Merchant Marine in Civil War - includes African-American Mariners

The struggle for control of the sea lanes and the inland waterways played an important role during the Civil War, so as in every other war in our history, the Merchant Marine was called upon to fight.

One of the first steps taken by the North against the Confederacy was establishment of a blockade of all southern seaports, thus cutting off imports of war materiel, medical supplies, and household goods. By preventing the sale of cotton abroad in exchange for war materiel, the Union blockade changed the balance of power in the war. The North conveniently forgot the War of 1812 was fought to defend the principle of freedom of the seas, and seized neutral ships trading with the South.

The South, which had very few merchant ships, responded by issuing "Letters of Marque and Reprisal" to privateers. This effort was short-lived because of the effectiveness of the blockade, the successful capture of privateers by the North, and their subsequent trials for piracy. Confederate privateers captured 40 Yankee ships, but by February 1863 only the schooner Retribution remained. The crew of the Confederate privateer Savannah was put on trial for piracy, but the South's threat to execute a similar number of Union POW's spared them from a death sentence.

Hundreds of vessels, both purchased and chartered, were employed by the Army in the transportation of men and supplies. One New York entrepreneur purchased a used ship for $12,000 and earned $833,000 on his Army charters.

During 1865, the Quartermaster General owned or chartered 719 vessels for use in oceans and lakes, with a total tonnage of 224,984. Rail and River Transportation division owned 91 steamers, 352 barges, 139 boats.

At the outbreak of the war, the U.S. Navy had just a few dozen vessels-- inadequate to enforce a blockade. The Navy drew six hundred vessels from the Merchant Marine, exceeding one million tons, and manned by about 70,000 seamen, for blockades and armed service. Following the defeat of the Confederacy, the Quartermaster General disposed of the major portion of the fleet and increased the use of rail for troop movements.

Confederate Raider AlabamaConfederate Raiders
The South commissioned warships to raid Northern shipping-- the most successful of these were the Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah. These were equipped with both steam and sail and were built in England, for the South had few shipbuilding facilities. Most of the crew were British seamen, eager for high wages and promises of prize money to be paid in Confederate dollars after the War.

Confederate Raider Alabama (shown at right)

About 200 Northern ships were captured by these raiders, with victims scattered across the Atlantic, Caribbean, Cape Horn route to the West Coast, and as far as Australia. Whalers were a favorite prey. Fortunately for the Union, the raiders never caught any ships carrying gold from California. Captured ships were usually stripped of all valuables and burned, the crew taken prisoner.

One daring raider, Tallahassee, sank a schooner off New Jersey, then sailed into New York Harbor. An unsuspecting and unobservant harbor pilot, hustling for a job, came aboard, and was astonished to find the Confederate flag flying. The Tallahassee sank 6 ships in 6 hours outside New York before moving north to attack coastal and transatlantic trading vessels.

Raphael Semmes and the Alabama
Raphael Semmes
(1809-1877) resigned from the Union Navy and joined the Confederate Navy when Alabama seceded from the Union. While in command of the Sumter he captured 17 Union merchant ships carrying supplies to and from the Northern States.Captain Raphael Semmes of the raider Alabama

Captain Raphael Semmes of the raider Alabama (shown at right)

Assigned to the Alabama, he made a series of brilliant and successful cruises from New York to Java, capturing, sinking, or burning 82 Union ships valued at more than $6,000,000 between 1862 and 1864. Finally he met the well-armed, armor-clad Union ship Kearsarge in the English Channel and, after a 90-minute battle, was forced to surrender. He returned to the South, and served as rear admiral in the Confederate Navy.

[The SS Raphael Semmes, a 6,000 ton freighter launched in 1920 and named in his honor, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-Boat in June 1942.)

Besides the 200 ships destroyed by Confederate raiders, 1,600 ships were reflagged as foreign vessels to avoid their danger, resulting in a long-term loss to the U.S. merchant marine, since they were not allowed to return to United States registry thereafter.

