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Chapter 1 Union Na vy Policy tow ard Contrabands The slaves must be with us or against us in this war. —Gideon Welles On a warm July day in 1861, Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, commanding officer of the Union Navy’s Atlantic Blockading Squadron, received an unusual communication from the captain of the screw steamer Mt. Vernon. Unlike most reports from officers on blockade duty, this one from Commander Oliver S. Glisson was hardly routine. Glisson reported that on the morning of July 15, 1861, one of Mt. Vernon’s lookouts had observed a small boat adrift near Stingray Lighthouse, a hexagonal screwpile built in 1858 in the Chesapeake Bay, east of the entrance to the Rappahannock River. Glisson sent an officer with a boat crew out to the lighthouse to investigate. To the bluejackets’ surprise, they discovered six black slaves occupying the lighthouse. The men had deserted from shore and taken shelter there during the night, leaving their boat adrift to avoid detection. Glisson told Stringham the six escaped slaves “appear to be very much frightened and state that people on shore are about arming the negroes, with the intention of placing them in the front of the battle.” According to Glisson, the threat of being used in the rebellion had caused “much excitement” among the black population. They “are deserting in every direction,” he told Stringham. In addition to the six fugitives at Stingray Light, two other boats filled with runaways had put out from shore the previous night, hoping to be picked up by a friendly vessel. In the absence of specific orders for such situations, Glisson informed Stringham that he had taken the six black deserters on board the Mt. Vernon.  Bluejackets and Contrabands He listed the men’s names: John Hunter, Samuel Hunter, Miles Hunter, Peter Hunter, Alexander Franklin, and David Harris. “I have rationed these negroes on board of this vessel, until I receive orders from you as to their disposal,” he said.1 On board his flagship, the frigate USS Minnesota, sixty-three-yearold Stringham pondered Glisson’s report. A career naval officer who had entered the U.S. Navy in 1809 as a midshipman, Stringham was no stranger to war. He had served on the schooner Spark during the Algerine war in the early 1800s and on the Cyane off the coast of Africa and had participated in the bombardment of Veracruz during the Mexican War in 1847. A competent manager who had been commandant of the New York, Boston, and Norfolk Navy Yards, Stringham had taken command of the Union blockading squadron in 1861. Stringham knew his officers and had confidence in Glisson, an Indiana native who had entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1826, served during the Mexican War on the sloop Reefer, and accompanied Commodore Matthew C. Perry on his Japanese expedition in the mid1850s before being appointed commanding officer of the Mt. Vernon in 1861. Although Stringham did not doubt Glisson’s report, he knew of no existing naval regulations that covered this situation. Furthermore , a second report from Glisson dated July 17, 1861, quickly dispelled any hope that this incident might be an isolated one. According to Glisson, “three more negroes, Lewis Ransom, Robert Brookes, and Albert Hutchings, belonging to a John Dunlavey of Mathews County, Virginia,” had asked for refuge on the Mt. Vernon. Faced with what appeared to be an influx of runaway slaves, Glisson asked Stringham, “Will you please inform me how I shall dispose of these men and how I shall act in future when they come on board?” He concluded his report on a note of urgency, writing that the deserters “say if they should be returned they would be murdered.”2 The following day Stringham sent a copy of Glisson’s reports to his superior, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, with a cover letter in which Stringham argued, “If we are to receive the reports of these negroes at all, I can not see how we can divide their statements, accepting only that which may appear useful to us and rejecting the balance.” Stringham clearly felt that the Navy Department should take the testimony of the six men at face value, noting that they had reported the Confederates’ murder of a Union man and given Glisson information about the disposition of traitors in Mathews County. If this information was indeed true, Welles argued, “I can not see how we can escape receiving the other portion of their statements...


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