The “Underground Railway” to Pensacola:
Slaves, Abolitionists, and Florida’s Gulf Coast
In the decades before the Civil War, Pensacola, Florida was a maritime and military community that shared little in common with other seaports along the South’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Indeed, because of arid soil, shallow waters, and an extraordinary multiracial, multiethnic, and international population, Pensacola remained on the margins of antebellum southern society. As a result, the city earned a reputation as a gateway to freedom for enslaved people across the Deep South who found the northernmost routes of escape inaccessible. Through an examination of Pensacola during the antebellum era, this lecture tells the forgotten story of fugitive slaves and their allies along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Matt Clavin is an award-winning teacher and historian of the United States and Atlantic world at the University of Houston. He received his Ph.D. at American University in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2015. He is currently working on several research projects, including a retelling of the Battle of Negro Fort, a deadly conflict between the United States Army and Navy and hundreds of fugitive slaves and Choctaw Indians in Spanish Florida, and an examination of both the meaning and memory of the Declaration of Independence in nineteenth-century America.
[This post originally appeared on December 25, 2011.]
One hundred fifty years ago today, a nineteen-year-old Confederate soldier named Valerius Cincinnatus Giles (right, 1842-1915) went out on picket duty along the Potomac.
On Christmas morning a detail of twenty men was sent from the Fourth Texas Regiment to relieve the picket guard along the river. This detail was commanded by Lieutenant R. J. Lambert.
The post assigned me was on Cock Pit Point, about 100 yards from the masked battery. This battery of four guns was planted twenty feet back from the edge of the bluff. completely hidden from view by an abatis of pine brush felled and stacked, with the sharpened ends of the trunks pointing outward. as a crude defense. From my post I had a splendid view of the river for two or three miles in each direction. The low range of hills on the Maryland side opposite were covered with white tents and log cabins, the winter quarter of General Daniel E. Sickles’s New York Brigade.
The war had just fairly begun, and this was new to me. The novelty of the situation, the magnificent view before me, the river rolling majestically along between white hills and evergreen pines so charmed and captivated me at first that I felt not the bitter cold. The snow was gently and silently falling. deepening 011 the hills and valleys, melting as it struck the cold bosom of the dark river. I had been on post but a short time when I beard the signal corps man sing out from the crow’s-nest high up in a sawed-off pine tree, saying to the officer in charge: “Look out, Lieutenant, a gun boat is coming down the river!”
I could hear the artillery officer giving orders to his men, but from my position I could not see them. Looking up the river I saw a cloud of black smoke rising above the tops of the trees. All was excitement at the battery. and I could hear the artillerymen ramming home their shells, preparing to sink the approaching boat. Directly the steamer turned a bend in the river with volumes of black smoke pouring from her smokestacks. She was in the middle of the stream, coming dead ahead under full steam. It was really a disappointment to the fellows at the battery as well as myself, when the soldier in the crow’s-nest called out again: “0h, pshaw, Lieutenant, don’t shoot! She’s nothing but an old hospital boat, covered over with ‘yaller’ flags.”
Of course a Confederate battery would not fire on a yellow flag any more than on a white one.
The boat came steadily on down the river until she got nearly opposite Cock Pit Point, when she blew her whistle and turned toward the Maryland shore. As she made the turn she came within 200 yards of the Virginia bank and I could distinctly read her name on the wheel house. It was the old Harriet Lane. named in honor of the accomplished niece of President James Buchanan, who was queen of the White House during the administration of that eccentric old bachelor. In the winter of 1861 the Harriet Lane was in the employ of the Hospital Corps of the Army of the Potomac. A few days after that, she left her mooring on the Maryland side and pulled out down the river. She subsequently became a warship of some kind and met defeat at the Battle of Galveston in January, 1863.