After the War ended, the United States sued England in connection with losses caused by the raiders, because as bitter ship owners put it, these raiders were: "built of English oak, in an English yard, armed with English guns, manned by an English crew, and sunk in the English Channel."

An international commission ruled damages of $15,000,000 against England-- a small price to pay for the long term damage to the American merchant marine to the benefit of British shipping.

African-American Mariners in the Civil War

The following is directly quoted from: The Negro in the American Rebellion, by William Wells Brown, Lee and Shepard, Boston: 1867. [This book uses the language of the times.]

"In the month of June, 1861, the schooner S. J. Waring from New York, bound to South America, was captured on the passage by the rebel privateer Jeff. Davis, a prize-crew put on board, consisting of a captain, mate, and four seamen; and the vessel set sail for the port of Charleston, S.C. Three of the original crew were retained on board, a German as steersman, a Yankee who was put in irons, and a black man named William Tillman, the steward and cook of the schooner. The latter was put to work at his usual business, and told that he was henceforth the property of the Confederate States, and would be sold, on his arrival at Charleston, as a slave.

Night comes on; darkness covers the sea; the vessel is gliding swiftly towards the South; the rebels, one after another, retire to their berths; the hour of midnight approaches; all is silent in the cabin; the captain is asleep; the mate, who has charge of the watch, takes his brandy toddy, and reclines upon the quarter-deck. The negro thinks of home and all its endearments: he sees in the dim future chains and slavery.

He resolves, and determines to put the resolution into practice upon the instant. Armed with a heavy club, he proceeds to the captain's room. He strikes the fatal blow: he feels the pulse, and all is still. He next goes to the adjoining room: another blow is struck, and the black man is master of the cabin. Cautiously he ascends to the deck, strikes the mate: the officer is wounded but not killed. He draws his revolver, and calls for help. The crew are aroused: they are hastening to aid their commander. The negro repeats his blows with the heavy club: the rebel falls dead at Tillman's feet. The African seizes the revolver, drives the crew below deck, orders the release of the Yankee, puts the enemy in irons, and proclaims himself master of the vessel.

The Waring's head is turned towards New York, with the stars and stripes flying, a fair wind, and she rapidly retraces her steps under the command of William Tillman, the negro patriot.

The New-York Tribune said of this event, "To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor on the sea." . . . The Federal Government awarded to Tillman the sum of six thousand dollars as prize-money for the capture of the schooner.

A few weeks later, and the same rebel privateer [Jeff. Davis] captured the schooner Enchantress, bound from Boston to St. Jago, while off Nantucket Shoals. A prize-crew was put on board, and, as in the case of The Waring, retaining the colored steward; and the vessel set sail for a Southern port. When off Cape Hatteras, she was overtaken by the Federal gunboat Albatross, Capt. Prentice.

On speaking her, and demanding where from and whence bound, she replied, "Boston, for St. Jago." At this moment the negro rushed from the galley, where the pirates had secreted him, and jumped into the sea, exclaiming, "They are a privateer crew from The 'Jeff. Davis,' and bound for Charleston!" The negro was picked up, and taken on board The Albatross. The prize was ordered to heave to, which she did. Lieut. Neville jumped aboard of her, and ordered the pirates into the boats, and to pull for The Albatross, where they were secured in irons. "The Enchantress" was then taken in tow by The Albatross, and arrived in Hampton Roads.

Robert Smalls and "The Planter"

Robert Smalls African american hero of Civil WarRobert Smalls (1839-1915), the son of plantation slaves, was taken by his master in 1851 to Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a hotel waiter, hack driver, and rigger. Impressed into the Confederate Navy at the outbreak of the war, he was forced to serve as wheelman aboard the armed frigate Planter. On May 13, 1862, he and 12 other slaves seized control of the ship in Charleston harbour and turned it over to a Union naval squadron blockading the city. This exploit brought Smalls great fame throughout the North. [some sources use the name Small]

Smalls went to work as a civilian pilot for the Union Navy on the Keokuk, which was sunk during an attack on Charleston. Rescued, he went on as pilot on the Planter, which was a civilian run ship under contract to the Army. During a Confederate ambush of the Planter, her white captain wanted to surrender, but Smalls locked him in the coal bunker and escaped in spite of heavy fire. He was named the ship's captain for his bravery.

