Feb 4

Thomas Mandigo: From Slave to Seaman

Thursday, February 4, 2016 12:01 AM


Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, West Caln Township, Chester County PA.

Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, West Caln Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the author)

Tucked in the woods in the rolling foothills of Pennsylvania’s Welsh Mountains sits the tiny and largely forgotten Sandy Hill African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery. A visitor to the rural graveyard is likely to be greeted first by the sound of clopping horses pulling Amish buggies along the rural highway. Taking a closer look, one will see several American flags marking the graves of veterans buried there. From there, one may see the stone of a sailor propped against a tree.

The gravestone of Thomas Mandigo, Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, Chester County, PA. Author's photo.

The gravestone of Thomas Mandigo, Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the author(

It reads,






The story of how Mandigo came to serve in the U. S. Navy, and how he came to live and die in a place far away from his home, offers a glimpse into little-known aspects of the Civil War.

On 19 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that

Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed therein comformably to that provision of the Constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States . . . a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid.

With that presidential order in effect, the Union strategy soon became one of interdicting supplies and blockading Confederate ports. It was no small task; more than 3,500 miles of outer coastline needed to be blockaded, and many more thousands of miles of inlets and coastal channels existed where small, shallow-draft craft could run in supplies. While the U. S. Coast Survey had been working in earnest to document the coasts of the seceding states (with particular attention paid to Charleston Harbor), effective blockading required skilled pilots to guide Union ships into and around the harbors. Many of those on whom the Navy would have usually called upon had joined the Confederacy. So they instead had to rely upon another valuable source for guidance: watermen who had escaped from slavery.

Even as early as 1861, large numbers of escaped slaves had come to the Navy. In 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote to Flag Officer S. F. Du Pont, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

Order of the Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy, authorizing the employment of contrabands on board ships of war.

September 25, 1861.

SIR: The Department finds it necessary to adopt a regulation with respect to the large and increasing number of persons of color, commonly known as “contraband,” now subsisted at the navy yards and on board of ships of war. They can neither be expelled from the service to which they have resorted nor can they be maintained unemployed; and it is not proper that they should be compelled to render necessary and regular services without a stated compensation. You are therefore authorized, when their services can be made useful, to enlist them for the naval service under the same forms and regulations as apply to other enlistments. They will be allowed, however, no higher rating than boys, at a compensation of $10 per month and one ration a day.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,


Flag-Officer S. F. Du PONT,
Appointed to Command Southern Atlantic Squadron,
Wilmington, Del.

One of the contrabands who made his way out to the blockading ships was Thomas Mandigo, a pilot for Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. He had been born in South Carolina and spent his first 40 years enslaved. In March 1862, he reached the blockading fleet in Bull’s Bay. He was initially rated as 1st boy, per Welles’ instructions, rising first to landsman (in spite of Welles’ order) and finally to the level of seaman. Together with another pilot, Nelson Anderson—who would himself rise to the petty officer rating of Captain-of-the-Hold—he was tasked with piloting the blockading fleet safely around Charleston Harbor.

Mandigo first served aboard the USS Restless and the USS South Carolina, but was primarily assigned to the USS Lodona, a British screw steamer captured as a blockade runner and purchased by the Navy from the Prize Court at Philadelphia in September 1862. Mandigo’s services were evidently in high demand, as one communication in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion indicates:


Port Royal Harbor, S. C., June 2, 1863.

SIR: In answer to Commander Almy’s request for a pilot for Bull’s Bay, enclosed in your letter of the 21st ultimo, I desire to refer you to my communication to you of February 9, in which I mentioned that “two contrabands, Nelson Anderson and Thomas Mendigo, on board the Lodona, are pilots for Bull’s Bay. When the Lodona leaves that station you will please have them transferred, with their accounts, to the blockading ship which takes her place.”

These contrabands, if not on the Lodona, are on board some vessel off Charleston. When found, please have them transferred to the blockading vessel of Bull’s Bay.

Respectfuly, etc.,

F. Du Pont,

Commodore T. Turner,
U. S. S. New Ironsides, off Charleston

Mandigo was one of thousands of black sailors, and one of an unknown number who had escaped slavery and served in the Union Navy during the Civil War, and his service is especially notable; as one author remarks, “[i]n order to attain these ratings these men had to prove themselves skilled and able seamen to the officer’s satisfaction. More importantly they had to prove themselves the equal of their peers by following the rigorous routines, adhering to the strict discipline and suffering the many hardships endured by all of the ship’s crew.” That Mandigo and Anderson were able to excel as pilots speaks volumes to their abilities and dedication.

The USS Lodona, sketched by her commanding officer. NHHC photo.

The USS Lodona, sketched by her commanding officer. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

With the war’s end, the Lodona returned to Philadelphia to be decommissioned, and Mandigo—who sometimes adopted the surname Anderson, probably in deference to his companion Thomas Anderson—remained in Pennsylvania to begin his new life as a free man.

Within several years he had drifted out to western Chester County, Pennsylvania, and married Julia Collins. Together, they raised a family in the rural countryside. After nearly 30 years as a free man, Thomas died about 1890.

His passing was not noticed by the county, and the cemetery was largely forgotten until recent efforts to restore it were undertaken. Others who served this country, including a member of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and a veteran of World War II, rest there as well.

Secluded as they are in the shady grove where they are buried, the men and women at Sandy Hill cemetery are easy to overlook. But their remarkable stories should not be.