Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Slaves and Free Blacks in the Virginia Navy

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

Facade of Cesar Tarrant Elementary School in Hampton,
open from 1970-2015, and named for an enslaved veteran
of the Virginia Navy in the American Revolution.
It can be difficult to write with any confidence about the Virginia State Navy in service during the American Revolution, primarily because very few records (and certainly nothing in the way of individual ship logs) survive.  To help encourage my oldest daughter as she worked on a school report for Black History Month, I decided to do a little research into slaves and free blacks serving in the Virginia State Navy; records for something so specific are even more difficult to find, but with a little perseverance I was able to discover several interesting stories.

Various court records, land bounty claims, journals of the House of Delegates, and other sources give multiple names: Abram, William Boush, Chris (a mulatto), Emanuel, Jack Knight, Kingston (owned by Jenifer Marshall, sailing master of the row galley Accomac, and assigned to the same vessel as a foremast jack), Minny, and Singleton...these men are described only as "negro," though several are rated as pilots.  Pilots could be very valuable resources to military or merchant vessels coming into local waters; pilots are hired to guide ships through shallows, around sandbars, shoals, etc, to arrive at a safe mooring.

Slightly more substantial information exists for two slaves named Cuffy.  The first Cuffy, owned by Elenor Boury, is enlisted aboard the galley Norfolk Revenge in September 1777 as an able seaman...such a rating implies in most cases several years experience at sea.  The second Cuffy was assigned as a pilot aboard a row galley under the command of Hampton's Richard Barron.  This Cuffy "died from injuries received in service" in 1781.

A small entry exists for Nimrod Perkins, "a freeman of Colour" who served aboard the row galley Diligence.  According to records circa 1831, Nimrod and shipmates William White and Elkanah Andrews are the only surviving members of the crew.
A desertion notice from Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette, May 16, 1777.
Joseph Ranger was a free black captured by the British aboard the schooner Patriot in early 1781. Though he remained a prisoner for the remainder of the war, Ranger had also previously served aboard the Virginia vessels Hero, Dragon, and Jefferson.

Cesar Tarrant, an enslaved pilot owned by Carter Tarrant of Hampton, would go on to distinguish himself during the American Revolution.  In 1779, Cesar was at the helm of the schooner Patriot (itself a tender of the larger vessel Tartar) in an action against the British privateer Lord Howe. Despite the enemy vessel being more heavily armed and manned than initially supposed, the Virginia vessels closed in to attack. Cesar bravely brought the Patriot alongside Lord Howe, ramming her bowspirit through the galley porthole of the larger vessel.  Tartar and Patriot's attack on Lord Howe would prove to be a rather bloody affair, with the British privateer eventually making its escape despite the best efforts of the Virginian tars.  Cesar was at Patriot's helm throughout the engagement, and was observed by Captain Richard Taylor to have behaved gallantly.  Following the end of the American Revolution, the state of Virginia would pass legislation securing Cesar's freedom: "Cesar entered very early into the service of his country and continued to pilot the armed vessels of the state during the late war; in consideration of which meritorious services during the late war it is judged expedient to purchase the freedom of the said Cesar."  Following his manumission, Cesar purchased a lot in Hampton where numerous white river pilots lived, apparently with some measure of respect, as several of these pilots petitioned the new state to grant licenses to skilled black pilots as well as whites.  In 1793, Cesar would purchase the freedom of his wife Lucy and their youngest child Nancy, though he would be unable to free their other two children, Sampson and Lydia, before his death in 1798.  Lucy would eventually be able to purchase Lydia's freedom in 1823, though Sampson's fate remains unknown.

Virginia was able to float the largest navy (upwards of fifty vessels of varying size at its height) among the thirteen original United States during the American Revolution, with a modicum of success. The contributions of brothers James and Richard Barron, Thomas "Silverfist" Herbert, and other prominent figures (more on these later) are handily remembered, but the efforts of free blacks and slaves in the defense of Virginia cannot be ignored.  As is seen in such inspiring stories as the Rhode Island Regiment, and James Armistead Lafayette, the freedom of Virginia and the United States was secured through the bravery of patriots from all walks and stations of life.

Stewart, Robert Armistead. The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution
Tormey, James. The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton's Commodore James Barron and His Fleet
AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum Archive: Tarrant, Cesar.