Book Review: Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy


by Barbara Brooks Tomblin

Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Pp. viii, 373. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0813125545

In Bluejackets and Contrabands, naval historian Tomblin, author of several previous books, among them, With Utmost Spirit: Allied Naval Operations in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945 (2004), takes a look at the relationship between fugitives from slavery and the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. 

Tomblin uses rare, and thus invaluable, diaries and letters by African-Americans who had interactions with the Navy, either as part of the process of their liberation from slavery or through their employment by or actual enlistment in the service, as well as the writings of white sailors and officers.  She gives the reader a look at the interaction between these African Americans and the service on many levels.  These include, the slow, sometimes painful, development of a policy toward "contrabands," the sometimes complex encounters between fugitive slaves and warships and their crews (e.g., what to do about the presence of family members of fugitives aboard ship?), and freedmen as a sailors, petty officers, technicians, and even pilots, as well as spies, and more, including the unfortunate fate of many black men serving with the fleet when captured by the enemy. 

It is possible to question some of Tomblin's conclusions.  For example, she suggests that the failure to name black informants or pilots in documents is a product of racism; it may just as well be a desire to protect the person in the event the papers were captured.  Nevertheless, such  arguable points are surprisingly few.

Bluejackets and Contrabands is an essential read for anyone interested in the end of American slavery and the experience of the freedmen, as well as the naval service during the Civil War, and the war as a whole.

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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