Marines, black sailors played roles in war
April 1, 2006 12:50 am
By Scott Boyd

THE MARINES. Just the name brings so many associa- tions to those of us living in this area. Iraq--Fallujah. Vietnam--Da Nang, Hue, Khe Sanh. Korea--Frozen Chosin. World War II--Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima. World War I--Belleau Wood.

"The Marines went into that battle four times, which means they got their noses bloodied three times and came back for more."

Which of those preceding battles is the speaker referring to? None of the above.

Author David M. Sullivan was actually speaking about the U.S. Marines who fought at the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) on July 21, 1861. He was speaking at the third annual Civil War Naval Symposium in Columbus, Ga.

Not only did the Union have marines, the Confederates did as well. The Confederate States Marine Corps numbered 536 at its peak in the Civil War, according to Sullivan. Most of them served at Drewry's Bluff on the James River, a fortified position that never fell, but had to be abandoned when Richmond was evacuated on April 2, 1865.

"Their only real battle was at Sailor's Creek at the end of the war," Sullivan said. The Confederate marines formed a unit called Tucker's Naval Battalion and were part of Ewell's Division when it retreated from Richmond, as Sullivan explained. Ewell, the marines and nearly one quarter of Lee's army were cut off and surrounded at Sailor's Creek, near Appomattox. In a foreshadowing of the end of the war in Virginia, they surrendered three days before the rest of Lee's army laid down their arms at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

As for the Union marines, they were dispersed among the ships in the Union fleet. "Each vessel would have [U.S.] Marine guards and one or more guns [on a warship would be] manned by marines," Sullivan remarked. Considered the pre-eminent authority on the subject, he has written a four-volume series titled "The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War," published by White Mane Publishing Co.

Part of the guard role the marines played on ships was illustrated by a photograph Sullivan displayed. One of John Wilkes Booth's fellow conspirators, Lewis Payne, is shown on the deck of the monitor USS Saugus, moored in the Potomac River after President Lincoln's assassination. Payne stands in front of the turret with a marine guard next to him.

"A marine got a chunk of Booth's hair--the only known relic of Booth. It's still in [the marine's] family today," Sullivan added.

The Union and Confederate marines met in battle once, according to Sullivan, in the attack on Fort Fisher, Jan. 15, 1865. The fort was the main defense of Wilmington, N.C., the last major Confederate port open for blockade runners.

In a strange coincidence, the last Union and Confederate marine enlisted men died within weeks of each other in 1944, Sullivan said. The last Civil War-era marine officer died in 1929.

"For a 19th-century institution, the Union Navy is a remarkable experiment in egalitarianism," according to the next speaker, Steven J. Ramold, assistant professor of history and philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. "Institutional racism did not exist to any great extent, although individual racism did exist."

"Slaves, Sailors, Citizens" was the title of his presentation and also the title of Ramold's book on this topic published in 2002 by Northern Illinois University Press.

"Navy records did not show race, so a great deal of cross-referencing is required to figure out how many [Union sailors] were black," Ramold said. "In 1947, people thought 20 percent of Union sailors were black. In 1974 they thought 8 percent were black; 15 percent, or 18,000, is correct."

Not all black sailors were from America. "Foreign blacks were 5 to 6 percent of Union sailors," according to Ramold.

"The demand for ships [for the blockade, and sailors to man them] meant you could not ignore a source of manpower" such as ex-slaves and foreign blacks, Ramold added. "The Union navy desperately needed men."

One point that misleads many people, Ramold pointed out, was that all ex-slaves entered the Navy with the rank of "ship's boy." White entry-level sailors were given the initial rank of "landsman." Ramold addressed the apparent racism reflected in how white and black novice sailors were referred to so differently. "'Boy' was not used as an insult. Landsmen were expected to have a rudimentary education, unlike most ex-slaves, who didn't have that."

In his earlier presentation, David Sullivan pointed out the great difference between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps regarding race. In stark contrast to the Navy, no blacks were permitted to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps until 1945.