Thursday, February 10, 2011

Black History Month: Civil War Reflections at the Washington Navy Yard

The Photograph is courtesy of The U.S. National Archives.
This photo shows Union troops drilling at the Navy Yard during the Civil War. View looks southeast, with the hills on the opposite side of the Anacostia River in the distance. The Large building at left is the eastern ship house. At least one published work identifies these troops as the 71st New York (infantry) Regiment. The image was photographed by the Matthew Brady organization.
Has it ever crossed your mind during a leisurely walk about the basin of the Anacostia River at the Washington Navy Yard that some of the same sights have been around since before President Lincoln visited John Dhalgren here in 1862? Now, think about what it might have been like for a slave in the early years.

Proof of what life might have been like at the Navy Yard can be found in the pages of former slave Michael Shiner’s diary. Shiner, a freed slave, lived and worked in Washington, D.C. between 1813 and 1869, and journaled about things he saw and experienced at the Navy Yard.

“I am a laboring man in the paint-shop in the Washington Navy Yard,“ he wrote.

Historical records show that Shiner, born a slave in 1805 was owned in 1828 by Thomas Howard, Sr. (Chief Clerk of the Washington Navy Yard).

Records including newspaper runaway slave postings, classifieds for the sale of slaves at the Washington Navy Yard gate, and lists of slaves and freed workers, are evidence that African Americans, like Shiner, were central to the operations of the Navy’s oldest shore establishment.

Shiner was ‘‘leased” to the Washington Navy Yard Paint Shop, where he worked indentured for the next decade. Howard, his master, died in 1832, and eight years later, Shiner was freed in1840. “The only master I have now is the Constitution,“ Shiner wrote.

Years after Shiner received his freedom, the Civil War and the issue of slavery created a schism in the country, and on the Navy Yard, as Commandant Franklin Buchanan quit his assignment to join the Virginia contingent of the Confederate Navy. Still, what may not be known was the role some former slaves played in the military and at the Washington Navy Yard.

‘‘These are our forefathers who helped save the union, abolish slavery, and establish democracy,” said Hari Jones, curator African American Civil War Museum in Washington DC. Jones has conducted extensive research on African American activities during the Civil War.

According to Jones, the Union benefitted significantly from ‘‘Contraband,” slaves who had escaped and helped Union Forces defeat the Confederacy.

‘‘These American freedom fighters marched from slavery to freedom to become the liberators of their own families,” Jones said. ‘‘All Americans should be grateful to these Americans who make it possible for us today, in good faith, to pledge our allegiance to an indivisible republic, a republic they helped keep together with liberty and justice for all.”

While freed and enslaved African Americans (and Contraband) made up a large part of the workforce at the Washington Navy Yard, during the antebellum period their contributions were largely unacknowledged.

‘‘All Americans should be proud of and grateful to these freedom fighters, especially Americans of African descent.”

This article was written using the 2007 transcription of Michael Shiner’s diary provided by John G. Sharp, author of the History of the Washington Navy Yard civilian workforce, 1799-1962.

A photo of the original manuscript can be seen on the Library of Congress website.