Alexander Caine (1841-1915) fought for the United States during the Civil War with the US Navy aboard the USS St. Louis. Caine was profiled by the University of Virginia's John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History in 2017, as part of their "Black Virginians in Blue digital project.
Alexander Caine was born on April 1, 1841, in Charlottesville. His father was Louis Caine, and his mother’s name is unknown. As a result of his mother’s lost identity, historians are unsure whether he was born free or enslaved. Caine never explained to the military or historians how he came to be in Philadelphia at the start of the war. Records do indicate that he was working as a barber and living on Locust Street, just above 5th Street, in Philadelphia no later than the beginning of 1862. He was able to read and write, signing his own name after the war in his pension file. When he enlisted for three years in Philadelphia on January 28 of that year, he was almost 21 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, and was described as “mulatto” by his enlisting officer. He never married nor had children.
Caine enlisted onboard the USS Princeton, an older ship which had been converted into a receiving ship by the navy in Philadelphia Harbor. He entered the navy with the rating of “landsman” at a time when most Black sailors, especially those who had recently escaped slavery, were given the lower ranking of “boys.” Thus his higher ranking may have reflected his status as a free man without previous naval experience. He earned a monthly salary of $12.
During the war, Caine saw service on two ocean-going vessels. The first, the USS St. Louis, was commissioned on December 20, 1828. Alexander Caine served on this vessel while she completed trips across the Atlantic Ocean. From late February 1862 until late November 1864, the St. Louis was on patrol off the African coast, the Canary Islands, and the Azores in search of Confederate commerce raiders. Between November 1864 and the end of the war, the ship engaged in blockade duty as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. From November 29 to December 29, sailors and marines from the ship assisted in a joint army-navy campaign up the Broad River near Savannah, Georgia. They did so in support of General William T. Sherman’s famous March to the Sea that captured the city on December 21. On November 30, the “sailor’s brigade” joined with 5,000 army soldiers, including six United States Colored Troops regiments and as many as eleven Black soldiers from Albemarle, to fight the Battle of Honey Hill. Although it ended in defeat, the sailors from the St. Louis and men of the Black regiments fought bravely against a well-entrenched Confederate position.
Apart from the excitement of searching for commerce raiders and crisscrossing the Atlantic, Caine’s service was not all routine or without personal consequences. Medical records on board the St. Louis indicated that he saw a doctor three times in 1863. In late January, while the ship was taking on supplies in Portugal, he remained in the ship’s hospital for two days while he recovered from diarrhea. In March, while sailing off the West African coast, he received treatment for over a week for gonorrhea, a disease not contracted in the “line of duty” according to the navy. Finally, on August 19 of that year, while the ship was sailing past Tenerife Island, the largest of the Canary Islands, one of his fellow crewmembers, John F. Lynch, probably a White man serving as a boy on the ship, got into a fight with James H. Draper, a “mulatto” landsman. During the fight, Lynch hit Caine on the head with an unknown weapon, cutting him above his left eye down to the bone. Caine was the only one not arrested after the fight, suggesting that he was not an active participant in the fight, but instead innocently caught in the middle of Lynch’s and Draper’s quarrel. The ship’s doctor quickly patched up the cut, and Caine returned to duty the following day.
While serving blockade duty, Caine also briefly served on the USS Ticonderoga, a screw-sloop first launched in 1862. The Ticonderoga did not serve in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron until January 1865. It is possible Caine briefly transferred to the ship or assisted it in the course of his naval duties, but no records have been found to confirm his service. With the war nearly over, both ships returned to Philadelphia, where they were decommissioned from the service. Caine himself left the St. Louis in late January and was discharged from the service on February 14, 1865, having completed his three-year enlistment before the end of the war.
On October 31, 1865, after the end of the Civil War, Caine joined the crew of the USS Franklin, which was stationed in Philadelphia. Despite being launched in 1864, the Franklin was not officially commissioned in Boston until the end of June 1867. Before the official commission, nobody kept official records of the ship. As a result, not much is known about Caine’s second naval tour with the exception of a goodwill tour of European ports that left from New York on June 28. Before its departure for its first stop of Cherbourg, France, President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward came aboard the Franklin to wish the ship’s officers and crew well.
The ship’s commander was Captain Alexander M. Pennock, a Civil War veteran from Virginia. The Franklin also served as the fleet’s flagship. Admiral David M. Farragut, known for the Battle of Mobile Bay, resided on the ship during its entire tour. After arriving in France on July 14, Caine and his fellow crewmates visited all of the major ports of Europe and the Mediterranean, including St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Gravesend (England), Lisbon, Naples, Istanbul, Trieste, and Gibraltar. Between this voyage and his service off of Africa during the Civil War, Caine would have been one of the most well-traveled Black men from Albemarle of the entire nineteenth century. On October 18, 1868, the ship left Gibraltar for the last time, arriving in New York on November 10. Caine was discharged from the navy for the second and final time four days later on November 14.
After completing his second tour of duty with the navy, Caine settled back down into his life as a barber in Philadelphia’s growing African American community. According to census records from between 1870 and 1900, Caine and a few others boarded with a widowed Black woman from Tennessee named Sarah Davis. At least his last three decades were spent boarding at 1039 Lombard Street, across from present-day Seger Park.
He died just after midnight on December 8, 1915, at Philadelphia hospital of myocarditis and senile debility. A notice in the Philadelphia Inquirer invited not only “relatives and friends” but also “members of the Citizens’ Republican Club” to attend the funeral on Saturday, December 10 at William P. Almond & Sons funeral parlor. Caine was buried later that day at Soldiers' National Cemetery, now Philadelphia National Cemetery, in section G, site 836.
As early as 1902, Caine applied for a pension, describing his post-war health issues. In addition to piles (hemherroids), which he said he contracted in the service in 1862, he had also been suffering for years from rheumatism. In 1903, the pension office awarded him a $6 monthly pension for those diseases as well as “senile debility.” Caine continually petitioned for increases to this small sum. His efforts and a combination of more liberal laws passed in 1907 and 1912 that accounted for sailors’ old age, his demonstrated “partial inability to earn a support by manual labor,” and the efforts of his lawyer, Charles H. Brooks, all helped him to earn four increases. By 1912, the pension office was awarding him a $25 monthly pension.
- Web. [ Alexander Caine (USS St. Louis)], Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History: Black Virginians in Blue, April 11, 2021, retrieved July 29, 2021.
- Web. “Brave Boys of the Fifth”: The Service of Two Black, Albemarle-Born Soldiers of the Famous 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment, Jane Diamond, Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History: Black Virginians in Blue, July 4, 2017, retrieved July 28, 2021.