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Chapter 4 Informants One of the contrabands gave information that nightly six steamers were expected from Nassau and England and one (the South Carolina) and two sailing vessels [were soon] to go out. This information caused me to alter the positions of the blockading vessels. —John Marchand Whether liberated in Union raids and expeditions into the interior, captured on rebel blockade runners, or picked up in rowboats, canoes, or sailboats, most black refugees possessed valuable intelligence about Confederate morale, illicit trade, troop deployments and defenses, Confederate blockade runners, and ironclads under construction or in commission. Within weeks of the fall of Fort Sumter, African American refugees seeking sanctuary on Union naval vessels offered valuable information to the ships’ commanding officers. Commander Stephen Rowan’s June 1861 rescue of a black man who told him about rebel troops patrolling at Mathias Point was just one of many such instances as the summer wore on. At this early stage of the war, few naval officers were familiar with the white inhabitants of the areas their ships patrolled, but they soon discovered that African Americans, though not always educated, could be observant and willing sources of useful information about the enemy. Union Navy officers patrolling in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, for example, quickly came to rely on local blacks for information about illicit trade. Owing to their southern sympathies, many white Marylanders were reluctant to share information about Confederate activities and looked the other way when smugglers carried on an active trade between the Maryland and Virginia shorelines. Commander Thomas Tingey Craven reported, “From all I can see and learn of the people of Maryland I am convinced that along the shores of the Potomac there is not one in 100 Bluejackets and Contrabands twenty who is true to the Union.” He speculated that many hundreds of them were “thoroughly organized into companies, perhaps regiments, and prepared to act against the Government at any moment.”1 As the commander responsible for enforcing the Union blockade in the Potomac, Craven needed reliable information to identify persons who supported the rebellion and actively engaged in what he termed “traitorous acts.” Fortunately, Craven had an African American steward with him on board the side-wheel tug USS Yankee off Piney Point. In his August 11, 1861, report to Welles, Craven explained, “This evening at sunset a negro came on board and intimated to my steward that he could give me some important information.” When Craven questioned the man, the informant told him about an Irishman named Maddox who had been active at Herring Creek in procuring volunteers for the Confederate Army, as well as munitions of war and clothing for the rebels, which he sent by boat across the river to Virginia. Maddox carried out his activities in cooperation with a Dr. Combe, the black informant told Craven. They employed their “negroes, horses, and wagons in transporting recruits to the various landings, at night, watching their opportunity when our cruisers are out of sight.” The black informant identified other individuals engaged in illicit trade and a home used as a depot for rebel recruits. “This statement, although made by a negro, has every appearance of being truthful,” Craven wrote, “and from hints which have come to me from the proprietor of the hotel there, I am convinced that these persons are active participators in the rebellion and are constantly engaged in traitorous acts.”2 On the basis of this story, Craven ordered a landing party of eight men under Acting Master’s Mate Street to seize the two boats at Herring Creek. On the following morning, August 12, a vindicated Craven informed Welles that Street had “returned with three fine boats as prizes.” Earlier, Lieutenant William Budd, commanding the Resolute, had led another successful action to break up a depot used by the rebels to receive recruits and supplies from Herring Creek. Although greeted by musket fire from shore, Budd and his men landed, destroyed the premises, and captured a large boat from Maryland. They then liberated ten contrabands belonging to a Colonel Brown, the owner of the premises, who proved extremely useful as sources of intelligence about enemy intentions.3 Street’s and Budd’s successful raids against illicit trade contributed to the Potomac Flotilla’s mission. However, Craven lamented that he had too few vessels to intercept the unusual amount of traffic between the rebels on either side of the river, and those he did have were “half Informants 101 equipped and manned...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813173481
Related ISBN
9780813125541
MARC Record
OCLC
496122978
Pages
400
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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