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Introduction When the Civil War began in 1861, the population of the United States included nearly 4 million African Americans, most of them residing in the Confederate states. Of these, only 182,000 in the southern states claimed to be free blacks; the rest were slaves. Almost all these persons of color were affected in some way by the outbreak of war. In the southern states, the new Confederate government put many ablebodied black males to work as laborers building fortifications, working in plants that produced armaments and other war-related products, and in shipyards constructing warships. Other African American males followed their white masters into military service as body servants or served on ships running the Union blockade. Those who remained at home on plantations or farms soon felt the pinch of food shortages and a lack of basic necessities caused by the war and eventually by the Union blockade . When southern men went off to war, leaving their wives, children, and the elderly behind to manage plantations, farms, and small businesses , African Americans found themselves even more valuable on the home front. Many remained loyal or feigned loyalty to their masters and mistresses, but others sought freedom by crossing Union lines or fleeing in small boats, canoes, dugouts, and other small craft to Union warships lying in the tidal estuaries, rivers, and sounds along the southern coast.1 Although more research is needed in this area, a growing body of scholarly evidence suggests that during the Civil War, runaway slaves and other refugees sought freedom using long-established pathways and depending on sympathetic persons and an informal network of escape routes that had been assisting African Americans to freedom for decades before the outbreak of hostilities between North and South in 1861. In his persuasive study of African American watermen in maritime North Carolina, David Cecelski argues that “slaves used waterways to escape not only in North Carolina but throughout the South.” Historians debate whether these escape routes can be termed an “underground railroad.”  Bluejackets and Contrabands Some maintain that such a network existed prior to the Civil War and that it provided signals, safe houses, transportation, and other assistance to slaves fleeing the South to seek freedom in the North. This network was locally organized and, according to one source, “existed rather openly in the North and often just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper south and certain Southern cities.” Larry Gara and others argue, however , that the underground railroad was more legend than fact. What is not the subject of controversy is that many fugitives took advantage of the country’s numerous rivers and creeks to make their escape, preferring waterways to well-traveled roads because they afforded concealment and made it more difficult for dogs to sniff out a fugitive’s trail.2 Although many of the routes of the so-called underground railroad ran inland into Canada, other routes taken by African Americans were by sea, on sailing vessels departing from ports such as Charleston, Norfolk, Savannah, and Wilmington. Advertisements frequently cautioned boatmen against aiding runaway slaves, leading some historians to argue that many slaves did in fact go north via waterways, stowing away amid ships’ cargoes or bargaining with the captains or crewmen for passage north. Other fugitives signed on as hands on northbound ships and jumped ship once they arrived in port. Their appearance on board ships may not have been a cause for concern or suspicion, for during the antebellum period, African Americans composed between 10 and 20 percent of all American merchant seamen. Southern towns located on rivers with access to the coast, towns such as New Bern, Edenton, Beaufort, and Plymouth, North Carolina, also played an important role in assisting slaves to freedom. Black watermen from these towns served as vital links to plantations and communities of blacks living far inland up southern rivers. Black watermen in Beaufort were particularly active in assisting runaways to safety. “No pattern emerges more forcefully than that of black watermen serving as key agents of antislavery thought and militant resistance to slavery,” Cecelski argues. He also points out that the maritime city of Beaufort was home to many black abolitionists.3 The majority of slaves who attempted to escape to freedom in the North probably did so on their own initiative, perhaps assisted informally by other blacks, including black watermen. They followed well-known paths, taking refuge in swamps and other isolated areas and remaining for weeks or even years...


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