Last week we marked the beginning of Black History Month. A celebration of accomplishments, important persons and a culture that has helped shaped this country. In response to the question, “What does Black History Month mean to you?”, Admiral Michelle J. Howard said, “By taking the time to educate ourselves on our history and the people who shaped this nation, we can more fully appreciate the ideals set down by the founders….It’s a reminder that our work is to sustain freedom and ensure that rights and liberty belong to all our citizens.” Like many African Americans, those in the Navy had to struggle in the beginning to get where they are today. Those sailors who serve today proudly know the accomplishments of those who came before them. From the eight black sailors who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to the 14 black female yeomen who enlisted during World War I, African American Naval history is a part of the greater Navy story. A history that all sailors can call their own and be proud of. For the month of February, we will share with you a few of the pioneering stories that led the way for sailors of today.

The Navy and The Civil War

The Union Navy’s official position on African Americans was ambivalent at the beginning of the war. Many Northern free blacks were already enlisted in the Navy at the start of the war and many more joined up when the call was put out. However, as the war raged on, an influx of African Americans from the South sought refuge among Union vessels. It reached a point where a policy had to be made. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells said of the situation, “It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course…could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel…you will do well to employ them.”[1] In time, 16% of the Union Navy would be African Americans. Unlike the Army, the Navy paid equal wages, had better food rations and had more entry-level enlisted positions. Two sailors who served aboard Union Vessels were Thomas Mandigo and John Lawson.

Thomas Mandigo was born in South Carolina and spent 40 years enslaved. In March of 1862 he found his way to the blockading fleet in Bull’s Bay- his path to freedom. He was initially rated as 1st boy, then to landsman and finally to the level of seamen.  Thomas first served aboard the USS Restless and the USS South Carolina but would spend most of the war on the USS Lodona. The Lodona was a British screw steamer captured as a blockade runner in September of 1862. Lisa Y King, Ph.D., in the International Journal of Naval History comments that, “in order to attain these ratings [seamen] these men has to prove themselves skilled and able seamen to the officer’s satisfaction. More importantly they had to prove themselves the equal of their peers by following rigorous routines, adhering to the strict discipline and suffering the many hardships endured by all the ship’s crew.”[2] Mandigo would reenlist in 1864. At the war’s end, the Lodona would be decommissioned in Philadelphia and Thomas would settle in western Pennsylvania. He would marry and have a family and would die nearly thirty years later- in 1890, as a free man. Thomas Mandigo is just one of many who served proudly aboard a Navy vessel as an equal to his fellow sailor, no matter their skin color. Each sailor has a story, and this was Thomas’.

The gravestone of Thomas Mandigo, Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Author’s photo.

During the famous Battle at Mobile Bay, David Farragut uttered the phrase, “Damn the Torpedo’s- Full Speed Ahead.” During the battle on August 5, 1864, Farragut ordered a Union Fleet of fourteen wooden ships and four Monitors past Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay to attack the Confederacy. The battle is considered an important Union victory since it deprived the Confederacy of its last significant Gulf port. The Union saw 335 casualties during the battle with the sinking of the Monitor Tecumseh when it struck a torpedo and sank. Aboard the USS Hartford alongside Farragut was a Landsman named John Lawson.

John Lawson

Lawson was born June 16, 1837 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Navy in 1863. During the battle of Mobile Bay, Lawson was a member of the Hartford’s berth deck ammunition party.  He was one of six men stationed at the shell-whip on the deck when the ship was attacked. All in his ammunition party were killed; Lawson himself was wounded in the leg and thrown against the side of ship by the blast. Once he recovered from the shock, he remained at his post and continually supplied the Hartford’s guns. Other members of the crew begged Lawson to go below decks due to his wounds. However he refused, vigilant in his mission. Twelve men, including Lawson, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the battle.  After leaving the Navy in 1865, Lawson would return to Philadelphia and raise a family. He died in 1919 and was buried in Mount Peace Cemetery. Over time, his exact resting place was lost within the cemetery grounds. On April 24, 2004, a new tombstone was dedicated and placed with 72 other Civil War veterans buried in Mount Peace.

Mandigo and Lawson represent the thousands of African Americans, free or slaved, who fought during the Civil War. These two are only the beginning of a long line of men and women who stepped up when their country needed them most.