Two Black Seamen Contribute To Onslow's Civil War History
by L.J. Kimball
The role of the black American in the armed forces of the belligerents in the Civil War has only recently been fully recognized. The majority of those participating without question served in various capacities in their respective armies but in numbers, at least on the Confederate side, which are still subject to debate. What is not in dispute, however, is that, without the comparative miasma of political complications that accompanied their service in the armies, blacks were welcomed with relatively few reservations into partially integrated duty with the navies. Necessity was the driving force. Both the Union and Confederate Navies experienced great difficulty in manning their warships and gladly accepted blacks into their ranks to meet their needs, sometimes in blatant disregard of standing regulations.
Specific numbers may never be available to quantify their participation given the absence of individual service records in both navies during this period. The Confederate Navy never exceeded an enlisted strength of 3000 men, at least five percent of which may have been black. In comparison, the Union Navy acquired an eventual strength of 51,000 enlisted and, based on various claims, consisted of from eight to twenty-five percent black seamen. As with their white shipmates, there were those who demonstrated great heroism and were appropriately mentioned in dispatches, and those who merely served and died doing their duty in the merciless cauldron of combat and whose stories can only be pieced together through a careful reading of routine reports.
Two black seamen are inexorably in twined in the history of the gunboat Ellis, which experienced a short but action-filled career under both ensigns before meeting a violent end in 1862 on a sandbar off Swan's Point in the New River. The Ellis's role in Onslow County's most storied Civil War engagement has been well documented. What is not generally known is that without the timely intervention of a black seaman aboard the Ellis at the Battle of Roanoke Island (or, Albemarle Sound), this peripatetic little warship would not have survived to become the first command of the Union Navy's irrepressible William B. Cushing, who took her on one of his first steps to glory in the waters of our very own New River.
On 10 February 1862, the Confederate Navy's appropriately named "mosquito fleet" found itself arrayed against a vastly superior Federal squadron off Roanoke Island. In the hotly contested but brief engagement which followed, the Southern squadron was quickly routed. The Ellis, then a Confederate unit, was rammed and boarded by the U.S.S. Ceres whose swarming blue jackets overpowered the defenders and bore the wounded captain, Lieutenant James W. Cooke, to the deck. Lieutenant Cooke had set demolition charges to blow up the gunboat along with the confounded Yankees and spare himself the humiliation of surrender. One of the black tars aboard, however, foiled this effort. At great personal risk to himself, in the heat of the boarding action, he warned the Federals of the bomb and it was deactivated. It is not known whether the black seamen had cast their lot with the Ellis voluntarily or involuntarily, or if they were free blacks or bondsmen. At the conclusion of the action, in any case, three of them, in the presence of their of their former captain, opted for freedom and swore allegiance to the Union. The name of the intrepid seaman who saved the Ellis for future Federal use has been, regrettably, lost to posterity.
Now under Federal colors, the Ellis served capably under three different captains in various engagements in the sounds and off the shores of North Carolina before coming under the command of Lieutenant Cushing on 13 October 1862. After gaining laurels for himself in several actions along the coast, he conceived a bold plan to take the diminutive gunboat on a single-ship, unsupported raid up the New River and capture the Onslow County seat of Jacksonville. This he commenced on 23 November and achieved initial success. Having destroyed one blockade runner, briefly occupied Jacksonville, and captured two schooners, he then headed back toward the inlet but his plan had begun to unravel. After engaging in a running fight with Confederate cavalry units on both sides of the river, he was forced by autumnal darkness to anchor in midstream just south of Jarrott's Point without having gained the sanctuary of the open sea.
The following day, in his bid to escape, Cushing was taken under fire again by the cavalry along with reinforcing Rebel artillery. As he made his last turn into the protection of the tidal delta, he ran hard aground approximately 500 yards southeast of Swan's Point. The Southerners took advantage of his misfortune and brought up more artillery. Unable to free herself, the Ellis was subsequently shot to pieces the next morning, the 25th. But, Cushing and his crew managed to evade the encircling enemy using one of the captured schooners and avoided the fate of his predecessor, Lieutenant Cooke.
Neither Cushing nor his Rebel protagonists, Captains Abram F. Newkirk and Z.T. Adams, listed any casualties in their reports. That a gunboat, two companies of cavalry, and one of artillery could have exchanged fire over a three-day period, mostly at point-blank range, and not have killed or at least wounded one of the participants violates inherent military probability. A further, detailed search of the records indicates that on 30 December 1862, the senior Union commander in the sounds reported the death of a mortally wounded crewmen from the Ellis, one James Lloyd, colored. The circumstances of his wound are not known, nor is his individual history. His motivations for risking his life in the service of the Union Navy were, like those of the hundreds of thousands who fought on both sides, personal and probably unknowable. History will record, however, that he was black, he chose to fight for the side he recognized as his country, and he is the only recorded casualty of Onslow County's most significant Civil War battle.
- Robert M. Browning, Jr. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
- L. J. Kimball.The Battle of New River. Jacksonville, 1997.
- Ivan Musicant. Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
- Richard Rush, et al, eds. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 31 vols. Washington: GPO, 1894-1927. Ser.I, vol.8.
- Thomas J. Scharf. History of the Confederate States Navy. New York: Rogers & Sherwood, 1887.
- William N. Still, Jr. The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1861-65. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.