After the boat bad landed and the excitement was over, a melancholy stillness settled around me. The novelty and fascination of my surroundings soon lost their charm. The lowering clouds above me and the white silence about me became monotonous and I began to feel restless and uneasy. If you are in a forest or on a prairie on a still summer day and will stop and listen attentively, you can bear the songs of birds, the chirping of crickets or the drowsy hum of insects. hut in a piney woods in midwinter, when the earth and green branches of the trees are covered with snow, with not a breath of air blowing, the stillness is oppressive. I must have bad a slight attack of homesickness, for I began to think of home and my mother and father away out in Texas waiting and praying for the safe return of their three boys, all in the army and all in different parts of the Confederacy — one in the Tenth Texas Infantry at an Arkansas post, one in Tennessee or Kentucky with Terry’s Rangers, and one in the Fourth Texas Infantry in Virginia. . . .
While I stood at my post on the banks of the Potomac I knew I was perfectly safe from any personal danger, yet something seemed to warn me of approaching evil. I tramped through the snow, half-knee-deep, although I was not required to walk my beat. I tried to divert my mind from the gloomy thoughts that possessed me, but all in vain. Suddenly I was startled from my sad reflections of home and kindred by distinctly hearing a voice I new — my brother Lew’s voice — calling my name. I turned quickly, looked in every direction, heard nothing more and saw nothing but the white world around me and the dark river below me. He was two years my senior, had been my constant companion and playmate up to the beginning of the war.
It was then 4 P.M., December 25, 1861. I was not sleeping or dreaming. and firmly believed at the time that I heard my brother calling me, but it must have been a delusion of the imagination.
However, Lewis L. Giles of Terry’s Texas Rangers, Troop D, Eighth Texas Cavalry, was mortally wounded at the battle of Mumfordsville, [Woodsonville] Kentucky, December 17, 1861, in the same charge in which Colonel Terry was killed. He was removed by his comrades to Gallatin, Tennessee. and died at the residence of Captain John G. Turner, a lifelong mend of my father. He breathed his last precisely at four o’clock on Christmas Day. 1861, while I stood picket on the banks of the Potomac.
 Mary Lasswell, ed., Rags and Hope: The Memoirs of Val c. Giles, Four Years with Hood’s Texas Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865 (New York: Coward-McCann, 1961), 59-62. The compiled service record of Private Lewis L. Giles, Co. D, 8th Texas Cavalry, gives his date of death as Christmas Eve, December 24.
Image: Private Val Giles in the spring of 1861, at the time of his enlistment in the Tom Green Rifles, a company later rolled into the Fourth Texas Infantry. From Voices of the Civil War: Soldier Life.
Here’s hoping all of you have a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
The story of Richard Kirkland, the Confederate soldier who reportedly went across the wall after the battle of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg to bring water to wounded Union soldiers, is well known. It has also been often questioned, because it relied on secondhand testimony that was not recorded until many years after the battle. Then a few years ago, a researcher named Mac Wyckoff published a series of blog posts at the Mysteries and Conundrums blog, that fleshed out substantial evidence that corroborates the basic elements of the story. For me personally, Wyckoff’s posts moved the Richard Kirkland story from the “possible” column into the “probable” column. You can read the first of those posts here, with links to the second and third installments.
Earlier today, Mysteries and Conundrums posted an update by Wyckoff, that includes additional corroboration of the story, including the identification of a second Confederate soldier, Isaac Rentz, who assisted Kirkland in bringing water to the wounded Federals who lay on the field in front of Confederate lines.
A recently discovered article in The Bamberg Herald, a South Carolina newspaper, includes the story of a soldier who assisted Kirkland in giving water. The story is told by Confederate veteran J.B. Hunter, a childhood friend of Isaac Washington Rentz, of the 2nd South Carolina.
Hunter summarizes the basic story and then adds additional details. After Kirkland received permission to carry water to wounded Union soldiers and went to administer the liquid, Hunter states, “Just then, Isaac Rentz, seeing it, filled several canteens and carried water to Kirkland and they gave water to every crying man and was not hurt.”
Go read the whole thing.
