Black Virginians in Blue

War on the Water: Black Sailors in the Union Navy


Virginia State Standards Fulfilled by this Lesson:

USI.9 /VUS.7

f)/c) describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

Lesson Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will discover how both free and enslaved African Americans joined in the Union navy in significant numbers throughout the Civil War, serving important roles on some of the navy’s most important ships.
  2. Students will encounter the story of Robert Smalls, the most famous African American mariner of the Civil War, who successfully commandeered a Confederate ship and served the Union navy with distinction throughout the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina.
  3. Students will learn the story of the USS Monitor, a technological marvel during the Civil War that played a decisive role at the Battle of Hampton Roads, and the role of Black sailors aboard the Monitor.
  4. Students will consider how the African American naval experience both presented new opportunities to Black sailors and reinforced the barriers of racial prejudice endemic throughout Civil War America.

Approximate Length: 90 minutes in class plus additional material


  1. Background Video (for instructors or extra credit):
  2. Background Essays & Biographies:
  3. BVIB Essays:
  4. ​Primary Sources:
  5. Additional Material:


  1. In this activity, students will divide into groups in order to research & create an oral presentation 5-7 minutes long on one of three topics.
  2. All groups should first read the essay by Joseph P. Reidy as an introduction to Black naval service during the Civil War.
  3. Group 1 should investigate the story of Robert Smalls, an African American sailor famous for commandeering a Confederate ship and piloting it to the Union navy. After reading the account from the American Battlefield Trust, they should carefully consider how the Harper’s Weekly primary source enhances our knowledge of Smalls and also if it obscures anything important.
  4. Group 2 should detail the story of the USS Monitor. Drawing on the American Battlefield Trust essay, the biographies of the Monitor’s crew, and the photograph from July 1862, students should note the technical features of the ship, describe its service during the Battle of Hampton Roads, and highlight the experience of African American crewmember Siah Hulett Carter.
  5. Group 3 should seek to cover the broader experiences of African American sailors during the Civil War. They should make use of the two BVIB essays, photographs, and pension record to offer details on the lives of lesser-known Black sailors, such as Alexander Caine, and the experience for Black sailors serving on nominally integrated vessels during an era of intense racism. How might these sailors have overcome these challenges?

Lesson plan created by: Ian Iverson

Image: "James River, Va. Sailors on deck of U.S.S. Monitor; cookstove at left" (Courtesy Library of Congress)