Freedom by Water

While events at Fortress Monroe riveted public attention during Summer/Fall 1861, as slaves fled there in a bold bid for freedom, at the same time an unheralded wave of even more desperate Virginia slaves escaped to an even riskier destination–the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Blocking Squadron.

The Navy had established the Atlantic Blocking Squadron after the fall of Fort Sumter to implement a naval blockade of southern ports. Making the blockade effective often meant having ships operate close to shore, close enough that slaves noted their presence and, like those in the vicinity of Fortress Monroe, began to plot their escape to what they hoped would be the protection of Union forces and freedom. As noted in the July 15 edition of Civil War Emancipation, on that date 150 years before the USS Mount Vernon picked up a group of slaves that had stolen a boat and made their way to a light house off the mouth of the Rappahannock River. They reported the murder of a Unionist by Confederate vigilantes near where they lived and that local authorities planned to send slaves into the front of the battle line as cannon fodder.

Silas Stringham, the commander of the Atlantic Blocking Squadron, expressed skepticism of slaves’ claims, especially their fear of death should they be returned to their owners. But like Benjamin Butler before, Stringham recognized their value to the enemy. On July 18, he wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, stating “If negroes are to be used in this contest, I have no hesitation in saying they should be used to preserve the Government, not to destroy it.

Even before Stringham wrote Welles, the commander of the USS Mount Vernon, Oliver Glisson, reported on July 17, he had picked up three more slaves, also claiming they would be killed if they were returned. Secretary Welles finally provided guidance on July 22 approving using the escaped slaves as navy laborers. He wrote Stringham:

SIR: Your dispatch No. 70, in relation to certain negroes who have fled from Virginia and are on board the Mount Vernon, asking what disposition shall be made of them, is received.

It  is not the policy of the Government to invite or encourage this class of desertions, and yet, under the circumstances, no other course than that pursued by Commander Glisson could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity.

To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel, and, as you remark, they may be made serviceable on board our storeships, you will do well to employ them.

Within a month, what ostensibly began as a humanitarian  gesture, soon became something more, as navy authorities began to plot to take advantage of opportunities to deprive the Confederates of slave labor. On August 3, Welles wrote Stringham with some potentially valuable intelligence. He stated:

Lieutenant Nicholson, executive officer of the Pocahontas, reported at the Department this morning that two fugitive negroes had been taken yesterday from a boat in a sinking condition by that vessel.

They represented themselves to be of a quota furnished by a Mr. Lewis, a wealthy farmer in Virginia, in obedience to an order from the governor of that State, to a draft of 500 slaves about being sent from Fredericksburg, in the steamer St. Nicholas, for the purpose of throwing up fortifications on Mosquito Point, a little within the mouth of the Rappahannock River, on the left bank.

Over two weeks later, on August 20, Oliver Glisson, from his post off the mouth of Rappahannock, provided fresh intelligence suggesting Nicholson’s report was unreliable. He stated:

I have to report that yesterday I stood up the river as far as the town of Urbana, a distance of 20 miles. I carefully examined both banks of the river, and I can assure the flag-officer that there is nothing in the shape of guns or entrenchments as far up the river as that point. I shall keep a bright lookout, and should the St. Nicholas come down with her 500 slaves we will do all in our power to give them a warm reception.

This morning a negro deserter named Balinar Robinson came on board and claimed our protection, which was granted him. He belongs to John Robins, of Lancaster County, Va., who resides near Mosquito Point, is now under arms in the State of Virginia, and is a strong secessionist. This slave informs me that there are no entrenchments about being thrown up at Mosquito Point, nor is there any force on the banks of the river except the home guards for the protection of the farms.

Evidently, some of the slaves escaping to the Atlantic Blocking Squadron shaped their stories, in the hopes of ingratiating themselves with U.S. Navy personnel, so they would not be returned to their rebel owners. The exodus, although never on the scale occurring around Fortress Monroe, and involving almost exclusively male slaves, continued into Fall 1861 and resulted on September 25, 1861, (as described in the September 22 edition of Civil War Emancipation) in the formalizing of the recruitment of contraband slaves into Navy ranks.

The exodus proved an irritation to slaveholders in Virginia, who told their slaves stories of their own. A Massachusetts newspaper reported in late September that slaves escaping by water were saying:

They state that everywhere the slaves are told that the Yankees are coming down to seize them, if possible, to sell them upon the plantations in Cuba, to raise money to pay the expenses of the war. Though they profess to believe the story, they say the Negroes regard it as a ruse, and their hope is that the North will conquer.

White Virginians also could not credit the slaves as fleeing on their own initiative, but instead convinced themselves they left as a result of Yankee blandishments. An October 15 letter from a correspondent near Norfolk published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch read:

The Yankees are still depredating within our borders. Since they cannot win battles, they endeavor to make up for it in stealing.–Their contraband dodge on the negro question is too mean a sophism for a London prig, in whose category stealing is stealing. On Sunday night party of negroes, some eight or more in number . . . made their disappearance. As an old seine-boat belonging to Major W. E. Taylor, at his fishery at Willoughby spit [near Norfolk], was missing at the same time, there is no doubt that some prowling emissaries have coaxed the slaves by water conveyance into the enemy’s hole, where I suppose the Lincolnites will get all the work out of them they can.

Five more are believed to have gone off last night. . . . There is nothing more irritating to the people of this neighborhood than the taking of their negroes under the miserable pretexts used by the Federals to cover up the true character of their thefts. If our enemy openly acknowledged these acts as acts of plunder, and held or took the negroes above-board as spoils of war, we could-stand it much better than we can their devilish whine about philanthropy, and their blasphemous misuse of the ever-to-be-held-sacred law of nations.

Of course, the paper’s correspondent could not acknowledge that real reason the slaves fled by water to U.S. Navy ships was their desire to be free. And that the wish was so strong, these slaves took a considerable risk not only in escaping their plantations but embarking out on the open water sometimes far from shore often in small flimsy boats unsure if they would encounter a northern ship or even if they found one that they would find the sanctuary they sought. Yet so strong was their desire to be free that they literally would risk their lives to reach the ships of the Atlantic Blocking Squadron.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

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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