Image: “I Was Thirsty,” by Nathan Greene
On Tuesday I had the privilege of speaking to the Lone Star Chapter No. 58 of the Sons of the Republic of Texas in Conroe, on “Liberty and Pelícano: A Story of the Texian Navy.” It’s an amazing story, how the fledgling Texas Navy pulled off the capture of a Mexican schooner anchored in a small port on the Yucatán coast, hundreds of miles from Texas. And the story of what became of Pelícano‘s cargo later is even more remarkable.
The attack gets underway:
The first boat, under the command of First Lieutenant Hartwell Walker, was about 100 yards off Pelícano’s starboard side when it was spotted by the soldiers on board the schooner. They rushed to the rail, and let off a volley of musket fire at Walker’s boat. All the shots missed, and the crewmen bent to the oars to get alongside as quickly as they could. Hartwell and his crew scrambled up over the rail before the Mexican soldiers could reload and get off another volley, and began hacking and slashing their way across the deck. Just at that moment, the second boat, commanded by Sailing Master Oliver Mayo, thumped against the port side of the schooner.
It’s a great story, like something out of Forester or O’Brian.
The Hill Country Comspolitans are out of Hillsborough, North Carolina. That’s Jerry Renshaw at center on guitar and vocals, Glenn Jones at right on bass and vocals, and Robert Striegler at left on guitar and vocals. From their Facebook page:
Bringing a touch of Texas to Carolina, they decided to call themselves the Hill Country Cosmopolitans…and expanded their repertoire to include a little bit of country and honky tonk and even jazz as well. Danceable, catchy and infectious, Western Swing has a universal charm that people find irresistible…and the Hill Country Cosmopolitans want to share that fun with you at the next barn dance, beer joint, skull orchard, hoedown, shiv-a-ree, wedding, funeral, wake, bar mitzvah, cut ‘n shoot, pig pickin, BBQ, supermarket grand opening, car show, turkey shoot, party or family reunion near you.
Y’all have a great weekend. Gonna rain like hell here, which kinda sucks for the Dickens on the Strand festival.
Blood on the Bayou:
Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi
“See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key!” wrote Abraham Lincoln. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.” Many Civil War historians assume that the physical occupation of the Confederacy was what Lincoln had in mind. However, by looking at operations on the west bank of the Mississippi, observers may see another picture emerge.
Vicksburg was a key, to be sure, but Port Hudson may have actually been more important. In addition, the occupation of Confederate territory may have been important, but the control of the Confederacy’s population — in particular its enslaved population — may have been even more critical. Dr. Don Frazier examines the role of the Trans-Mississippi in the great Mississippi Valley Campaign and takes a fresh look at the role the immense population of African-Americans in the region may have played in forming Union strategy.
Dr. Donald S. Frazier is professor of history at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas Christian University, Frazier is also the award-winning author of four books on the Civil War including Blood and Treasure, Cottonclads!, Fire in the Cane Field, and Thunder Across the Swamp. He released his latest book, Blood on the Bayou, in spring, 2015. His other work includes serving as co-author of Frontier Texas, Historic Abilene, and The Texas You Expect, as well as general editor of The U.S. and Mexico at War and a collection of letters published as Love and War: The Civil War Letter and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball. In addition to his teaching duties, Frazier has been very involved in work on Civil War and frontier heritage trails in Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana, and work on historical projects in Europe and Mexico. He is the writer and director for the video Our Home, Our Rights: Texas and Texans in the Civil War, a winner of the Mitchell Wilder Award for Excellence in Publications and Media Design from the Texas Association of Museums. Dr. Frazier is an elected member of the prestigious Philosophical Society of Texas, the oldest learned organization in the state, a Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association, and a board member of the Texas Historical Foundation.
Reservations required for both dinner ($30) and lecture only ($10)E-Mail Reservation is Preferred; Email Don Zuckero at drzuckero-at-sbcglobal.net, or call (281) 479-1232 by 6 p.m. Monday, December 5th, 2016.
