In Search of Women of African Descent Who Served in the Civil War Union Navy

Article excerpt

The author was first introduced to Ann Stokes during the summer of 1995 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. while working full-time as a researcher for the African-American Civil War Sailor Project.(1) As part of a team of graduate students from Howard University, the author spent the summer recording thousands of names of black sailors from the extant muster rolls of ships that served in the Union Navy. The work was tedious and mind numbing at times, as the team struggled with oversized bound volumes of handwritten, sometimes faded entries searching for descriptive words, such as "Negro", "black", "contraband", "slave", "brown", "yellow", "mulatto", that would identify a sailor as a man of African descent.

Imagine the team's surprise when they encountered the name "Beverly" the first time on the muster rolls. Initially it was assumed that the sailor was a woman, but the rating of a "first-class fireman" and the occupation of a "blacksmith" quickly dispelled that assumption. Later appearances of the name for different individuals brought the realization that "Beverly" must have been a common name for men, as well as women, in the 19th century, just as Taylor and Michael are used today for either gender. As a U.S. Navy veteran, the author was particularly disappointed because she hoped that the research had uncovered a black woman - perhaps the first - who had enlisted in the Navy during the Civil War. Further examination of muster rolls revealed two names that were definitely identified as women: Harriet Ruth, a nurse who served on the U.S.S. Black Hawk, with her husband, Alfred, the "Admiral's Cook"; and Harriet Little, also a nurse who served along with Samuel Little (presumably her husband), who was also designated a nurse on the U.S.S. Hartford.

Finding some black women serving as nurses in the Union Navy during the Civil War should not be considered unusual. We know that the Army used female nurses. Susie King Taylor's account of her service as a laundress, nurse and teacher for the Colored Troops in South Carolina speaks to the contribution black women made in Army camps, on the battlefield, and at military hospitals. Harriet Tubman also served as a nurse, spy and scout for the Union army during the war. But, other than these few well-known personalities, the numerous other women of African descent who served the Union war effort as laundresses, nurses, cooks and matrons remain nameless and voiceless. Some of their stories are now being marginally illuminated through current research.

This research has unearthed some unexpected and unusual anomalies surrounding the presence of black women aboard Union ships and at land stations. The first oddity was finding a 45-year-old woman enlisted as a "first-class boy" at a Navy hospital in North Carolina. The second curiosity was finding a large number of black women serving in different capacities aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Red Rover, of the Mississippi Squadron, who apparently were not contract employees. Contract nurses were civilians who worked for the government as employees but were not considered enlisted in the military. Black women, as well as their white counterparts, served in this capacity. And the last anomaly was Ann Stokes, a woman who may well be the first to enlist in the United States Navy and the first to receive a Navy Invalid Pension for her service during the Civil War.

At the outset of the war nursing in the military was an exclusively male position. During the 1862 Peninsular Campaign in Virginia elite northern women, of European descent, volunteered to work under the auspices of the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian organization that supplied limited medical care and humanitarian aid to wounded Union soldiers. Dorothea Dix, newly commissioned superintendent of Army Nurses, took charge of the "lady volunteers" who staffed the United States Sanitary Commission's floating hospitals around Washington, D. …