Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy
Steven J. Ramold. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. 252 pp. Illus. Notes. Bib. Index. $32.00 ($28.80).
Reviewed by Commander Dennis Ringle, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Slaves, Sailors, Citizens provides a fresh look at the social history of the 19th-century U.S. Navy. More important, it shows the enormous contributions made by African American sailors to the final Union victory in the Civil War. This work focuses on the black enlisted men assigned to the ships operating along the coast enforcing the blockade, the western river vessels, the warships dispatched to hunt Confederate commerce raiders, and the numerous shipyards throughout the North.
Dr. Steven Ramold, an assistant professor of history at Virginia State University, provides an impressive bibliography that draws on a large number of unpublished and published diaries, journals, letters, and government documents to reconstruct the daily lives of African American sailors during this nation’s defining moment. The author frequently compares and contrasts the lifestyles of the black soldiers and sailors, which enhances his work and suggests the potential for future comparative studies. In addition, Dr. Ramold includes an impressive compilation of important demographic and legal statistics never before published. These data shed new light on the social impact of slavery, the quality of life for African Americans at the time, and the opportunities afforded free blacks and runaway slaves in the Union Navy.
The political and legal challenges faced by the Lincoln administration regarding the military use of runaway slaves (“contrabands”) and the critical requirement to fill ships’ forecastles are explained expertly. The author presents his material in a clear and concise manner, and he shows why the Navy, under the tutelage of Secretary Gideon Welles, provided the best quality of life and social equality possible for the growing labor pool of contrabands.
Dr. Ramold does an admirable job of drawing on several recently published works to describe the diet, health care, pay, entertainment, judicial system, and combat experiences of these African American men. Not only did black sailors receive the same pay as their white compatriots, they actually fared better in advancement as well. In some cases, those blacks who were skilled at navigating Southern coastal waters received up to $100 a month for their services as pilots for the Union (remarkable, considering an ordinary seamen was paid $16 a month). The author also provides a surprising look at the Navy’s legal system; his meticulous review of a number of courts-martial shows that the Navy truly was colorblind.
Dr. Ramold ends his book with a summary of the diary of Charles F. Fisher, a black sailor who served on board the Kearsarge for three years. The simplicity of Fisher’s entries belies their remarkable contribution to 19th century naval social history. The diary contains insights into the lives of white as well as black sailors. In addition, it makes no mention of racial disharmony in the crew. Fisher’s diary provides the final piece of Dr. Ramold’s thesis, that black and white sailors shared similar values and that the Union Navy truly was the first large U.S. institution to integrate successfully.
Slaves, Sailors, Citizens is a worthy addition to the library of both the Civil War scholar and enthusiast alike. Dr. Ramold should be commended for his excellent advancement of Civil War and mid-19th century social history.
Raising the Hunley
Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Illus. Bib. Index. $25.00 ($22.50).
Reviewed by Spencer Tucker
In February 1864, off Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank the U.S. Navy screw sloop Housatonic, the first such successful attack by a submersible in naval history. Both sides in the Civil War experimented with submarines, but the Confederates especially hoped to offset their military disadvantage through the use of new weapons. The chief supporter of this effort' was wealthy Louisianan Horace L. Hunley, who dreamt of developing a submarine capable of breaking the Union naval blockade.
A strength of this book by Charleston journalists Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf is its discussion of Hunley’s pivotal role in the endeavor. Hunley not only had a passion for the Southern cause but a thirst for fame as well. These pursuits would cost him his life.
Machinist James R. McClintock designed and built three submarines with Hunley. The first, at New Orleans, was scuttled to prevent her capture. The second, at Mobile, sank off Fort Morgan during an attempted attack against Union blockaders. Undaunted, Hunley and McClintock built a third submarine. Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard at Charleston requested that she be sent there from Mobile, and the city offered up to $100,000—a great fortune for the time— for the destruction of a Union blockader. On 13 August 1863, the submarine arrived in great secrecy on two covered rail cars.
