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Accounting for “Contraband” Sailors in the Civil War Navy Bureaucracy
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When enslaved African Americans fled to the ships of the Union blockading fleet, officers often sent them to “contraband” camps such as those at Port Royal, South Carolina, or Fortress Monroe, Virginia, or shipped them north. However, the Union Navy, short on manpower, also encouraged able-bodied male contrabands to enlist. In September 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles authorized the enlistment of contrabands “under the same forms and regulations as apply to other enlistments.” As crew members of navy ships and gunboats, these black sailors served on blockade duty and even on expeditions up southern rivers and creeks.

On January 5, 1863, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered commanders of squadrons to forward monthly returns of “contrabands” employed on board the respective vessels under their command. The USS Western World had been part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1861 and 1862. After extensive overhaul, the Western World was reassigned in March 1863 to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for service in the Chesapeake Bay.

In this letter, Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee chastises the Western World’s commander for the lack of details in his May 1863 “Contraband” report.

SAMUEL P. LEE. Letter Signed, to Samuel B. Gregory, June 4, 1863. 1 p.

Inventory #22845       Price: $1,000

Complete Transcript

                                                                        U.S. Flag Ship Minnesota,

                                                                        Off Newport’s News, Va., June 4th, 1863.


            I have received your No 10 of May 31st regarding the “Contrabands” received during the month of May on board U.S.S. “Western World.”

            “Monthly Returns of all persons known as “Contrabands,” on board each vessel, including names in full, dates of shipment, rates, expiration of terms of service, trades and such other remarks as may be essential.” (Extract from printed statement, dated Jan 12, of periodical returns required from each Commanding Officer of this Squadron).

            Your letter is returned to be sent back accompanied by a report made out according to the above requirements, for reference to the Navy Department.

            In your “Contraband” returns hereafter, you will be governed by my circular of June 1st a copy of which is enclosed.

                                                                        Respectfully Yours,

                                                                        S. P. Lee

                                                                        A. R. Adml. Comd’g N. A. B. Squadn.

Act’g Master S. B. Gregory, U.S.N.

Comd’g U.S.S. Western World,

Off Newport News, Va.

Samuel P. Lee (1812-1897) was born in Virginia, the grandson of Declaration-signer Richard Henry Lee and third cousin of Robert E. Lee. Appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1825, his extensive service included combat in the Mexican War. In 1843, he married a daughter of Francis Preston Blair, who in 1859 built a house for the couple next to his own house within a block of the Executive Mansion. Lee was at sea off the Cape of Good Hope when he learned of the beginning of the Civil War. He returned and was assigned to blockade duty off Charleston, South Carolina. He and his crew earned more than $100,000 in prize money. In 1862, Lee commanded one of three gunboats that successfully ran past the forts protecting New Orleans, and he also participated in the naval bombardment of Vicksburg. In September 1862, he was promoted to acting Rear Admiral and given command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In 1864, he was transferred him to command the Mississippi Squadron, on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers.

Samuel B. Gregory (1813-1884), a shoemaker, came from a family of sea captains. He and his brother enlisted in the navy in 1861, and were assigned to the USS E. B. Hale in New York harbor, but were dismissed based on rumors of disloyalty. Returning home, the brothers obtained a petition signed by nearly every voter in Marblehead, Massachusetts, testifying to their loyalty. Commissioned on October 3, 1861, Samuel was assigned to be the Acting Master Commanding of the USS Western World, mostly patrolling the Savannah River and its tributaries. Although successful in capturing blockade runners, Gregory had to put down a mutiny late in October 1862. His executive officer, Acting Master Byron G. Pettengill (1823-1869), was tried by court-martial in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in January 1863; convicted; and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at hard labor. In March 1863, Secretary Welles ordered Gregory and the Western World to the Chesapeake Bay, where they intercepted blockade runners. Gregory took command of the brig USS Perry in the autumn of 1863, and commanded several other ships during the remainder of the war.[1]

[1] Samuel Roads, The History and Traditions of Marblehead (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880), 304-11; Mark Roman Schultz, “Acting Master Samuel B. Gregory: The Trials of An Unexpected Captain on the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron,” The American Neptune: A Quarterly Journal of Maritime History 50 (Spring 1990): 89-93; Navy Courts Martial Records, 1799-1867, Volume 93, Case 3173 (Pettengill).

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