Butler’s famous “contraband” decree at Fortress Monroe and how modern day images of contraband slaves escaping into Union “lines” tend to portray slaves escaping on land to the Union army – not by water to the Union Navy. Using the Official Records, McPherson detailed many instances were contraband slaves hailed Union gunboats to come and set them free. This grew to be so common that Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy) allowed the young men in these groups to serve in the Union Navy. Thus blacks were allowed to serve in the military in the navy a full year before they could serve in the army.

McPherson made sure to stress that the navy during the Civil War was by no means a free-thinking group of abolitionists, and he pointed out Admiral DuPont and his aristocratic family lineage. DuPont was pro-slavery and noted that none of his officers had voted for Lincoln. Yet still, the demands of war caused them to adapt to the vagaries of war and they were soon singing the praises of the African Americans serving on their vessels.

This paved the way for the Emancipation that would come one year later.

Recommended Reading:

Barbara Tomblin. Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2009.

Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867: Series 1, Volume 1: The Destruction of Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


  1. I'd add one more book: Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett. Bennett devotes considerable space to discussing both free African Americans and contrabands' service in the USN, including a chapter on shipboard interactions (or otherwise) between black and white sailors.

  2. Thanks Andy. Not sure how I missed an obvious one like that!