Former Slaves Turned Soldiers in Historic Seige of Washington

May 1, 2017

People who love history can’t get enough of Civil War stories.  Today, Chris Thomas has more on the 1863 Siege of Washington and the historic role African-Americans played in it.

By the time the war reached its 2nd anniversary, much of northeastern North Carolina had been reclaimed by American troops from the newly minted Confederacy.

It was part of Union General Ambrose Burnside’s expedition, meant to block Confederate attempts to use the waters within the Outer Banks, including the Tar and Pamlico Rivers, and it was one of the earliest successes for the Union cause.

This was due in part to support for the Union in the region. Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz, history professor at East Carolina University, explains.

“In fact there were as many if not more Union sympathizers in the eastern part of the state, certainly earlier in the war than there were Confederates. There were Union regiments raised in eastern North Carolina.”

But on March 30th, 1863, Rebel soldiers attempted to break the blockade and test the will of federal troops, now under the command of Gen. John Foster, by putting one of its garrisons under siege: Washington, which had a population of just under 1,600 in 1860.

For three weeks, nothing went in or out of the heavily fortified town, apart from exchanged rounds of artillery. Lessa Jones, a local historian and Washington, North Carolina native, describes what we’d see if we were there that spring.

“They would see a city in chaos. They’d see a city that had been decimated by war.”

She is one of the co-founders of the Historic Washington Underground Railroad Museum, which started as a way to teach people about African-American history in Washington.

“They would have seen at that point more slaves in Washington than they would have seen in any other population. They would have seen (them) working on the waterfront either to help repair ships or caught ships, making them water tight. Probably would have seen them working among some of the buildings that had been, again, decimated, trying to find shelter.”

As Burnside and his troops snaked their way along Tar and Pamlico Rivers, lawmakers in the “Big Washington” were mulling over what to do with slaves who find refuge behind Union lines.

Prokopowicz said that while there were some who remained loyal to the Confederacy, most threw their hats in with the Union.

“They saw nothing to be gained from supporting the Confederacy and recognized, even before it was officially Union policy that somehow, the Union war effort was going to cause a lot of problems for the institution of slavery.”

Most were put right back to work by Union troops with labor resembling that back on the plantation and docks.

But some took up arms.

In towns including Elizabeth City, former slaves were already receiving arms to protect Federal gains and when rebel troops tried to test the will of the Beaufort County’s garrison, about 120 men were given guns to help hold the fort.

Jones said for most, it was the first time they’d been paid for their services.

“They were not only given a small stipend to fight but they were given food and clothing.”

Arming the former slaves was not a matter of altruism or idealism – it was a matter of strategy. These former slaves helped guide Northern troops, most of whom were from New England detachments, through the woods and swamps of the North Carolina Coastal Plain

“Many of the contraband slaves were expert guides were expert guides on the water. They were expert guides on going into areas that may not have been that well known by the Union army first coming in. And so they could specifically navigate rivers and parts…over land.”

Because they were seen as property, before and after their escape, Jones says little is known about the men and their lives before, during, and after the siege.

“They would have been contraband soldiers so they would have been, at one point, slaves. We tried to find out if any freemen were among them but usually the term ‘contraband’ refers to that they had been slaves.”

Multiple members of the 120 were killed during the three week long siege of Washington. One in particular, known as “Big Bob,” a contraband slave, helped spark the interest of Jones and other local historians to find out more.

In the siege’s earliest hours, on the night of March 31st, the 1st North Carolina Volunteers – a white, Unionist outfit, led in part by Capt. Charles Lyons – had to withdraw their post at Rodman’s Point near the town.

Well the little skiff Capt. Lyons was on got stuck in a sandbar. Big Bob was also on that little skiff with him along with about 3 other Union soldiers…and at one point, Bob realized they were all in peril of dying. And he is supposed to have stood up, pushed the boat off of the sandbar, and they were able to successfully get to the shore.”

Big Bob – who had escaped from his owners and arrived in Washington soon before the siege – was mortally wounded in the gun fire. As is the case with many stories from the war, Big Bob’s is primarily an oral tradition, though poems and prose honoring him were later published after Bob’s surgeon relayed the story to a colleague.

“Union soldiers talked about him in their journals and Dr. Robert Ware, he told another surgeon, Dr. Fisher. Dr. Fisher relayed the incident to newspapers throughout the country and so that’s why we know about Big Bob.”

By mid-April 1863, Union soldiers didn’t show signs of wearing down and since an invasion of Little Washington was never part of the Confederate’s plans, they withdrew. Union troops remained there until the following year before heading to New Bern and eventually home to Massachusetts.

Jones said the former slaves followed unit and put down roots north of the Mason-Dixon Line – seeing some action along the way.

“We do know that two soldiers from Washington did fight in the Battle of New Market, VA. And so we know that they, at some point, did see further fighting with the Union Army. We just don’t have the documented evidence.”

Jones said that though she was born and raised in Washington, these stories weren’t imparted to her in her history classes. She believes the reasoning for that can be explained with an old proverb.

“Until the lion can talk, you will always hear the hunter’s version of what happened.”

Apart from a hand full of cases, Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz says it’s been a slow process getting those stories from academia to the general public.

“You have a lot of dramatic stories about this (black troops serving during the Civil War). A lot of it is only now really being talked about, really being publicized for the public. Historians know it. You can go to the library and read about any of these stories. But the key is not what historians read about in libraries, it’s what do kids learn about in 5th grade? What do people see in movies? It’s what do we see in museums and battlefields where the public goes to get its history?”

A marker now stands in honor of the 120 on West Main Street in the Original Washington – next to another marker commemorating the siege itself. It was dedicated earlier this month at a public ceremony near the town’s waterfront.

I’m Chris Thomas.