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Chapter 5 Contributing to Victory I wanted to be free—and I wanted my race to be free—I knew this could not be if the rebels had a government of their own—All the time during, and before the war, I felt as I do now that, the Union people were the best friends of the colored people. —Alonzo Jackson The growing number of contrabands presented Union officials with a difficult challenge. Able-bodied male contrabands were often enlisted as crew on navy ships or worked for wages as stevedores, mule drivers, servants , or military laborers. Initially, however, the army and navy had less use for women, children, and elderly runaways. Not wishing to clothe and feed them at government expense, army officers offered the women employment as cooks, laundresses, nurses, seamstresses, and servants. Union naval commanders also sent dozens of contrabands to Union military posts or navy yards to be employed as laborers. Contrabands with specific skills, such as machinists, caulkers, carpenters, and mechanics, readily found work in Union Navy machine shops and repair facilities. Union Navy commanders who rescued contrabands early in the war often expressed uncertainty about what to do with the newly freed slaves who no longer had owners to furnish them with clothing, housing, and provisions. The presence of numerous contrabands on crowded Union vessels taxed commanders’ patience and threatened to reduce the ships’ rations and water supplies to dangerously low levels. Complaining about the burden placed on his ships by the numerous African American refugees picked up along the Potomac, and frustrated by the need to provide for these fifty or so contrabands, Lieutenant A. D. Harrell wrote to Captain Thomas T. Craven in November 1861, “These people have all to be rationed, and it is becoming very embarrassing to me, short of pro- 1 34 Bluejackets and Contrabands visions as I am . . . I think it would be a good stroke of policy to return these negroes to their owners. It would tend to put a stop to the wholesale desertion that is now going on, and relieve us of a most unpleasant difficulty.”1 To relieve themselves of this burden, most Union Navy commanders either employed the able-bodied males as crewmen on their vessels or sent them to military authorities at Port Royal or Beaufort. In September 1861, for example, when commanders in the Potomac Flotilla rescued thirteen contrabands, Craven sent them to Commander John Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard with the suggestion, “I think the persons might be turned over to General McClellan who wants their labor.” Craven carefully listed the names of the thirteen contrabands and their owners. One of the slaves was a female, Agnes Chew, the property of Charles Mason.2 Initially, the principal contribution of refugee slaves to the Union war effort was their labor. The military needed men to do fatigue duty; cut roads; build bridges, entrenchments, and fortifications; serve in ambulance corps and hospitals; work as teamsters, stevedores, and guides; and even act as spies. Although most contrabands did not work directly on Union Navy projects, their work at wharves unloading supplies, clearing rebel areas for entrenchments along rivers and creeks, and building gun emplacements and other defenses at vital points along waterways benefited Union gunboats and other vessels. Vincent Colyer, the superintendent of the poor for New Bern, North Carolina, reported that in the four months he had charge of contrabands, they built three first-class earthworks —Fort Totten, Fort Burnside, and a fort at Washington, North Carolina. “The negroes loaded and discharged cargo, for about three hundred vessels, served regularly as crew on twenty steamers, and acted as permanent gangs of laborers in all the Quartermaster’s, Commissary and Ordinance Offices of the Department.” He noted that a number of them were good carpenters, blacksmiths, and coopers and did effective work in bridge building and ship joining. Another fifty volunteers acted as spies and guides. According to Colyer, “They frequently went from thirty to three hundred miles within the enemy’s lines; visiting his principal camps and most important posts, and bringing us back important and reliable information.” The Confederates sent bloodhounds to pursue these brave contraband spies, and several barely escaped with their lives.3 Union operations along the southern coast often generated new sources of laborers. When a Union expedition captured Hilton Head Contributing to Victory 1 35 Island and Beaufort, South Carolina, in November 1861, white plantation owners fled, leaving hundreds of African American slaves with no means...


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