Revealing the Life Experiences of African American Crewmen aboard USS Pittsburg, July 1864

In order to examine the potential of linking data to specific crew lists, a sample analysis was undertaken on crewmen from the USS Pittsburg muster of 1 July 1864. This muster included details on 151 individuals, 40 percent of whom were black. Pension applications were sought relating to black and immigrant sailors among the crew, with thirty files identified and analysed. These files provided significant detail relative to the background, service and post-war lives of the Pittsburg’s crew, that also speak to the community aboard ship.

A total of sixty crewmen on the July 1864 muster of the Pittsburg were identifiable as black. The birthplace of one was recorded as “Africa”, with all the others natives of the United States. Of the fifty-nine African Americans aboard, just five had been born into what were by 1861 free states. Those five together with Virginia-born Thomas Pettis were the only black crewmen who enlisted in the Navy in the North. The overwhelming dominance of “Contrabands” among this cohort is confirmed by their recorded place of enlistment—“on board”—as well as by the stated occupations. The term of “Contraband” that the Navy applied to these men was commonly used by the military when referring to those who fled slavery into Union lines during the war. It was derived from the U.S. refusal to return those who had escaped enslavement to their Confederate owners, claiming they were “contraband of war”.

USS Pittsburg during the Civil War (Naval History & Heritage Command)

A total of forty-seven of these “Contraband” crewmen were record as either field hands or servants, the most common designation assigned to the formerly enslaved. The muster-roll transcription also facilitated close analysis of the enlistment patterns of these men. The great majority of African Americans aboard the Pittsburg had been enlisted in 1863. The month of May, and most particularly 31 May, was the day which saw the most significant influx. The Official Records confirm that this was a date when the Pittsburg was stationary at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River, an ideal setting to attract Contrabands. It also came shortly after the vessel had lost a number of men due to enemy action. One of the most significant research avenues that the transcription of the muster rolls creates is the potential to link data such as recruitment dates to the log books from each vessel, thereby facilitating a deeper understanding of the specific conditions under which Contrabands were taken aboard Union vessels during the conflict.

A total of eighteen pension applications were identified relating to African Americans among the Pittsburg’s crew in the summer of 1864. Two related to free blacks in the North, sixteen to men who had joined the service having escaped the bonds of slavery. All offered significant insights into both these men’s lives and their experiences before, during and after their service. 

The nativity and ethnicity breakdown of the USS Pittsburg Crew, 1 July 1864- Click to Enlarge (Civil War Bluejackets)

25-year-old Landsman Jacob Walker had been enslaved in Nashville, where he had been owned by drygood merchant John Craighead. He had spent many years driving carriages to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. John Walker, a 26-year-old former field hand who became Ship’s Cook on the Pittsburg, related that he had been born in Eastern Alabama near Gunters Landing on the Tennessee River. When he was around fifteen he was sold into Arkansas, where the plantation and everyone on it would be sold twice by the time he “went away to go to the service” during the Civil War. Horace Taylor, who had been born in Kentucky, was “sold south” when in his late twenties, and in the Natchez slave pens was bought by John McGill of Blackhawk, Louisiana, where he remained until he escaped to the Pittsburg. John Simmons had been owned by Frank Routh in Trinity on the Black River, Louisiana, having been sold into the state from his native Bertie County, North Carolina. Hardy Bradshaw “got on the boat at Fort Pillow” having been enslaved at nearby Belmont. Hardy bore the scars on his arms and legs where blood hounds had mauled him following a failed escape attempt. 

Many of the Contraband men seem to have left their old lives behind when they went on the Pittsburg, and quite a number of them were single. Hardy Bradshaw confided in a fellow Contraband that there had been a girl on his plantation whom he had wanted to marry, but his master had been “whipping and beating her because she would not submit to him [the master]”. Hardy, who advised her to submit in order to avoid further violence, did not want to bring more whippings on her by marrying her. Jacob Walker had entered into a “slave marriage” in Nashville in 1855 or 1856, but his wife died while he was in service. Horace Taylor, who was recorded as being in his late twenties when he joined the Pittsburg, was actually in his mid-forties. He claimed to have had “sixteen children before the war by a slave wife”, though it is unclear if he returned to her after the conflict. According to a comrade, John Simmons took his wife Phoebe onto the Pittsburg with him, and “she stayed on the boat all the time”. 

An unidentified African American sailor during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Solomon Chase recalled that he enlisted on 13 August 1863 “on the Mississippi River between Red River and Natchez”. Pink Whitley, who had been a slave at Mason’s Depot in Tennessee, recounted that that he joined up at the mouth of the Red River in Louisiana, though he did not reveal how he had come to be there. When Joseph Adams made it to the boat he was first placed with a group of refugees on the Pittsburg’s coal barge, which was towed behind the vessel, and it was two or three days before he officially joined the crew. Horace Taylor revealed something of the selection process, remembering how he was “stripped naked and examined all over…The doctor measured me and thumped me and looked at my eyes. He did not tell me to give my age.”

The Pittsburg clearly acted as a magnet for efforts to escape bondage as both the vessel and news of the vessel spread through different localities. This is borne out by the case of John Moore and Pat Scott. Moore had made it to the Pittsburg on 28 July 1863, the day before fellow Contraband Scott, who later revealed that the two “were slaves on adjoining plantations, and enlisted together”. Scott had been enslaved at Palmetto Point, Mississippi, close by Joseph Adams, who had been in bondage at Fort Adams. Adams claimed that he and a number of others from the vicinity had been “shipped to Vicksburg…to work on breastworks, and while there, we all run off one night”. He says he “refugeed to Skippers [Skipwith] Landing” where he got on the Pittsburg with the others, John and George Williams, Bill Curry and Enos Dunn, whom he claimed all belonged to different owners in the Fort Adams vicinity.

Skipwith Landing, where Pat Scott, John and George Williams, Bill Curry and Enos Dunn joined the crew of USS Pittsburg (The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Met Museum)

During the course of the conflict Contraband servicemen occasionally came into contact with those who had known them in bondage. At Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana in 1863, Jacob Walker met Samuel Allen, a slave turned soldier who had once worked the carriages to Andrew Jackson’s hermitage with him. The men had not met since Allen had been sold from Nashville up to the Yazoo River “cotton patches” more than twenty years earlier. These examples provide just a glimpse of the immense richness of the naval records, particularly when they are linked together as we sought to do with the Union Bluejackets Pilot Project. Follow on posts will explore how these African American sailors interacted with the white crewmen on board, and what became of them in the postwar period.


Naval Muster Rolls

Naval Pensions

Official Records

One response to “Revealing the Life Experiences of African American Crewmen aboard USS Pittsburg, July 1864”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: