Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Capturing USS Water Witch

USS Water Witch underway (Library of Congress)

There is little debate as to the contribution of African Americans to the Union war effort in the American Civil War. Over 175,000 men enlisted and served in both the Union Army and Navy in an official capacity.  Their contribution to the war effort was substantial and resulted in 25 African Americans being awarded the Medal of Honor.  That a number of blacks also served the Confederacy is a much less known fact.  Frederick Douglass published an account of the First Battle of Bull Run, quoting a witness to the battle who said they saw black Confederates “with muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets.”  It should be noted that Douglass did not witness the battle himself and was only using contemporary newspaper accounts to make this claim, so it may very well have been highly exaggerated.

Most literature on the Civil War wholly ignores, or relegates to the footnotes, the contribution of persons of African descent in regards to the Southern war effort.  The African Americans who served in the Confederate forces during the war did so for many reasons, which we will not attempt to debate at this time. What we would like to point out is simply that they did serve the Confederate Navy in various capacities, mostly in non-combat support roles, but on occasion as active combatants.  June 3, 2015 marks the 151st anniversary of perhaps the most famous naval engagement that an African American took part in on behalf of the Confederacy.

When speaking of African Americans in an active naval combat role, possibly the most well documented (and controversial) example is that of Moses Dallas.  Although a slave during his entire time in service with the Confederate Navy, Dallas' story is quite abnormal for a slave. Prior to the Civil War he owned property, was married, lived away from his owner, contracted for the service of other slaves to assist in his wife’s laundry service, and negotiated his own working contracts.  It would be fair to assume that he maintained a fair amount of autonomy despite being technically a slave.

At the outbreak of hostilities, Dallas was working as a river boat pilot in the Savannah, Georgia area.  His services as a pilot in the area were well respected and Commodore Josiah Tattnall of the Confederate Navy quickly employed him as a first class pilot, with wages of $60 a month. Early in the war, Dallas served as the pilot of CSS Savannah. In 1863, Commander John K. Mitchell of the Confederate States Navy authorized an increase in his monthly pay from $80 to $100 a month to “retain his services.”  The funds were paid directly to Dallas and there is no known record of him having sent any of his earnings back to his owner.  By comparison, a landsman in the Confederate Navy (lowest ranking enlisted person) was authorized $16 a month. The high dollar amount paid to Moses Dallas likely reflects the nature of his work as being essential to the Confederate Navy.  As a point of comparison, black harbor pilots in the Union Navy were paid on average less than half of what Dallas made in the Confederate Navy.

While a harbor pilot does not necessarily denote an active combatant, it would appear Moses Dallas role did not stop there.  On June 3rd, 1864 Dallas was attached to the boarding party that set out to capture USS Water Witch in the waters off Georgia.  The paymaster of USS Water Witch, Luther Billings, recounted the death of Moses Dallas in his memoirs.

“[A] grinning negro face appeared at the port opening. I remember how ghastly his face grew when his gaze met the leveled pistol I held only a few inches away from it. Again the deadly flash and Moses… also passed away.”

The boarding party succeeded in securing USS Water Witch but Dallas and five others, including First Lieutenant Thomas P. Pelot (commanding the expedition) were killed and 17 wounded. Dallas' body was removed to the Confederate Naval Hospital and interred in an imitation mahogany coffin at a cemetery nearby. The coffin was a special purchase by Commodore William Hunter, CSN, at a cost of $100, citing Dallas “distinguished and useful service.” It may also be interesting to note that Hunter lists Moses Dallas in his official report among the list of “officers,” albeit at the very end of the list.

In 1919, Georgia Historical Quarterly Editor William Harden, who had been stationed in Savannah in 1864 and had relayed messages concerning the attack as a Confederate telegrapher, wrote:

A most interesting incident in connection with this matter is the part borne by the colored man, Moses Dallas.  He was a pilot, skilled in his business, and held in the highest esteem by all who were connected with the little naval force stationed about Savannah.  

There were other black river pilots in the Savannah Georgia area early in the war who were serving the Confederate Navy but accounts show that they escaped to Union lines when an opportunity arose as early as 1861.  Based the previous accounts and documentation it can be safe to assume that Moses Dallas' service in the Confederate Navy was voluntary and done so with distinction.

Moses Dallas' time in the Confederate Navy was not the only account of black sailors in Confederate service.  In fact, the Official Records of the Confederate States Navy provide an official disposition for free blacks to serve onboard ships.  Some of the wording in the articles seems to contradict each other but it would appear to support the notion that other African American men served as well.  The 1862 official directive states:

Article IV: Free blacks or free colored persons are not to be entered, except with the approbation of the commander of the station, or by special order from the department.

Article X: [b]lacks and colored persons; but not more than one twentieth of a vessel's complement shall consist of blacks or persons of color, unless by written order of the commander of the station.

Article XIV: Slaves not to be employed, except.
No slaves are to be employed in navy yards without the previous sanction of the Navy Department.

While there are many more anecdotal accounts of blacks serving the Confederacy, finding factual primary sources seem to be more difficult.  The National Archives allows us an interesting glimpse at a story that has yet to be written.  Near the end of the American Civil War the Confederate Navy had essentially vanished by the time Richmond fell.  Those Sailors and Marines who remained were mostly relegated to ground service in what became known as Tucker’s Naval Brigade, named for their commander John Randolph Tucker, CSN.  When the remnants of this unit surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, among their number were, “ J. Heck (col'd) Chas. Cleapor (col'd), Jos. Johnson (col'd).”  It would appear that these three men continued their service with the Confederate Navy until the bitter end and were recorded as “privates” who surrendered as part of the Army, not as “contrabands” or laborers.  It is certainly unclear whether their service was forced or voluntary, but one cannot help but imagine that escape could have certainly been accomplished at some time prior to Appomattox should these men of color have desired to do so.

While not expressly naval in content, one can also examine the pension records of Civil War veterans as to the possible number of blacks serving the Confederacy.  Mississippi was the first state to include African Americans from the beginning of the state pension program for Civil War veterans (there was no Federal program for Confederate veterans).  In 1888, Mississippi had 1,739 black pensioners.  It is possible that some of these men served in the Navy at some point.

A definitive conclusion on the service of African Americans cannot be had from the singular account of Moses Dallas nor can the collective motivation for service be gained by anecdotal records or oral histories.  What is important to remember is that African American service during the Civil War occurred on both sides of the conflict for any number of motivations.

Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Joseph Miechle.

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