A Norfolk Navy Yard Slaveholders Petition to the Secretary of the Navy, June 21, 1839

Introduction: This extraordinary letter dated 21 June 1839 from Commodore Lewis Warrington to Secretary of the Navy James K. Paulding and the enclosed memorial (petition) from the navy yard master mechanics and workmen contains a unique glimpse into the world of slaveholders, and the work practices of the Department of the Navy and the Norfolk Navy Yard.1

 In 1839 William McNally, an ex-Navy gunners mate, published an expose of the naval and merchant service Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service Exposed; with proposals for their remedy and redress. McNally charged, that naval officers countenanced and profited from slaves employed on naval vessels and in the navy yards as laborers “to the exclusion of white people and free persons of color.”2 McNally was a former crewman on the USS Java and alleged that he witnessed, enslaved blacks hired on as seamen, with slaveholding officers receiving their wages. He also charged that the same practices existed in naval shipyards to the detriment of free whites and black laborers. Here McNally specifically referred to Norfolk Navy Yard, where he had served in the 1830’s.  Naval recruiting regulations issued in May 1839 specified free blacks and other persons of color were to be entered only with the consent of the commander of the station.  Two months later acting Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Chauncey issued a circular declaring that in view of the complaints, the number of blacks in the naval service would henceforth be no more than 5 percent of the total number entered under any circumstances and no slave was to be entered under any circumstances.3  On 30 March 1839, the Secretary of the Navy had directed that all slaves belonging to naval and marine officers be discharged. In response, Warrington protested that none of his officers had slaves employed at the navy yard; however, he acknowledged “that many are owed by the Master Mechanicks & workmen   of the Yard.”

The Commodore took these changes personally; for he was from a wealthy slaveholding Virginia family and was quite used to having his bondsmen attend on him. In 1825 Warrington had requested permission of the Secretary of the Navy to take his slaves aboard “I have taken out with me a servant of my own, for whom I had not time to report before, and shall have another sent out to me by the first vessel which sails provided they have no objection.  They are in the habit of attending on me always and for that reason I wish to have now.”4  In 1826 as Commandant of the Pensacola Navy Yard he had written to the Secretary of the Navy “neither laborers nor mechanics are to be obtained here.” While Warrington was able to get skilled white journeymen from Norfolk; he received permission to hire slaves. The slaves employed at Pensacola Navy Yard were primarily engaged in building construction and other related task like making bricks. The rate of pay for enslaved labor was 50 cents per day; all payments were made to the slaveholders monthly. Pensacola payrolls, like those at Norfolk reveal the navy rented slaves from prominent members of society and such rental actions by the federal governments directly helped expand enslaved labor in Florida and Virginia as local owners could look forward to a regular and steady income. Slavery would continue on at the Pensacola and Norfolk until the Civil War. Warrington own attitude was unequivocal he did not want free blacks aboard ship or working in the shipyards. Writing to the Secretary of the Navy, on 9 September 1839 he related. “I deem it proper to represent to you what is a considered a great inconvenience if not an evil; and that is the number of negroes which are entered at various places for the general Service.”5 Like many slaveholders Warrington was satisfied with enslaved labor employed at the navy yards but was apprehensive of free blacks working alongside slaves lest the enslaved become dissatisfied. From surviving naval records, most all African Americans working at Norfolk during the antebellum era were enslaved. 

From their memorial it is clear the master mechanics and laborers had rented or leased laborers from local slaveholders or dealers on an annual basis and hoped to make a nice profit. While none of his officers rented their slaves to the navy yard, Commodore Warrington was concerned as the order also barred slaves owned by “persons holding appointments or employment under the Navy Department”. This probably encompassed a large number of Norfolk’s white master mechanics and workmen.  As the memorial made clear, this order would cause the master mechanics and workmen, a substantial financial loss. As a consequence, Warrington ever wary of disrupting shipyard work or leaving the white petitioners with “the support of their Slaves without compensation” endorsed their request.  

