USS Louisville Spotlight: Uncovering the Story of an Enslaved Mississippi “Field Hand”

The transcription efforts of the volunteers have allowed us to examine both the micro and macro experiences of Union gunboat crewmen on the Mississippi. In essence, this allows us to conduct both a “deep dive” into the story of individuals, and to pull back to gain broader perspectives on these men’s service. An example of one of the former comes in the story of Robert Foley, who the transcription volunteers identified among the crew of USS Louisville. Like many African Americans who ended up serving on the Mississippi gunboats, Foley had broken free from enslavement in order to enlist. He is recorded in the musters as having enlisted on 25 June 1864 at Skipwith Landing, Issaquena County, Mississippi. Remarkably, we have an image of Skipwith Landing from that year (below), which forms part of The Elisha Whittelsey Collection of The Met Museum.

Skipwith Landing, Mississippi during the Civil War (The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Met Museum)

The circumstances of Foley’s enlistment were common to many African Americans who joined Union gunboats on the Mississippi. At the time he joined up the Louisville was anchored at Skipwith Landing while on operations in the area, and he seems to have taken the opportunity while the vessel was there to seize his freedom. Examination of African American enlistment dates onto the gunboats suggests that many occurred at times when the vessels were stationary for a number of days, and word of their presence spread into the local countryside. Once he was enrolled, Foley officially served as a Landsman, the lowest rank in the navy, and the one that formerly enslaved African Americans usually received. However, through most of his service he performed the duties of a fireman, staying on until his discharge on 3 July 1865.

In later years, when he went in search of a pension, Foley described something of his life before the navy. He said he had been born near Natchez, Mississippi, either on 6 June 1837 or 6 April 1838. Foley was entered as a “field hand” when he joined the Louisville, but he later spoke of himself as both a “field hand” and a “house servant”, indicative of the often changing nature of life in bondage. After his discharge, he went back to his family in Issaquena County. He lived there for 32 years before moving to Natchez. When he applied for a pension in 1908 based on his age, the Bureau sought more evidence from him in order to prove how old he was. He replied in his own voice: 

I wants to say to you that I have been afflicted with Rhumitism evry since the war. and instead of getting better it is getting worse. I have stated to you my age truthfully before an the first of next April I will be 72 years old. now my old marster + mistress both are dead and I have stated the truth about my age and that is all I can do. I send you this to consider over hopeing an Early Reply. Robert Foley. 

Foley’s application revealed a lot more about his life. In 1856 or 1857 he had married Pattie Collins in Isaquenna. Because both of them were enslaved, there was no record of their union, save for any that might have been kept by their owners. As he put it, they were “married under the Laws of my Master”. The couple went on to have eight children who survived to adulthood, some of whom were born enslaved, some free. In 1892, he added the quip in his application that he “dont expect any more”. 

The USS Louisville as she appeared around the time Robert joined her (Library of Congress)

The post Emancipation relationship the formerly enslaved had with their past owners could be complex. These men and women were often forced to rely on testimony from their old masters when seeking pensions, especially if they had to prove things such as age and marriage. Foley was one who found himself in this position. One of the people who wrote in support of his claim was Charlotte Blackburn, who told the Bureau that “Robert Foley was born in Natchez April 6th 1837 + is consequently over 70 years of age He belonged to my Uncle in the adjoining place + I have known the family all my life”. Her testimony added the detail that “the servants family [Robert’s family] belonging to her family…she knew [Robert] when he was a child, and, because of his having been once the servant of the late Dr. Stephen Duncan of the same general family…whose home was next to [her] parents home.” In the 1870s Duncan had provided the now emancipated Foley with the date of his birth, so that the formerly enslaved man could record it in his own family bible. A review of the 1860 Census reveals that the Natchez based Duncans had hired enslaved people out all over Issaquena County. An example of some of the Duncan enslaved (who were not named, but only listed by their age and sex) can be seen on the 1860 Slave Schedule below. Foley was one of those recorded in this way.

An extract from the 1860 Slave Schedule showing some of those enslaved under the Duncan family (NARA)

The former Union sailor who lived all his life between Natchez and Isaquenna died in Natchez on 20 December 1914. His story serves as an excellent example of the potential of the muster roll transcriptions. It demonstrates their capacity to facilitate the linking together of multiple record sets, allowing us to uncover something of the often hard to reach experiences of those held in bondage in the South. It also illustrates the complexities often interwoven into those narratives. In 1864, Foley seized his freedom when opportunity presented itself, and helped to secure its permanance through his service. But the segregated Jim Crow society in which he lived during the post-war years meant life remained a constant struggle. Even into the 20th century, he was being forced to revisit his bondage and seek the aid of those who had once enslaved him as he sought to secure the benefits to which his United States service entitled him.

In our next African American focused post, we will take a higher level view, examining what the muster roll transcriptions can tell us about black service when analysed in broader perspective.


U.S. Navy Muster Rolls, USS Louisville, NARA.

U.S. Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, NARA.

Navy Pension Certificate of Robert Foley, NARA.

1860 Slave Schedule, Issaquena County, Mississippi, NARA.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

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