Waters to War

Prior to 1865, many slaves faced difficult choices during times of war. Should they side with their masters? Should they flee, or support their masters' enemy in the hope of gaining freedom? During the American Revolution and War of 1812, thousands of slaves sought British warships. The risks were high–they might be sold to a new master in British territory, or caught and punished for the attempt to flee. Likewise, during the American Civil War, slaves sought Union camps and ships with the hope that freedom would be their reward.

However, from the American Revolution until the outbreak of the Civil War, African-Americans also served in the United States Navy. During wartime, slaves served as their masters directed. Free blacks, however, served of their own volition. They enlisted as cabin boys, cooks, landsmen, and seamen.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, the naval services still offered black men employment, but little chance for social mobility. After World War I, African-Americans demanded recognition for their sacrifices while in uniform. During World War II, African-Americans received advanced training in a variety of fields and earned commissions as officers. Today, African-American men and women serve in all capacities in the U.S. Navy, from seaman to admirals.

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