Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Black Confederate Who Stole the Steamboat Planter

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on May 16, 2012

In my post about Robert Smalls and the “abduction” of the Confederate steamer Planter the other day, I overlooked the last two grafs of the Harper’s Weekly story which, line-for-line, may be the most interesting of the piece:

Our correspondent sends us a drawing of an infernal machine [i.e., a mine], drawn by one of the negro hands of the Planter named Morrison. This chattel, Morrison, gives the following account of himself:

Belonged to Emile Poinchignon [Poincignen]; by trade a tinsmith and plumber; has lived all his life in Charleston; was drum-major of the first regiment of the Fourth Brigade South Carolina Militia, and paraded on the 25th of last month; has a wife and two children in Montgomery, Alabama, whom he expects to see when the war is over. I asked him how he learned to read and write. Answer: “I stole it in the night, Sir.”

Okay, okay. Calling William Morrison a “black Confederate” seems pretty silly under the circumstances. But William Morrison must, in some ways, capture all the complexities of of the situation of many African American men in the Confederacy during the war. Through his trade as a craftsman, Morrison probably enjoyed better circumstances than the majority of enslaved persons in the South, but he remained bound by the system. He suffered from a long, distant absence from his wife and children — no doubt an involuntary one. He learned to read and write not through the efforts of a kind and paternal master, but secretly, though his own initiative — “I stole it in the night.” And when he saw the opportunity to steal himself from his master, he didn’t just run off, but did so in a way that would cause the largest possible damage and embarrassment on the Confederacy, in a way that would (not coincidentally) assure his own death if recaptured. And finally, when he did reach the Federal blockading fleet, he shared with them intelligence about Charleston’s harbor defenses: a mine that, by virtue of his skills as a tinsmith and plumber, he may have actually helped assemble with his own hands.

William Morrison was neither a “happy Negro,” nor a “faithful slave.” Next time someone points to a vague reference to an African American musician or otherwise connected to the Confederate military, and then waxes eloquent about that as evidence of black Confederates fighting for home and hearth against the Yankee invader, etc., etc., ask them about William Morrison of the steamboat Planter.

Image: Detail of the print, “Heroes in Ebony — The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small.” Library of Congress.

8 Responses

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on May 16, 2012 at 9:31 am

    William Morrison sounds fascinating. Not only was he a tinsmith and plumber who taught himself to read and write in less-than-convenient circumstances, he could reproduce, apparently, an image of mine accurate enough to be forwarded by the Harper’s correspondent, and he had enough musical ability to serve as a drum major – which I’m guessing meant playing the drum, rather than what we today think of when we hear the term “drum major.”

    Very interesting post.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

      I don’t know what became of Morrison — it’s a common name, but I hope to find out more as I can.

      I presume “drum major” means he led the musicians attached to that SC militia unit. Lots of pre-war and early-war militia units had African American musicians, though their formal military status relative to the privates, corporals and sergeants in the ranks is vague at best. There’s a well-known photo of of an early war militia company in Augusta, Georgia that is sometimes cited as photographic evidence of “black Confederates,” because it shows three African American musicians off to one side. Close examination of the image, though, shows that the men are not wearing the same uniform as the (white) soldiers, and one of the musicians may not be wearing a uniform at all. But that’s commonplace for advocates of black Confederates — any images that shows African Americans in the context of the Confederate military is taken as prima facie evidence of the whole meme, with little or no effort at sorting out what the images actually shows, or doesn’t. I’ll post a link later.

  2. corkingiron said, on May 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    “I stole it in the night”. This just speaks volumes. Someone somewhere had to have helped him – and revealing who it was would put that person at considerable risk. It is the same circumspect language that I’ve encountered in reading the narratives of slave refugees to Canada. Whenever they are asked something that might implicate another person who was still living under the laws that forbade their activities (ie; teaching slaves to read – or helping them escape) they resort to this kind of answer; vague and protective. People were often flogged and frequently lynched for such activities – so the silence is understandable. But there’s a huge space in that silence; it is not an empty space, and it’s a gold mine for the imagination.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Yes, indeed. Morrison was speaking in 1862, when the outcome of the war, and the fates of so many he knew (including his wife and children), were entirely unknown. He could not have spoken freely and candidly.

      Susie King Taylor learned to read and write as well, in an underground network created and supported in the African American community in Savannah. But she could speak openly of it in her autobiography, forty years later.

  3. Pat Young said, on May 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Thank you for posting this Andy. I saw half a dozen articles on The Planter recently and this is the only one to highlight this overlooked man.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks. There’s more coming, not so much about Morrison, but other, lesser-known elements of the story.

  4. BorderRuffian said, on May 21, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I notice a great dropoff in posts about blacks in Confederate service (several blogs including Levin, Meyer, &c) whereas before it was a regular item. Have y’all been cowed by the History Lords?…or have you declared “Victory in Jesus!” on the subject?

    • Andy Hall said, on May 21, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Speaking for myself only, it’s partly because I’ve been tied up with other things, partly because I haven’t seen many claims made recently of the transparently ridiculous sort that I’ve taken to task in the past, and partly because some of the standard tropes (e.g., Douglass on Manassas, the Confederate Monument at Arlington) have been addressed for anyone who cares to read for themselves.

      In the end, people will believe what they want to believe. For those who want to take a serious look at the evidence, as a opposed to a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good story about brotherhood and hearth and home, they can start here.

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