Robert Walker, a young African-American “First Class Boy” dressed in a sailor’s uniform, has “Our Bob” written on the bottom.
“First Class Boys” in the U.S. Navy were generally young men under 17 years of age. They were paid $9 per month and performed various sailor duties, including serving as servants to the ship’s officers, standing watches, helping with work parties and serving on damage control parties.
African-Americans served in the Union navy from the start of the Civil War in 1861 and were fully integrated into a ship’s crew. There was little public objection since slaves and seamen shared a common low social standing. Black sailors were paid the same wages as the white crewmen in sharp contrast to the army. Most African-American sailors were northern, urban free blacks from New York or Boston. It is estimated that approximately 24,000 (16%) of the Union navy was African-American.