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.

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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.