Tale of Two Black Seamen
In early 1864 Brigadier-General Robert F. Hoke was tasked with liberating the enemy-occupied and fortified town of Plymouth on the Roanoke River in northeastern North Carolina. He began formulating his attack with the naval assistance of the still-incomplete ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, which was literally built in a cornfield well upriver from Plymouth.
The unfinished ship had its steam up at early dawn on April 18th and departed for Plymouth with final construction still ongoing. The Albemarle was instrumental in the enemy’s defeat as it bombarded forts with its 6.4-inch pivot-mounted Brooke guns while Hoke’s brave North Carolinians surrounded and rushed the enemy.
At least one of the black crewmembers on the ironclad was free-black teenager Benjamin H. Gray of Bertie County who was first assigned to the Wilmington Squadron warships and detached in the Spring of 1864 to the Albemarle. His position aboard was carrying bags of gunpowder to the two Brooke guns from the lower magazine. This was not unusual as free-black crewmen were common on Southern vessels; the CSS Chicora at least three black men serving aboard as well as the raider Alabama.
Ship’s carpenter Edward Walsh served on a long string of blockade runners operating between Wilmington and Bermuda. He was captured on the runner Elsie and sent to prison at Baltimore, and after his release made his way to Halifax where he signed aboard the runner Constance, then back to Wilmington where he joined the crew of the runner Annie. By the end of the war, he had run the blockade 16 times, had two ships sunk under him, and was aboard two captured by the enemy.
Dr. Edward Smith of American University has estimated that by February 1865, 1150 free-black seamen served aboard Southern warships, which amounted to about 20 percent of total naval personnel. A postwar resident of Bertie County, Gray was a Confederate pensioner; after his death in 1917 his widow Margaret received it.
(Bermuda and the Civil War, C. Diechmann, Bermuda National Trust, 2003; NCDNR)