While this memorial glosses over the cruel fact that the requested extension of federal funds was to support enslaved labor, it clearly reflects the slaveholder’s bifurcated state of mind. For on one hand, they conceded “a number of the laborers of this description in the yard are owned by the Mechanicks” yet  while requesting empathy for their plight have done for the slave and still hold “that no injustice   will accrue, either to the government or to individuals.”  George Teamoh, a former enslaved laborer, ship caulker and carpenter knew this was untrue for he had toiled at the Norfolk Navy Yard and Fort Monroe in the 1830s and 1840s. Years later Teamoh spoke for many, who endure decades of unrequited labor at federal shipyards and forts, when he pointed to the unpleasant but undeniable truth "The government has patronized, and given encouragement to Slavery to a greater extent than the great majority of the country has been aware. It had in its service hundreds if not thousands of slaves employed on government work.”6  Teamoh recalled "Slavery was so interwoven at that time in the very ligaments of that to assail it from any quarter was not only a herculean task, but on requiring great consideration caution and comprehensiveness." This memorial itself is an example of the patronization and encouragement of slavery.  Despite sporadic protests, the Navy Department continued to "hire large numbers of bondsmen and by 1848 almost one third of the 300 of the workers at Gosport [Norfolk] navy yard were hired slaves. Many of these men worked as laborers and artisans."7

                                John G. Sharp,  3 February 2019

This transcription was made from digital images of letters and documents received by the Secretary of the Navy, NARA, M125 “Captains Letters” National Archives and Records. In transcribing all passages from the letters and document, I have striven to adhere as closely as possible to the original in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, superscripts, etc., including the retention of dashes and underlining found in the original. Words and passages that were crossed out in the letters are transcribed either as overstrikes or in notes. Words which are unreadable or illegible are so noted in square brackets. When a spelling is so unusual as to be misleading or confusing, the correct spelling immediately follows in square brackets and italicized type or is discussed in a foot note.

U.S. Navy Yard                                  
Gosport  June 21st 1839
With reference to the letter of the 30th March, by which I am directed to discharge all Slaves as “Mechanics or laborers” belonging to officers of the Navy, Marines & to persons holding appointments or employment under the Navy Department;  I beg leave to state, that no Slave employed in this Yard, is owned by a commissioned officer, but that many are owed by the Master Mechanicks & workmen   of the Yard -  All these without distinction , are & have always been governed by those rules of the Yard, by which other persons, who are mustered, are governed,  to wit; that where by reason of rain or other reasons, the mechanicks cannot work , the blacks attached to them, are not allowed to work, except in cases where they can be necessarily employed, in clearing [and ] arranging or stowing away articles which may then be done without inferring with work [illegible] of the Yard – I beg leave to state, that no Slave is allowed to perform any mechanical work in the Yard , all such being necessarily reserved for the whites; this keeping up the proper distinction between the white men & slave -  If slaves are to be discharged for want of work, the discharge takes place from the lowest part of the roll, to the requisite number , by which favoritism is avoided- If work is to be suspended temporarily, as is sometime the case, for want of materials &c those who work with the mechanicks so situated are suspended  –  If Slaves are to be taken in, application to me is at all times indispensable & regular examination insures, as to strength &c &c  –

I forward at the request of the parties, a memorial on the subject & only take the liberty of adding, that if their request could be granted, which is to retain them for the rest of the year, it would not only accommodate, but relieve them from the support of their Slaves without compensation - The numbers of black labourers in the neighborhood, & the demand for them this year, makes it an object of importance as many [will] hire them for employment here –
I am very respectfully Your obt. Servant        L. Warrington8
Secretary of the Navy
[Note on obverse side] “Referred to Navy Commissioners for their opinion”


[Memorial of the Gosport Navy Yard Mechanics and Laborers]

U.S. Navy Yard Gosport                                                                   
June 21st 1839
Commodore Lewis Warrington
The undersigned mechanicks and laborers, employed in this Yard, recognizing as they do, implicit obedience to all the rules and regulations adopted for the good government of the Yard is a duty imperative upon all and one which ought be cheerfully observed; they know of no other means presenting to your consideration a grievance resulting in an order lately adopted in relation to the employment of coloured labourers in the Yard, than that which they now adopt in the form of a memorial.

They, therefore respectfully represent that knowing that labourers of this description were at all times required in the Yard, and believing it was little importance to the government to whom, they belong or by whom they were entered, several  of your memorialist at an early day in the year hired for the usual period of twelve months, a limited number of such hands,( rarely exceeding one or two) and entered them accordingly, as other hands are entered –  If your memorialist had known or believed that any evil would have been the consequence to this step, or that any objection or complaint  would be the resulted from it, they would not have taken it.–

Having hired these labourers for the year, they are [now] bound by the usual obligation to pay for them  –  If they are discharged , the only resort would be to hire them to persons out of the Yard & not in the employ of the government, at a great loss; had the individuals  thus hiring them , will in all probability, reenter  them & enjoy a profit for their services, increased by the  loss which the undersigned must necessarily  sustain –  It is proper here to add that a number of the labourers of this description in the Yard, are owned by the Mechanics here who entered them, and the difficulty of hiring them out, if discharged, at this advanced period of the year is obvious. –

