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Chapter 2 Going to Freedom My mother say, “Son, data in’t t’under, dat Yankee come to gib your freedom.” —Sam Mitchel Within weeks of Fort Sumter’s fall, African Americans began seeking sanctuary on Union Navy vessels. The regular appearance of federal vessels along the coast or patrolling southern rivers and creeks offered slaves, Confederate deserters, and even free blacks golden opportunities to make their way to freedom. Many of the earliest wartime escapes to Union Navy vessels occurred on the wide Potomac River, which connected the nation’s capital to the Chesapeake Bay but also divided the border state of Maryland from the Confederate state of Virginia. The Potomac’s numerous creeks and bays offered pro-southern smugglers myriad possibilities for transporting contraband goods from the Maryland shore to Virginia and gave Confederate blockade runners access to the open ocean. Furthermore, Maryland’s southern tobacco counties and the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay were pro-Confederate or secessionist. In the early days of the war the Navy Department expressed serious concerns about blockade running in the river and the need to secure the Potomac as a major commercial waterway from the Atlantic to the nation’s capital at Washington. In late April 1861 these concerns prompted Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to order Pocahontas, Pawnee, Anacostia, Mt. Vernon, and Keystone State to the Potomac to escort troop transports, patrol the river in search of suspicious movements by vessels or persons on shore, and reconnoiter for enemy batteries or fortifications along the riverbanks. Union commanders soon recognized the difficulty of patrolling the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay with just five vessels, so 32 Bluejackets and Contrabands on April 27, 1861, Welles decided to create a small naval force, or “flying flotilla,” to patrol the river. To command this new flotilla he chose Commander James H. Ward, a career naval officer and veteran of the Mexican War who had planned the relief of Fort Sumter. Ward selected the side-wheeler Thomas Freeborn and the small screw steamers Resolute and Reliance for duty in the Potomac and Chesapeake, and by midMay his “Potomac Flotilla” had assembled at the New York Navy Yard. Within days these vessels departed New York for the Chesapeake, where they began aggressively searching for signs of rebel activity or small craft carrying contraband goods. Ward quickly learned from local citizens that most inhabitants on the Maryland side held strong pro-Union sentiments , but disaffected Marylanders had taken to crossing the Potomac from a point below Port Tobacco, Maryland, to Mathias Point, Virginia, with the intention of joining rebel forces there or transporting supplies to the Confederates. Alerted to this fact, Ward ordered Union Navy vessels operating in the Potomac to search suspicious vessels for contraband . Commander John P. Gillis’s flagship Pocahontas and the sidewheel steam frigate Powhatan under Lieutenant J. Glendy Sproston had already begun probing up the Rappahannock and Piantank rivers, where Sproston assured nervous inhabitants on the riverbanks that the navy intended to attack only those who had taken up arms against the United States or actively assisted the rebels.1 Enforcing the blockade and keeping the Potomac open for traffic to and from Washington kept the Potomac Flotilla busy, stopping or intercepting suspicious vessels and carefully watching for any signs of enemy activity on the shore. Their presence also began to attract runaways —slaves, free blacks, and white deserters. The reaction of Union Navy commanders to these runaways varied, in some cases depending on whether the runaways were white or black. Take, for example, two incidents involving the USS Pawnee. On June 12, 1861, the Pawnee’s commanding officer, Commander Stephen C. Rowan, reported: “A colored man came off this morning in a small boat, stating that he belonged to a Mr. Healy, and asked for my protection.” Rowan refused to receive the black man, who continued downstream, but he did not hesitate to send a boat to rescue a white man seen swimming toward the Pawnee from the Maryland shore nine days later. The man identified himself as John Dowling, a carpenter by trade, and stated that he had joined the Confederate States Sentinels in May to avoid being arrested as an abolitionist but had deserted. Unable to escape the South, Dowling had joined the Confederate Navy and reported to Aquia Creek. “On the evening of the 20th I went to bathe,” Dowling told Rowan, “and started from the end Going to Freedom 33 of the burned wharf for the Pawnee...


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