Throughout the course of the American Civil War, federal policies associated with the treatment of runaway slaves were constantly evolving. These Southern slaves who escaped to Union lines during the conflict were called “contrabands.” In the War’s earlier years, the Union navy was quite progressive in efforts to actively recruit “contrabands” to enlist them as wage earning US sailors. As Union gunboats and vessels would steam by plantations it wasn’t uncommon for fleeing slaves to take to the water in an effort to join the Union and with the service earn a path to freedom.

“Unidentified African American sailor in Union uniform sitting with arm resting on table,” Woodson Research Center - Fondren Library - Rice University, Link.

“Unidentified African American sailor in Union uniform sitting with arm resting on table,” Woodson Research Center - Fondren Library - Rice University, Link.

                The crew of the Arizona was not foreign to these practices as many African Americans served on its decks along side it already diverse crew of English, Irish, Dutch, Prussian, Indian and German man. In fact, two “contrabands” named  George W. Houston and a Randall Smith can be found on the muster rolls of the Arizona  in December of 1863. More importantly, these two black sailors were former crew members of the Sachem which had been captured by Confederate forces at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. Both of these former slaves had been listed a missing and presumed dead, but obviously had some had fled the ship and made it to the retreating Arizona where they continued their naval service. 

You can find both of their muster records on this site hosted by the National Park Service:

George W. Houston

Randall Smith

 

 

Sources:

Report of Acting Master Tibbits, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Arizona

Rice University- Slavery and the Battle of Sabine Pass