Under these circumstances, and believing that no injustice   will accrue, either to the government or to individuals, in the delay [now]asked, for not your memorialists respectfully pray [for] not  a repeal, but only a suspension of [the]  Order at a time when  all who are affected by it , will be [protected] of  great loss, to some of distress . –

E. Williams                           John Bayne
Lewis Thomas                      Wm W. Davis
James W Butt                       Willis A. Davis
A.J. Manning                        George Dyson
J.W. Boutwart                      W.R.Wordend
John Richardson                  Charles Clarke
J.L. King                               Josiah Thomas
William H. Peters                Willis Neaville
William  Carroll                  Thomas Grey
George Manhall                  James Thompkins
Peter Tebs                             James Tottdew
Nathaniel Manning             F.C. Herles
[illegible]  Williams            William Job
Daniel Douglas                   John Day
Josiah Shipp                         Sam B. Browne
Wm Steward                         George Lee
Nath  P Rast                         [illegible]
Jeremiah Bosworth             John Limr
Wm Richardson                   Vincent Walker
[End Document]


1Warrington to the Secretary of the Navy NARA M125 “Captains Letters” 1 June 1839 -30 June 1839, letter number 77

2 William McNally Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service Exposed; with proposals for their remedy and redress (Cassady and March: Boston1839 ), 127 See also Harold D. Langley Social Reform in the United States Navy 1798 -1862 University of Illinois: Chicago 1967) 93

3 Acting Secretary of the Navy Isaac Chauncey Circular, September 13, 1839, Circulars and General Orders, I, 357

4 Warrington to the Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard 10 January 1825 NARA M125 “Captains Letters” 1 Jan 1825 -18Feb 1825, letter number 25

5 Warrington to Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard  9 September 1839 NARA M125 “Captains Letters” 1 September 1839 – 30 September 1839, letter number 38

6 George Teamoth, God Made Man Man Made the Slave The Autobiography of George Teamoh editors F.N. Boney, Richard L. Hume and Rafia Zafar (Mercer University Press: Macon 1990), 83

7 Robert  S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South, (Oxford University press: New York 1972), 32

8 Commodore Lewis Warrington USN was born in Williamsburg Virginia on 3 November 1782. He briefly attended the College of William and Mary and was appointed a Midshipman USN on 6 January 1800. He served with distinction in the Quasi War with France, the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. For his heroism in the War of 1812, Congress awarded him a medal and made Captain USN, on 22 November, 1814. In 1825, Warrington served as one of three commissioners on a panel charged with selecting a site on which to establish a new South Atlantic fleet. The panel selected Pensacola, Florida and Warrington was ordered to Pensacola where he was charged with overseeing the construction of Pensacola Navy Yard and leading the West India Squadron.  In 1829, Lewis Warrington was promoted and returned to Norfolk where he served for a decade as commandant of the Gosport Navy Yard (Norfolk Navy Yard). In 1844 he briefly served as Secretary of the Navy. Warrington died on 12 October 1851 and is buried at Congressional Cemetery.



Left: Lewis Warrington to Sec Nav 21 June 1839 re Gosport Navy Yard mechanics petition re enslaved labor NARA
Right: Gosport Mechanics petition dated 21 June 1839 re enslaved labor p 1 NARA

John G. “Jack” Sharp resides in Concord, California. He worked for the United States Navy for thirty years as a civilian personnel officer. Among his many assignments were positions in Berlin, Germany, where in 1989 he was in East Berlin, the day the infamous wall was opened. He later served as Human Resources Officer, South West Asia (Bahrain). He returned to the United States in 2001 and was on duty at the Naval District of Washington on 9/11. He has a lifelong interest in history and has written extensively on the Washington, Norfolk, and Pensacola Navy Yards, labor history and the history of African Americans. His previous books include African Americans in Slavery and Freedom on the Washington Navy Yard 1799 -1865, Morgan Hannah Press 2011. History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962,  2004. 
and the first complete transcription of the Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869, 2007/2015 online:
His most recent work  includes Register of Patients at Naval Hospital Washington DC 1814 With The Names of American Wounded From The Battle of Bladensburg 2018,
The last three works were all published by the Naval History and Heritage Command. John served on active duty in the United States Navy, including Viet Nam service. He received his BA and MA in History from San Francisco State University. He can be reached at sharpjg@yahoo.com

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