Ambrotype of Charles Redding, late 1850s: An anonymously written note on the back of the portrait indicates that Redding lived with a Mr. Lemon and was a member of the crew of the USS Kearsarge. (Gift of Laura B. Fewkes) Enlarge image.




In 1862, 22-year-old Charles F. Redding enlisted in the United States Navy in New Bedford, Massachusetts. For the next five years he served as a landsman aboard several Navy ships. Redding was one of more than 18,000 African-American men and women, freeborn and former slaves, who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. One of the ships he served on was the USS Kearsarge, which sank the CSS Alabama in 1864.

The Newton Connection

In September of 1850, 10-year-old Charles Redding was listed on the census as an "inmate" of the House of Industry, a poorhouse in South Boston. His birthplace was given as Massachusetts. We do not know when or why young Redding was sent to this institution.

Henry Lemon's property in Newton: This detail of an 1874 atlas of Newton shows Henry Lemon's property at the bend of what was then called Nonantum Road and is now Charlesbank Road in Newton Corner. Enlarge image.

Several men named Charles Redding are listed in Boston city directories in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Which, if any, might be our Charles Redding is unknown. We do not know whom he married, nor do we know when or where he died. Although questions remain, the photograph above and another, both donated to the Newton History Museum by Laura B. Fewkes, provide a connection between Charles Redding and Henry Lemon of Newton, the donor's great-grandfather.

Charles Redding: This carte de visite photograph, also given to the museum by Henry Lemon's great-granddaughter, shows an older Charles Redding. Enlarge image.

According to family stories, Lemon encountered Charles Redding "under the Newton Corner railroad bridge." Lemon's Nonantum Street residence was fairly close to the Boston and Albany Railroad line in Newton Corner, as this atlas detail shows.

Henry Lemon moved to Newton from Salem, Massachusetts, about 1856. We know Charles Redding enlisted in the Navy in 1862. So the two men most likely met when Redding was between the ages of 16 and 22. Nothing else is known of their meeting.

The envelope that likely once contained the ambrotype image above carries a note that says, "Escaped slave boy found under the R. R. bridge in Newton Corner." No evidence links Redding to slavery. He may have escaped from the House of Industry in Boston, rather than from slavery.

Why do you think Redding was called an "escaped slave boy?"

Charles Redding, Landsman

Charles Redding enlisted in the U.S. Navy in during the Civil War as a landsman, the lowest rank in the service. Landsmen did the menial work of food service and cleaning aboard ship. Redding's service record lists his occupation as cook:

Charles F. Redding — Personal Information

Place of Birth - Boston, MA
Age - 22
Complexion - Negro
Occupation - Cook
Height - 5'3"

Naval Service
Place of Enlistment - New Bedford, MA
Date of Enlistment - January 1, 1862
Term of Enlistment - 3
Rating - Landsman

— Naval service information for Charles F. Redding courtesy of the Black Sailors Research Project, Howard University and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, National Park Service

The USS Kearsarge: The steam sloop Kearsarge was commissioned in 1862 and sailed the Atlantic search for Confederate ships that raided Union commercial shipping. Image courtesy of the U. S. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy.Enlarge image.
The Kearsarge and the Alabama

Charles Redding was one of the 162 Naval men aboard the Kearsarge during a famous naval battle of the Civil War. On June 19, 1864 the Kearsarge and the Alabama turned their guns on each other in international waters off the coast of Cherbourg, France. During the previous two years, the Alabama had sunk more than sixty Union merchant and naval ships. After about an hour of combat, the Kearsarge succeeded in sinking the Alabama.

African Americans in the Civil War

About 200,000 freeborn and formerly enslaved African Americans fought for the Union cause in the Civil War. Fighting discrimination and racism, as well as battles, close to one-third of these African-American sailors and soldiers gave their lives for the cause of freedom. In the Navy, unlike the Army, African Americans and whites fought side by side. Twenty percent of the Union Navy's total enlisted forces during the Civil War were African Americans or foreign-born blacks.

The majority of these men were formerly enslaved. Referred to as "contrabands," they were relegated to the lowest ranks, regardless of their skills. Even freeborn African Americans, many of whom were experienced seamen, faced racial prejudice. Often, their rank was limited to "Boy" or "Landsman," the two lowest in rating and pay.

Both freeborn and former slaves, African-American sailors served with heroism and were essential to many Union victories. Several Civil War African-American sailors earned the Medal of Honor, America's hightest military tribute.

Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War, Joseph P. Reidy, U.S. Natl. Archives and Records Admin.

Charles Redding sat for two portraits in an era when many people were never photographed. I do not know why; so much is unknown about this man. Yet, because of his connection to the Lemon family of Newton, we not only know about him, we can picture him. And what we do know of his life story, his naval service during the Civil War, reminds us of the crucial role of African Americans in the Union war effort. Freedom from slavery was not given. It was fought for and won.

— Sheila Sibley, Curator