Bluejacket Community Discoveries: The African American Crew of USS Albermarle

Our latest Zooniverse Community Discoveries post is based on identifications made by Community member @bmp77, who noted that the entire crew on one muster sheet was marked as “negro”. @bmp77 identified that the ship in question was USS Albermarle, and the sheet was dated to June of 1865. We decided to take a closer “visual” look at her crew, which provides us with an opportunity to discuss some of the questions we hope to explore surrounding shipboard communities during the American Civil War.

The USS Albermarle was a schooner that was initially captured off Pantego Creek, North Carolina by USS Delaware on 26 March 1862. She afterwards became a U.S. ordnance supply vessel, serving the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron between 1863 and 1865. (1) A review of the muster sheets of the Albermarle indicates that African Americans predominated among her crew throughout her U.S. service. By late 1864 and 1865, they came to represent the entirety of her crew, though overall command of the vessel was still held by white men. Given that the majority of African American sailors served on racially and ethnically mixed vessels, it is interesting to consider what the shipboard community aboard the Albermarle might have been like, and how their experience might have differed (or not) from those of other vessels. We will be taking a deeper look at the ship’s history and background later in the project, but for now we wanted to take a quick “visual” look at the crewmen themselves- what can the sheet tell us about the origins and backgrounds of the 33 crewmen who called Albermarle home in June 1865?

Nativities of the Crew of USS Albermarle, June 1865, by State (Click to Enlarge)

One of the ways we can examine the Albermarle muster information is visually, and to that end we have prepared some simple maps and charts using the June 1865 data. The first map (above) was developed from the nativity information provided for the crew. What is immediately apparent is that while the crew was uniformly African American, there must have been a significant range in life experience among those aboard. While some of the men had been born into enslavement, others had come into the world in free states, or in states that had abolished slavery by 1861. The two states with the highest proportion of representatives among the crew were Maryland (6) and North Carolina (16)- the former predominantly men from the port city of Baltimore.

The Ratings data hints at the potential that African American sailors from the free states might have enjoyed slightly better prospects for advancement than those who joined the service having escaped Confederate enslavement. All but three of the Albermarle sailors were recorded either as “Contraband” (a term often used by the U.S. for formerly enslaved men) or at the low Rating of “Landsman”. The exceptions were Daniel Barton, Ordinary Seaman; Edward Reed, Seaman; and John Hall; Ward Room Steward. Edward had been born in Baltimore, Daniel in Massachusetts, and John in New York. Daniel and Edward also had the longest service, both having enlisted in 1862. Although Edward was from Maryland, the other two men were “free-born.” By gathering this type of data across the entirety of Navy, we will be able to analyse if that background conferred advantage in terms of naval progression for African American sailors.

The nativity breakdown of the USS Albermarle crew in June 1865, expressed as a percentage of who had been born in states that enslaved African Americans in 1861 and those where African Americans were free (Click to Enlarge)

What is beyond doubt is that regardless of background, African American men faced major impediments to rank and advancement in the Navy. The overwhelming majority of African Americans in the Navy, irrespective of origin, tended to be enlisted at Boy or Landsman level. In contrast to white sailors, previous maritime experience was often ignored. Of the three men who had been mariners before entering the Navy- Isaac Lightbourne and Henry Staats from New York, and Andrew Williams from North Carolina, all were rated “Landsman”. Had they been white, their previous experience would likely have seen them enter the service at a higher Rating.

The data from the muster roll indicates that three-quarters of the men aboard the Albermarle had been born in states where the institution of slavery was still in place in 1861. This prompts us to consider the relationships between these men and the quarter of the crew who had different origins. What, if any, impact might these differences have had on the shipboard community?

The counties in North Carolina where crewmen on USS Albermarle in June 1865 had been born- the location of New Bern is denoted by a red star (note that the map utilises the modern county boundaries) (Click to Enlarge)
While the county map of North Carolina gives the impression that the nativity locations of Albermarle sailors were inland, this was not the case. The geographical map above shows the impact North Carolina’s coastal barrier islands (known as the Outer Banks) have on this picture. In fact, the Albermarle crewmen came from counties with direct coastal or major riverine access, where the U.S. Navy was extremely active (Image Wikimedia Commons)

We can take this visual examination of nativity a step further. The images above highlight the North Carolinian counties where 16 (or almost 50%) of the Albermarle crew came from. The U.S. Navy established a formidable presence along the North Carolina coast early in the war, including an important base of operations at New Bern in Craven County. Captured in 1862, New Bern remained in U.S. hands for the remainder of the conflict, and it became an important centre of recruitment for African American sailors. The Albermarle operated off New Bern, so it is little surprise that so many of her crew had origins in the area- and particularly Craven County. The presence of the U.S. Navy provided enslaved men- particularly those in the coastal areas- with a golden opportunity to grasp freedom, and many did so. As a result, the North Carolinian African American influence aboard Albermarle was extremely strong. Again, this prompts us to ask, how might these men’s common North Carolinian origin have influenced the Albermarle‘s shipboard community in 1864 and 1865?

At this stage of the project, information such as that from the Albermarle is prompting important questions for us to consider as Civil War Bluejackets progresses. As we advance through the data gathering and analysis, we hope to be able to discuss these issues in significantly more detail both on the blog and elsewhere. But thanks to the work of the project’s Citizen Scientists in uncovering examples like this from the Albermarle, we are being prompted to formulate these and many other fascinating questions. Many thanks again to @bmp77 for bringing it to our attention!

New Bern as it appeared during the Civil War, a scene that would have been very familiar to the USS Albermarle sailors.


(1) Paul H. Silverstone 1989. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 110.

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