- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

In 1861, the U.S. Army forbade the enlistment of black Americans, slave or free. Meanwhile, numerous free and fugitive black men continued to add their names to the muster rolls of the U.S. Navy, in which black men had served this country during war and peace.

Slaves who fled to blockading Union ships presented political, ethical and logistical problems for U.S. Navy captains, who constantly questioned their superiors about procedure. To reject, return, transport or enlist these fugitives were issues requiring clarification.

From the bountiful Civil War pension files, black Navy veterans relate their war experiences and those of their shipmates. A veteran may testify in the files of several men with whom he served or about whom he had personal knowledge. Each veteran’s pension file generally gives a wealth of information. The following story is based on testimony from a Civil War pension hearing:

Henry Holmes, Portsmouth resident born on Norfolk’s Main Street, testifies in his pension records that he wore a Confederate uniform when his “owner,” harbor master John Tee, put him on the United States, a Confederate receiving ship sometimes called the Confederate States.

“The uniform was blue and not gray just as the other sailors wore,” Holmes said.

Holmes, who waited on officers, first denies receiving any money for his work then later admits:

“In regard to receiving pay from the Confederate authorities for service rendered in that Navy will explain that I did receive from time to time, pay or money from the officers. Captain [Van R.] Morgan is the only officer that I can remember.”

Holmes states that he was on the Confederate vessel about four months. Before the Confederate forces evacuated Norfolk in May 1862, young Holmes, not wanting to leave his mother, Lydia Holmes, got off the ship and did not go back.

Testifying in April 1902, the veteran states that he supposed he could have escaped sooner, since he could get off the ship to get things for the officers and “had the same liberty as any enlisted man” as long as he “behaved” himself. Escape did not occur to him. He was a slave and did what he was told.

“I was a slave and under my master’s orders, having to do whatever he ordered me to do and I did not volunteer in the Confederate service.”

Holmes thought that Jack Herbert, his father, was a free man and felt that his mother, a slave whom he had not wished to leave, was brought to Norfolk from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Young Holmes did leave his mother, however, when he joined the U.S. Navy.

“I was about 18 years old when I enlisted as a ‘boy’ on the U.S.S. ‘Dacotah’ at Hampton Roads, Va. in 1862 on the 14th of June. Was stripped and given a thorough physical examination at enlistment and was sworn in there. … Dr. [Delavan] Bloodgood was the name of the surgeon who examined me.”

Ordered to search for the 290 (the notorious Confederate raider Alabama finally sunk by the Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864), the Dacotah cruised to the West Indies and elsewhere.

A joint pension resolution passed by Congress on July 1, 1902, worked in the favor of Union veterans who had also served in the Confederate forces, provided they enlisted in the Union forces before Jan. 1, 1865, served at least 90 days, received an honorable discharge and were not among those prisoners who enlisted (in specified Union regiments) under stipulation that they would not receive a federal pension.

The commissioner of pensions and the Board of Review ruled that Holmes, who had enlisted in June 1862, was to remain on the federal pension rolls.

Testifying in pension proceedings on April 19, 1902, Holmes gives his age as 56. As a special laborer at the Navy Yard, Holmes earned $1.76 per day.

C. V. Brooks, a resident of the District, is an independent researcher. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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