After several practice dives in Charleston Harbor, the Hunley accidentally sank on 29 August, taking five of her crew with her. She was raised and tests began again under Hunley’s direction, but on 15 October the submarine sank again—this time drowning seven men as well as Hunley. Once more the Hunley was raised. Army Lieutenant George F. Dixon, who had helped build the submarine, commanded the third crew. As Hicks and Kropf make clear, Dixon convinced Beauregard that the submarine’s earlier sinkings were the result of human error, and the general grudgingly allowed another attempt.
The Hunley’s destructive force came from a spar torpedo, probably designed by Beauregard. When she drove toward her victim the spar’s barb would lodge in the timbers below the waterline. The sub then would back away, exploding the mine by means of a long lanyard.
On the night of 17 February, after rigorous training, the Hunley set out for the 1,394-ton Housatonic. Confederate deserters had forewarned the blockaders and lookouts had been posted, steam in the engine room was up, and crewmen stood ready to slip the ship’s cable. The Hunley’s approach was spotted, but she was too close when the alarm was sounded. Just as the crew was getting the ship under way the spar torpedo exploded. Because the Housatonic was in shallow water, only five Union sailors drowned. The Hunley survived long enough to signal by lantern that she was returning to land, but she went down herself shortly thereafter with all hands.
Many people refused to believe at the time and afterward that the Housatonic actually had succumbed to a submarine. Finally located in May 1995, the Hunley was raised in August 2000. Among the many artifacts recovered is Dixon’s bent $20 gold piece, the lucky charm that had saved his life at the Battle of Shiloh. This is a fascinating story, well told. The title is somewhat misleading, as half of the text treats the Hunley up to her sinking; the remainder deals with the search to locate her, the raising, and her conservation.
Into the Rising Sun
Patrick K. O’Donnell. New York: Free Press, 2002. 384 pp. Illus. Index. $27.00 ($24.30).
Reviewed by General Carl E. Mundy Jr., U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
In his second book about the personal battlefield experiences of individual Americans who fought in World War II, Patrick O’Donnell turns his focus to the Pacific. His first work, Beyond Valor, recounted the war in Europe through the memories of selected U.S. soldiers who fought there. At the outset of Into the Rising Sun, he sets a tone of difference between the two theaters of war. “The war in the Pacific,” he writes, “does not parallel the war in Europe or even the Russo-German war on the Eastern Front. Many factors contributed to making it perhaps the most savage and brutal theater in World War II. Terrain, climate, and disease pushed both sides to the limits of their endurance. Casualties were horrendous. But it was the intensity with which both sides prosecuted the war that made it unique. No quarter was given on either side. As one author put it, the Pacific was a ‘war without mercy.’”
As he did in Beyond Valor, O’Donnell draws on personal experiences from the “the elite infantry”—Marine Raiders and paratroopers, “Merrill’s Marauders,” and Army Rangers and paratroopers. Without denigrating other nonspecialized regular soldiers and Marines, his thesis is that these elite formations were the ones that had the toughest training and experienced some of the hardest-fought battles. O’Donnell provides a brief and interesting overview of the origins and history of these units, but nicely maintains his focus on the experiences of the people in them.
O’Donnell also does not attempt to follow the war by a detailed chronological recounting of each step in the Pacific campaign. He begins with a broad review of each of the battles on which he writes, and transitions quickly to his selection of personal oral histories by participants.
These individual experiences are the heart of the book—and they are moving, or perhaps for some, disturbing. This is not a book for those with weak stomachs. The oral histories paint a reality of infantry combat little understood by those who have not experienced it. Characteristic of our “greatest generation,” whose members returned from the war to take up normal lives and internalized the horrors they had experienced, there is little bragging or self- aggrandizement. As one contributor puts it: “The reality of war cannot be even imagined by anyone who has not been there. You see none of this in the movies. Only from a poor sucker infantryman can you learn what it is like, and the infantryman will very seldom talk about it.” Into the Rising Sun is not a book for those looking for the strategy, tactics, glory, or even excitement of battle. It is not politically correct, and it will not leave the reader feeling good. It is about the inhumanity and deprivation of infantry combat. It is worth reading because of the reality it brings to war through the voices of those who experienced it, and because it is important to succeeding generations to know what they did.