Memorial Day Stories 4: Robert Harwood, USS Tecumseh

For Memorial Day 2022 Civil War Bluejackets took to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share the stories of some of the men who lost their lives aboard USS Tecumseh at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1864. Covering the vessel and four of her crew, the stories were presented as threads, and are replicated on the blog for the benefit of readers. The final thread focused on Robert Harwood, a Seaman aboard the Tecumseh:

In the Civil War, the U.S. Navy- unlike the army- was racially integrated. When USS Tecumseh went down, European immigrants, white northerners and African Americans perished side-by-side. One African American lost was Robert Harwood, 4th subject of our #MemorialDay threads.

African American sailors aboard USS Miami (Naval History & Heritage Command)

During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy recruited many recently enslaved men- often called “Contrabands”- into the service. It’s unclear if Robert was born into bondage- he came into the world in Washington D.C. c. 1841 (slavery was legal there until 1862) but grew up in free New York.

A young African American sailor during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Whether or not Robert endured bondage, it’s likely his mother Ellen did. She was born in Maryland in 1806- slavery remained established there until 1864. In the 1830s she had married Robert’s father Edwin in Washington D.C., but in 1851 he abandoned Ellen and their 5 children.

A family of formerly enslaved people in South Carolina (Library of Congress)

In pre-war New York life for Robert and his family was hard. As well as dealing with ever-present racism, they also had to struggle to eke out a living. While the children sought work where they could, Ellen took a position as a Cook at the famed Colored Orphan Asylum (below).

The New York Colored Orphan Asylum as it appeared in the antebellum period (New York Public Library)

When war came, the Harwood family stood ready to fight. Robert and his brothers Eli and Chapman all donned Union blue. On enlistment in February 1863, Robert was recorded as a 22-year-old billiard-table maker- though his mother said he was an irregularly employed waiter.

A 19th century advertisement for billiard tables (Wikipedia)

Robert was not long at sea before dreadful news arrived from home. The Colored Orphan Asylum where his mother lived and worked had been burned down by Draft Rioters targeting African Americans. Thankfully Ellen survived, but she lost most of her possessions in the blaze.

The burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum by rioters in 1863, where Ellen Harwood lived (Harper’s Weekly)

Robert went to sea as an Able Seaman, suggesting prior maritime experience. He served aboard the USS North Carolina, Clara Dolsen and Key West before discharge in February 1864 (his surname spelt as Howard). Within weeks he had re-enlisted-and was soon en-route to Mobile Bay.

The USS Key West pictured with other gunboats in 1863 (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Robert’s drowning at Mobile Bay was not the only loss the family suffered during the War- Eli also died in U.S. service. Chapman came home, but was a physically changed man. Partially paralysed, he struggled to make a living. Things had gotten even harder for the Harwoods.

Efforts to rescue the few surviving members of USS Tecumseh at Mobile Bay in 1864 (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Ultimately it was the rebuilt Colored Orphan Asylum who came to Ellen’s aid. Thanks to her long service, they agreed to keep a roof over her head, allowing her to stay as an “inmate free of expense” for more than 15 years.

The rebuilt Colored Orphan Asylum where Ellen made her home after the Civil War (New York Public Library)

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