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Chapter 6 Contraband Pilots We must have men of undaunted courage and great coolness, for much is at stake. —Gustavus Vasa Fox Of all the important contributions by African Americans to the Union Navy’s North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons and Potomac Flotilla, none proved as valuable as that made by skilled black coastal pilots. Suddenly called on to enforce a blockade of almost 3,500 miles of southern coastline, much of it deprived of functioning lighthouses and stripped of navigational markers, the Navy Department quickly realized a need for experienced, loyal pilots. At the beginning of the Civil War, senior Union Navy commanders looked first to officers of the U.S. Coast Survey for assistance in piloting vessels in and out of harbors, surveying coastal waters, and other navigational missions. When the Blockade Strategy Board met in the summer of 1861, it recommended that a Coast Survey vessel be assigned to each of the principal blockading squadrons to complete surveys of portions of the coast not already done. In addition to providing or generating charts of the coast and adjacent waters, Coast Survey superintendent Alexander D. Bache and other Coast Survey personnel produced descriptions of coastal areas, obstructions to navigation, lighthouse locations, tides and currents, and other related information. The commanders of both the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons benefited from the services of Coast Survey officers and men, and some 400 U.S. Navy officers who had served with the Coast Survey before the war fought for the Union, among them David D. Porter, John Dahlgren, Charles H. Davis, S. Phillips Lee, Stephen Rowan, John Rodgers, Benjamin F. Sands, C. R. P. Rodgers, Foxhall Parker, Alexander C. Rhind, and Charles Flusser, to name just a few.1 1 70 Bluejackets and Contrabands Early in the war Coast Survey personnel accompanied Union naval expeditions buoying channels and waterways, piloting naval vessels across bars, and conducting topographical surveys of the numerous islands along the southern coast. There were, however, too few Coast Survey officers to serve as pilots for every blockading vessel. Faced with the demands of a burgeoning fleet, the Navy Department anxiously sought qualified pilots who knew the rivers and creeks of the southern coast. John Dahlgren’s discovery in late April 1861 that the rebels had removed buoys from Kettle Bottom in the Potomac River only added to their concern . Dahlgren asked the Navy Department for a “supply” of Potomac River pilots and told Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that he would pay them $50 to $80 per month, according to the value of their service. In response to Dahlgren’s request for Potomac River pilots, Welles sent him six men: Captain Mitchell, J. T. Hilton, C. C. Pearson, H. Hayne, Robert Walter, and a man named Roberts. Dahlgren quickly sent Walter and another pilot, Stephens, to Lieutenant John Glendy Sproston and ordered him to take command of the USS Powhatan and proceed down the Potomac to replace and protect the buoys at the Kettle Bottom shoals.2 Not all these new pilots proved competent, as Commander John Gillis discovered. “Two of the pilots we received from Powhatan proving inefficient, and admitting they were only capable for vessels of 10 or 12 feet from Maryland Point up,” Gillis wrote to Welles on April 27, 1861, “I took the lead in this vessel, and will convoy the transport to Washington.” The following day Gillis arrived safely in Washington with the two transports and some 800 troops, but in other cases, the ignorance of pilots jeopardized or limited federal gunboat operations in the South’s narrow, shallow rivers and streams. When Lieutenant Alexander Rhind mounted an expedition in the gunboat E. B. Hale with twenty men from the Crusader and attempted to ascend the Paw Paw River in late April 1862, the “ignorant” pilot ran it aground. Rhind got the Hale off and attempted to retrace his steps and pass through the South Edisto River, but finding the pilot “ignorant of the channel,” he gave that up and returned by the Dawho to North Edisto. Anticipating a rebel attack in the narrow river, Rhind, according to Du Pont, “made all his crew lay down flat, put on all steam, and rushed by, receiving as he expected, very heavy volleys which struck the poor little craft all over.” The Hale escaped “without having a single man hurt,” Rhind reported, but the little Hale received numerous hits from rifles balls and canister and one solid shot that struck its thirtytwo...


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