Maurice Bessinger (1930-2014) was a well-known South Carolina restaurateur, equally famous for his mustard-based barbecue sauce and infamous for his life-long defense of chattel bondage as having been ordained by God. (“God gave slaves to whites.”) He was an unrepentant segregationist who, even after being forced to open his restaurants to African Americans by the federal courts in the late 1960s, continued to distribute pamphlets defending slavery and generally making black folks as uncomfortable as possible about stopping there. And of course, he put up a big ol’ Confederate Battle Flag outside each restaurant, just to make sure folks got the message. One of the first things his grown children did when they took over the business in the early 2010s was to quickly and quietly remove those flags.
But Bessinger had a few tricks left. In at least a couple of cases, he deeded over to local Confederate Heritage™ groups tiny, tiny plots of land adjacent to his restaurants on which they could put up a marker and flagpole. One of these was in Orangeburg, where the SCV’s Rivers Bridge Camp #842 flies a Battle Flag outside of what had once been one of Bessinger’s restaurants, but is now home to the Edisto River Creamery. (See it on the Orangeburg County tax map here.) The business owner, Tommy Daras, bought the property in 2014 and ever since has been getting complaints about the flag. On Wednesday, there was a confrontation between Daras and members of the Rivers Bridge Camp, who prevented Daras from hauling down the flag himself:
After about an hour stand-off, SCV members left the restaurant and the flag remained up.
Restaurant owner Tommy Daras said he would most likely contact his lawyer and find out how to proceed.
“I want to do the civil thing,” he said. “I don’t want any violence.”
Daras said he and his wife have been receiving complaints and threats about the flag since they purchased the restaurant in 2014. . . .
Daras says after conducting some more research, he realized that he in fact has the title to the deed to the property, not the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I am clean on doing something,” Daras said.
Buzz Braxton of Rivers Bridge Camp #842 SCV and flag keeper at the site said the site belongs to the SCV. He says tax records prove it. He said the matter will be taken to court.
“This is our property,” Braxton said.
We’ll see what happens, but a quick skim of Orangeburg County tax records suggests that Braxton is correct — the Rivers Bridge Camp has been paying taxes on that tiny plot of land for years, between $10 and $11 annually. While I don’t know what Daras’ deed says, it’s going to be hard for him to argue that he owns property that someone else has been paying the taxes on for at least a decade.
What a mess. Somewhere, I’m sure, Maurice Bessinger is laughing — when he’s not busy looking for some ice water.
Some of you will have heard about the latest kerfuffle in Lexington concerning the observance of Lee-Jackson Day next January. It seems that a local community group, CARE Rockbridge, pulled a cheeky maneuver and obtained a parade permit months ago for the date and route that had been previously used by local Confederate Heritage™ folks to march through town carrying Confederate flags. CARE Rockbridge was able to do this because they applied for a permit, which is issued by the City of Lexington on a first-come, first-served basis.
Naturally the heritage folks are a little bent out of shape about this — which was sort of the point, duh! — but they haven’t done themselves any favors with their rhetoric in complaining about it. Local SCV leader Brandon Dorsey, who is always good for an inflammatory quote, hinted at litigation over it:
The Lexington City Council is asking to be sued. First, the city deliberately granted a permit for another organization to usurp the usual time and place of the Lee-Jackson Day parade.
Then his Confederate confederate, “Doc” Wilmore, whinged that CARE Rockbridge was “underhanded” in, you know, filing paperwork with the city:
An anti-racism group has obtained a parade permit for Jan. 14 — taking the date and route that traditionally has been claimed by a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. . . .
“I think it was kind of underhanded the way they slipped it in like that,” said W.B. “Doc” Wilmore, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who usually handles bookings for the group’s Lee-Jackson Day events.
