Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 189-191
[Access article in PDF]
The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. By David S. Cecelski. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. 342. Cloth $39.95; paper $17.95.)
A review of this fine book calls for three brief historiographical prefaces. In Along Freedom Road (1994), David S. Cecelski brought a fresh approach to questions of [End Page 189] segregation and desegregation in the public schools of the twentieth-century South; in The Waterman's Song, he takes a new approach to race relations and African American history in the nineteenth-century South. Richard C. Wade's Slavery in the Cities (1964) and Robert S. Starobin's Industrial Slavery in the Old South (1970) each highlighted a substantial group of antebellum slaves who lived and worked in other than agricultural surroundings, and Cecelski adds another significant group to the roster. In the past two decades, Julius S. Scott, Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and W. Jeffrey Bolster have explored the experiences of black sailors in the Atlantic world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Cecelski repeatedly links his study of a somewhat later period—between the Revolution and Reconstruction—to that literature's illuminating findings.
Cecelski moves off the land and into the water, while bringing an Atlantic perspective to the experiences of black North Carolinians who lived near the coast. Much of the action takes place in Albemarle Sound, Currituck Sound, or Pamlico Sound, or in such towns as New Bern and Edenton, but the coastal city of Wilmington, farther south, is important to his story, too. In Part One, Cecelski explores a world in which most coastal Afro-Carolinians were slaves, seemed likely to remain enslaved, but carved out areas of autonomy as watermen and occasionally managed to escape by a waterborne version of the Underground Railroad. In Part Two, those who had remained slaves teamed up in the 1860s with those who had escaped, and, in league with the Union navy, helped win the war against the Confederacy, helped define it as a war against slavery, and then worked to convert an end to slavery into a postwar world of equal civil and political rights.
Cecelski, who grew up in the region whose history he explores here, wondered how could "conventional views of slavery" (27) be squared with the maritime life he had known there. Slave narratives, plantation records, ships' logs, and travel accounts permit Cecelski to find—compared with agricultural slaves in the upcountry—very different culture, work rhythms, and kinds of skills and degrees of independence, although canal construction ("the cruelest . . . labor in the American South" ) was the nether side of the tidewater experience. Moses Grandy, for one, exemplified the watermen's greater freedom under slavery—and the maritime South's variegated employment, which included captaining a canal boat all the way to Norfolk—though Grandy also spent time in field work and canal digging.
Afro-Carolinians played crucial roles in the Civil War. Confederate forces assumed a great advantage from their familiarity with the area, yet black sailors neutralized that advantage by sharing their knowledge with invading Union forces. Nowhere was this exchange more evident than the occupation of Beaufort, accomplished in one night without a shot fired, in April 1862. A port town that had fostered blockade-running suddenly became, instead, an enhanced part of the blockade as well as a launch pad for naval forays farther south. African American culture quickly emerged from the shadow of the big house, as ferrying Union troops and supplies was, in the words of one observer, "wholly in the hands of the negroes" (160), and black Carolinians reunited their families and established churches and schools. [End Page 190] Moreover, Abraham Galloway, who had escaped slavery from Wilmington in 1857, returned from the North early in the war; scouted for the Union army and recruited black soldiers; organized black politics; and served as a delegate to the 1867 state constitutional convention and then the state senate.
Cecelski offers tantalizing tidbits and opens a...