Arts & Culture
Wed January 16, 2013
Two Captains from Carolina - Bland Simpson
INTRO – One was a commissioned U-S Navy officer and later a hero of the Confederacy. The other born into slavery who bought his way to freedom not once but three times. The lives of those featured in the new book “Two Captains from Carolina” could not have been more different but the book’s author says they had remarkable similarities as well… at least in one realm. George Olsen has more.
On the one hand the stories of Moses Grandy and John Maffitt share much in common.
“The thing that these men share is a tremendous devotion and at times single-mindedness to the overarching craft of how to work well on the water.”
… and on the other hand…
34:20 “ As I said their fates could hardly have differed more.”
Bland Simpson, the author of “Two Captains from Carolina” which weaves the stories of these two men together in one book. “Together” may be too strong a word… at no point in their lives did they ever meet or speak, their only commonality being a shared North Carolina heritage and a life on the water. And in the pre-Civil War period no commonality would likely have been allowed as Maffitt was a white man in the employ of the U-S Navy and Grandy for much of his life a slave in the employ of whoever had bought his services. Those contrasts are reflected in how those two men came to decisions about adopting a sailor’s life. Bland Simpson reads from “Two Captains from Carolina” about the tail end of an adventure aboard the USS Constitution which locked in Maffitt… the son of a well-known pastor though raised by his Uncle, a Cumberland County Doctor… to a life on the sea.
Reads from Page 70 “Again heavy weather bedeviled… thru page 71 “… the one true life for me.”
That contrasts with how Moses Grandy viewed his life on the water… initially a chore given him by his masters but which allowed the slave Grandy some hint of freedom. Bland Simpson reads from “Two Captains from Carolina.”
Reads from Page 10 “Wintertime, wartime…moved upriver like free men.”
“Even though the work may be hard and the exposure to elements was severe, the heat, insects, cold, winter rain and so forth… still these men were operating on their own, these black men were operating these boats around the sounds and up the canals and so forth. It’s also a very subversive thing to be in a slave culture to be able to act essentially for much of one’s time as a free man. That feeds that fire.”
That fire fed Grandy enough that he worked hard to purchase his freedom… and not just once but ultimately three times, his first two owners cheating him of his purchase and selling him before his final owner was true to his word. That fire also led Grandy… once ensconced in the Northeast… to purchase the freedom of family members and into the abolitionist cause, a cause that could be seen as a change in his focus. Maffitt likewise saw change in his sailor’s career… prior to the Civil War’s eruption he resigned his Naval commission and offered his services to the confederacy, though perhaps without the fire that led Grandy to abolitionism.
“The Lincoln people do not court him to stay in the federal Navy and when he finds out they’re going to arrest him he just gives up and goes South and he almost doesn’t stick with Jeff Davis. He’s appalled by what he hears Jeff Davis and Stephen Mallory say. They don’t think there’s going to be a war. They don’t think a Navy is that important. He sees very quickly there’s not a strong guiding intelligence behind this Confederate leadership so he almost leaves and was going to… if Robert Toombes had not come after him after Maffitt met Jeff Davis Maffitt would’ve left, he would’ve left the South and gone to Europe somewhere.”
Despite his lack of faith in the Confederacy’s leadership, Maffitt ultimately became perhaps its greatest Naval hero, operating as a blockade runner. But the fire of the Confederacy never really burned in him. His one fire throughout his lifetime was stoked by that early adventure on the Constitution and the months and years onboard ship that followed.
09:51 “He said even though he had a farm on the mainland near Wrightsville near Wilmington he said a waterman, a man of the sea, isn’t fit for much else, so as far as evolution I think he felt that’s what he was and that’s what he always was.”
And what he remained even after the Civil War. He captained a British merchant vessel for two years after the Civil War, then returned to the U-S and his Wilmington farm where his maritime work continued, he married for a final time and wrote an autobiography. He died in 1886 and was buried in Wilmington. And there again the contrast with fellow sailor Moses Grandy, who could not return to his native Carolina, who traveled in 1843 to speak at an anti-slavery conference in England, then returned to Boston where his last documented sighting was at a publisher’s office, and then… nothing. No evidence of his life… or death… past that event can be found. Bland Simpson reads from “Two Captains.”
Reads from Page 130 “No one would ever know when…Captain Moses Grandy. He sailed.”
In lives both markedly similar and dissimilar, those final two words of an imaginary epitaph for Moses Grandy work as well for John Maffitt. Bland Simpson is the author of “Two Captains from Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War” published by the University of North Carolina Press. I’m George Olsen.
The Down East Journal