I get it that Dorsey and Wilmore think CARE Rockbridge stole a march on them, because they did exactly that. What’s more interesting is the (barely) unspoken assumption that the City of Lexington should have shown the SCV special consideration by holding that date open for them to apply for at their leisure, in preference to another group that actually got off the couch and applied for the permit. That belief — that the local city government should give special consideration to their private organization over another — is just ludicrous.
And while there’s been plenty of vitriol directed against CARE Rockbridge by the heritage folks, I haven’t seen even the slightest hint of criticism of Dorsey, Wilmore, or the other local organizers of this event who let this one slip by them.
So now the SCV will be marching of January 21 in Lexington which, as it happens, is actually Jackson’s birthday. My suggestion to them is to quit carping about those ol’ meanies at CARE Rockbridge, get on with it, and start planning (and preparing parade permit requests) for Lee-Jackson Day 2018. I don’t recall Lee spending a lot of time complaining about how “underhanded” the Yankees were when they turned him back at Sharpsburg or Gettysburg; Dorsey and Wilmore should take a lesson from the men they purport to honor.
Update, March 4, 2017: I learned Saturday evening that Hank has passed away. He had been candid with those he knew about his illness, and its grim prognosis. He knew back in November that his time remaining was short, and I think he took comfort in seeing The Secret Life of Bacon Tait off to press.
Hank Trent is a researcher specializing in the antebellum period that I’ve come to know through his contributions at Civil War Talk. (He posts there under a different name.) Hank’s posts and comments are invariably deeply-informed and articulate, and he both makes and understands subtle, nuanced interpretations of historical subjects. He gets it, that what we call “history” is made up collectively by people, and people are complicated, conflicted, noble and hypocritical, sometimes all at once. There are many smart and knowledgeable folks who post over at CWT, but I make it a point to read all of Hank’s posts and comments because I know he will have something useful to say. He always does.
So I was happy to see him announce the pending publication of his new book,The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color by LSU Press, due out in March 2017. It’s available for pre-order now. If the title is provocative, so is the story:
Historians have long discussed the interracial families of prominent slave dealers in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere, yet, until now, the story of slave trader Bacon Tait remained untold. Among the most prominent and wealthy citizens of Richmond, Bacon Tait embarked upon a striking and unexpected double life: that of a white slave trader married to a free black woman. In The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, Hank Trent tells Tait’s complete story for the first time, reconstructing the hidden aspects of his strange and often paradoxical life through meticulous research in lawsuits, newspapers, deeds, and other original records.
Active and ambitious in a career notorious even among slave owners for its viciousness, Bacon Tait nevertheless married a free woman of color, Courtney Fountain, whose extended family were involved in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. As Trent reveals, Bacon Tait maintained his domestic sphere as a loving husband and father in a mixed-race family in the North while running a successful and ruthless slave-trading business in the South. Though he possessed legal control over thousands of other black women at different times, Trent argues that Tait remained loyal to his wife, avoiding the predatory sexual practices of many slave traders. No less remarkably, Courtney Tait and their four children received the benefits of Tait’s wealth while remaining close to her family of origin, many of whom spoke out against the practice of slavery and even fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union.
In a fascinating display of historical detective work, Trent illuminates the worlds Bacon Tait and his family inhabited, from the complex partnerships and rivalries among slave traders to the anxieties surrounding free black populations in Courtney and Bacon Tait’s adopted city of Salem, Massachusetts. Tait’s double life illuminates the complex interplay of control, manipulation, love, hate, denigration, and respect among interracial families, all within the larger context of a society that revolved around the enslavement of black Americans by white traders.
Typically, Hank worried that the title may not precisely reflect the complexity of Bacon Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain:
I discussed [with the editor] whether “married” was correct for the title, because even though the Taits signed legal papers as Mr. and Mrs. or wife, and presented themselves as married to neighbors and the census taker, they legally weren’t married, and there wasn’t even a common law marriage provision in Massachusetts at the time.
The editor said he thought that was enough, but I still worry…
Be at ease, Hank. I expect this book to be on many, many bookshelves for years to come.