Ann Bradford, early African American navy nurse, was born a slave in Rutherford County, Tennessee, in 1830. Few other details of her early life are known. She was not able to read or write and was taken aboard a Union ship as “contraband” (an escaped slave) in January 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation has just been issued freeing slaves in states that had left the Union including Tennessee.
In January 1863 she volunteered to serve as a nurse on the Union hospital ship, USS Red Rover. At that time the United States Navy enlisted several young African American women into the Navy. They were given the rank of “first class boy” and paid accordingly, but they were employed as nurses on the Red Rover. She stayed on active duty until October 1864 when she became totally exhausted and resigned her position.
Shortly after leaving the Navy in 1864, Bradford married Gilbert Stokes, an African American man who had also been employed on the Red Rover. They moved to Illinois where Gilbert Stokes died in 1866. She remarried a man named George Bowman in 1867 and lived on a farm in Illinois. In the 1880s she applied unsuccessfully for a pension based on her marriages to Stokes and Bowman. Her pension application was made more complicated because of her inability to read or write.
As her health grew worse, Stokes reapplied for a pension in 1890. She stated that she had “piles and heart disease.” By this time she had learned to read and write and put forth her own arguments, emphasizing that she was basing her claim on her own military service, not a former husband. This approach was unique and she was persistent. The pension office asked the Navy to review her case and the Navy certified that she had actually served eighteen months as a “boy” in the United States Navy on the Red Rover and that she had a pensionable disability. In 1890 Stokes was granted a pension of $12 a month which was the amount usually awarded to nurses at that time.
Stokes continued to live in Belknap, Illinois, with her husband, one child, and two step-children until her death in 1903.
Ann Bradford Stokes was remarkable in several ways. She was one of the first women ever enlisted as active duty personnel in the United States Navy. In addition, although some 15 African American women were enlisted in the Navy at that time, she is the only one who is known to have applied for a pension. Most remarkable, she received a pension based on her own military service.