After the war, Smalls rose rapidly in politics, despite his limited education. From 1868 to 1870 he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and from 1871 to 1874 in the state senate. He was elected to the U.S. Congress (1875-79, 1881-87), where he sponsored a bill requiring equal accommodations for both races in interstate transportation. Smalls spent his last years in Beaufort, S.C. where he served as port collector.


SS Planter
SS Planter

The following is directly quoted from: The Negro in the American Rebellion, by William Wells Brown, Lee and Shepard, Boston: 1867. [This book uses the language of the times and refers to Robert Smalls as Robert Small.]

"To the Secretary of War -- U.S. Steamship Augusta, off Charleston, May 13, 1862

" Sir, - I have the honor to inform you that the rebel armed gunboat Planter was brought out to us this morning from Charleston by eight contrabands, and delivered up to the squadron. Five colored women and three children are also on board. She was the armed despatch and transportation steamer attached to the engineer department at Charleston, under Brig. Gen. Ripley. At four in the morning, in the absence of the captain who was on shore, she left her wharf close to the government office and head-quarters, with the Palmetto and confederate flags flying, and passed the successive forts, saluting as usual, by blowing the steam-whistle. After getting beyond the range of the last gun, they hauled down the rebel flags, and hoisted a white one. The Onward was the inside ship of the blockading squadron in the main channel, and was preparing to fire when her commander made out the white flag.

"The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton boat, and is capable of carrying about 1,400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate Navy, she was transformed into a gunboat, and was the most valuable war-vessel the Confederates had at Charleston.

She was commanded by Capt. Relay, of the Confederate Navy, all the other employees of the vessel, excepting the first and second mates, being persons of color.

"Robert Small, with whom I had a brief interview at Gen. Benham's headquarters this morning, is an intelligent negro, born in Charleston, and employed for many years as a pilot in and about that harbor. He entered upon his duties on board The Planter some six weeks since, and. . . the whole arrangement of the escape was left to the discretion and sagacity of Robert, his companions promising to obey him, and be ready at a moment's notice to accompany him. For three days he kept the provisions of the party secreted in the hold, awaiting an opportunity to slip away. At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night. . . the families of the contrabands were notified, and came stealthily on board. At about three o'clock, the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal -- two long pulls and a jerk at the whistlecord -- as she passed the sentinel.

"The armament of the steamer is a thirty-two pounder, on pivot, and a fine twenty-four pound howitzer. She has, besides, on her deck, four other guns. . . Robert Small, the intelligent slave, and pilot of the boat, who performed this bold feat so skillfully, is a superior man to any who have come into our lines, intelligent as many of them have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of the utmost importance. The steamer is quite a valuable acquisition to the squadron . . .

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. F. DUPONT, Flag- Officer Commanding

"The New-York Commercial Advertiser said of the capture, 'We are forced to confess that this is a heroic act, and that the negroes deserve great praise. Small is a middle aged negro, and his features betray nothing of the firmness of character he displayed. He is said to be one of the most skillful pilots of Charleston, and to have a thorough knowledge of all the ports and inlets of South Carolina.'. . It is proposed, I hear, by the commodore, to recommend the appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the plucky Africans who have distinguished themselves by this gallant service, $5,000 to be given to the pilot, and the remainder to be divided among his companions.

"The steamer The Planter was placed under command of a Yankee, who being ordered to do service where the vessel would be liable to come under fire of rebel guns, refused to obey: whereupon Lieut.-Col. Elwell, without consultation. . . issued the following order. . . 'You will please place Robert Small in charge of the United-States transport Planter, as captain. . . He is an excellent pilot, of undoubted bravery, and in every respect worthy of the position. This is due him as a proper recognition of his heroism and services. The present captain is a coward, though a white man. Dismiss him, therefore, and give the steamer to this brave black Saxon."

Books about Merchant Marine in Civil War


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