Thursday, January 25, 2024

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr.: Civil War Sailor and Civil Rights Activist

By Bennett White
HRNM Volunteer

Thomas Paige likely served aboard USS Minnesota during the Battle of Hampton Roads. In this painting, USS Minnesota is protected by USS Monitor on March 9, 1862. (Tom Freeman Art)

African Americans have participated in armed conflicts since the American Revolution; however, the Civil War was the first time the Federal Army and Navy officially incorporated free Black men and previously enslaved individuals into their ranks. In his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln instituted a policy allowing Union military commanders to begin enlisting Black men into the Union military. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established in Washington, D.C., to administer the increasing number of African American units operating in the field.[1] While the Union Army quickly established complex regulations to segregate African Americans into all-Black units, the Navy—desperately short of manpower at the start of the war—fully integrated the decks of its steamboats, supply ships, and war frigates to put together an effective fighting force.[2] Hampton Roads, due to Fort Monroe’s reputation as a refuge for escaping slaves, proved to be a rich recruiting ground for Navy personnel to identify and enlist African Americans into military service. Many of these Black veterans would go on to shape American life after the war through political activism and entrepreneurship.

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr. was one of these brave men. Born into slavery in 1838, Paige had to combat racism in antebellum Norfolk from an early age. Before the Civil War, enslaved people in Norfolk held the same jobs as free Blacks and less affluent whites, and often developed skillsets necessary for carpentry, barbering, crafting sails, and staging freight along Norfolk’s dockyards. However, economic stagnation made jobs scarce, which prompted white laborers to lash out against African Americans through street brawls and vigilantism.[3] In 1857, seeking freedom, Thomas—along with his brother Richard Paige (who eventually became Virginia’s first Black attorney and a Republican congressman)—escaped aboard a schooner bound for Philadelphia through the help of northern abolitionists. While Richard remained in Boston to study law under abolitionist George Hilliard Steward until 1867, Thomas quickly found himself back in Hampton Roads after enlisting in the Navy in Boston sometime in early 1861.[4]

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr.'s USN Pension File (National Archives)

According to his pension file, Paige worked as a landsman on four different ships, including USS Minnesota, USS Princeton, USS St. Louis, and USS Macedonian.[5] Although archival records are not definitive, his time spent on Minnesota in late 1861 and early 1862 likely coincided with Minnesota’s famed involvement in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8-9, 1862. On March 8, punishing broadsides from the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia crippled the Federal flotilla blockading southeastern Virginia, sinking USS Congress and USS Cumberland before forcing USS Minnesota to run aground off the coast of Newport News. Immobilized by a thick mud bank, Minnesota’s crew ferociously returned fire from CSS Virginia, CSS Jamestown, and CSS Patrick Henry while tugs worked to pull the steam frigate to safety. As the battle continued, the ironclad USS Monitor defended Minnesota’s crew from CSS Virginia’s attacks long enough for tugs to escort Minnesota back to Fort Monroe. Often overshadowed by the historic showdown between ironclads, Minnesota’s crew heroically withstood artillery barrages and returned fire throughout the two-day ordeal, protecting the Union blockade and ultimately helping USS Monitor neutralize the Confederacy’s most prized naval asset.

After the war, Thomas Paige—through his advocacy for racial equality—embodied the courage exhibited by Minnesota’s crew during the Battle of Hampton Roads. As the smoke cleared from Virginia’s battlefields and waterways, Thomas and Richard Paige immediately began advocating for recently emancipated African Americans. In the summer of 1865, prominent African Americans in Norfolk organized clubs that lobbied for Black political equality. Led by a former slave, dentist Dr. Thomas Bayne, community organizers established the “Colored Monitor Union Club” and gathered nearly 2,000 African American citizens on the steps of Catherine Street Baptist Church to listen to local speakers reflect on issues central to the Black community. The lectures were then published with the help of Thomas and Richard Paige—their Bostonian contacts connected them with E. Anthony and Sons, a Black press located in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The resulting pamphlet, Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va, to the People of the United States, called for Black male suffrage in state and local elections in order to obtain legislative representation and to ensure ex-slaveowners would be unable to re-form the Confederacy.[6] The Paige brothers, along with the Colored Monitor Union Club, financed the printing of 5,000 copies dispersed throughout the United States.[7]

Emboldened by his political leadership, Thomas Paige navigated persistent racial discrimination during Reconstruction to become a successful businessman and property owner in Norfolk. By 1872, Norfolk had 74 Black-owned businesses. Black entrepreneurs forged successful law practices, established importation companies, and opened barber shops. All six of the city’s oyster dealers were African American, and four Blacks held positions on the Freedmen’s Bank advisory board. Black social life experienced a renaissance, too. Norfolk’s Black community spent their leisure time attending lectures, hosting weekend picnics, and organizing grand parades complete with veterans in military dress and lively musical bands. By 1880, Thomas opened Paige’s Hotel, a boarding house centrally located on the western side of Market Square, Norfolk’s premier business district in the late nineteenth century. There, an exhausted dockyard worker could pay fifty cents per night for access to a warm bed, eat a hearty meal any time of the day, and play pool in the attached billiards hall while imbibing with “the best wines, liquors, and cigars” in Norfolk.[8]

Advertisement for Paige's Hotel in the Norfolk City Directory, 1880 

The story of Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr. is just one of the many unique narratives that can be uncovered when exploring the archival records of African American service members. For many Black Civil War veterans, serving in the Union Army and Navy meant more than performing their patriotic duty. Rather, it was a deeply personal endeavor to free their own parents, wives, and children from the same plantations from which they escaped. Once free, Black veterans like Thomas Paige built on their military careers by fighting for political rights and economic prosperity during Reconstruction and beyond.

[1] Keith P. Wilson, Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013), 2.
[2] Segregation in the Navy | Naval History Magazine - February 2021 Volume 35, Number 1 (
[3] Tommy L. Bogger, The Slave and Free Black Community in Norfolk, 1775–1865 (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1976), 161–62; 188.
[4] Encyclopedia Virginia, “R. G. L. Paige (1846-1904),” Last modified (n.d.), Accessed Dec. 14, 2023, R. G. L. Paige (1846–1904) - Encyclopedia Virginia.
[5] The National Archives, Washington, DC, USA. U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; NAI Title: General Index to Civil War and Later Pension Files, Ca. 1949-Ca. 1949; NAI Number: 563268; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007; Record Group Number: 15; Series Number: T288; Roll: 211. U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 -
[6] Excerpts from Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, VA, to the People of the United States (1865), 5. Excerpted by the National Humanities Center, accessed September 28, 2023,
[7] Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 227.
[8] Norfolk City Directory (1880), “Paige’s Hotel,” 177. Accessed Dec. 14, 2023. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 -

No comments: