Slaves as Confederate Cannon Fodder?

Desperate to escape bondage, slaves fled to Union forces any way they could when presented with the opportunity. The federal army, of course, became the main sanctuary for slaves during the Civil War. However, when given a chance to flee to the Union navy, slaves took it. The opportunities were few at the beginning of the war, but increased as the Union blockade of southern ports tightened and federal navy increased its activity along inland water ways

An early example of slaves fleeing to the Union navy occurred in July 1861 with the USS Mount Vernon. This ship was a wooden-screw steamer converted from civilian use for service in the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron. In mid-July it was positioned at the mouth of Virginia’s Rappahannock River on blockade duty. On July 15, 1861, Oliver S. Glisson, the Mount Vernon’s captain dispatched a letter to the commander of the North Atlantic Squadron. In part, it read:

I have to report, that this morning at daylight we observed a boat adrift near Stingaree [actually “Stingray”] Light House and soon after discovered a man in the Light house. We manned a boat, armed her, and sent her with an officer to pick up the boat, and to ascertain who was in the Light House.

At 8h30m the boat returned bringing with her six Negroes who had deserted from the shore during the night and taken shelter in the Light House casting their boat adrift to avoid detection.

I have rationed these Negroes onboard of this Vessel, until I receive orders from you as to their disposal.

However, the most interesting passage in the letter, in regard to escaped slaves, reads as follows:

They appear to be much frightened and state that the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle. their taking this course has caused much excitement amongst the Negro population, who are deserting in every direction  two other boats made their escape last night in the hope of being picked up by some Vessel passing in the Bay.

What are we to make of this passage? Were white Southerners in this part of Virginia really intent on using their slaves as cannon fodder in battle? Were they telling them these stories as a means of intimidation? Or was this a story contrived by the slaves to elicit sympathy from Captain Glisson and increase their chances of being given sanctuary aboard the Mount Vernon? Or was there perhaps something else going on here? I invite the readers of Civil War Emancipation to share their opinions.

Source: Source: Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series I, Volume I: The Destruction of Slavery. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 75.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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2 Responses to Slaves as Confederate Cannon Fodder?

  1. Andy Hall says:

    That’s an intriguing passage. While I doubt that local military authorities actually entertained such plans, it’s easy to see how they, slaveholders and the slaves themselves could each find that a useful rumor to pass around, for different reasons.

    • Hi Andy. Thanks for your contribution. Personally, I think the slaves were feeding the Mount Vernon’s captain the story they thought would get them sanctuary. But I could be wrong.

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