Our latest Community Discoveries post- showcasing information spotted by our Zooniverse Citizen Scientists– relates to detail uncovered by community members @Okapi24 and @monkalie. While working on a muster from the USS Alfred Robb, taken on 30th June 1864, they identified something interesting about the first two men listed- instead of providing nativity information under the “Where Born” field, the sheet recorded them as “Property Of”. The third man on the sheet is also recorded in this way, though in his case it was stated under the “State of which a Citizen” field. Each of the men had formerly been enslaved, but why were they recorded this way, and what more can we find out about them? We decided to take a closer look.
The USS Alfred Robb was a stern-wheeled steamboat that had been constructed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1860. She started her war not in U.S. service, but as a Confederate vessel. Captured at Florence, Alabama in April 1862, the Alfred Robb was converted into a “tin-clad” gunboat, and served the Union for the remainder of the war on western rivers like the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The three of her crew we are interested in are Captain’s Cook Charles Anthony, Landsman Henry Amarable (just 14-years-old) and Captain’s Steward Samuel Benton. Henry had enlisted in December 1862, but both Charles and Samuel had come aboard in June 1863. All three had escaped slavery in order to do so. Henry is additionally recorded as a “Contraband”, which was shorthand for “Contraband-of-War”. It had come into common usage early in the war, following the decision taken by the U.S. not to return those who escaped enslavement in Confederate areas on the basis that they could be regarded as captured enemy property. It is also noteworthy, given this “Contraband” description, that Henry was also the only one of the three sailors recruited before Abraham’s Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation came into force on 1st January 1863.
The muster sheet details for both Charles and Samuel also offer us some insight into how many of those men who escaped enslavement were recruited. For both men, it states they were enlisted on the Tennessee River, and that they “enlisted on board”. In other words, they had taken the opportunity provided by the presence of the Alfred Robb on the Tennessee River to grasp freedom. For those living in enslavement close to the rivers on which these U.S. vessels were operating, the Navy offered one of the quickest and most direct means of freedom. We know that in June 1863, when Charles and Samuel first clambered aboard, the Alfred Robb had been operating on the Tennessee around places like Hardin County (she was in Hamburg, Hardin County, Tennessee at the end of May, and a shore-detachment fought an engagement with Confederates at Cerro Gordo, also in Hardin County, on 19 June). The two men likely heard about the presence of the gunboat in the vicinity, and decided to act. There was plenty of opportunity for them in this area, as it was often teeming with U.S. activity- the Battle of Shiloh had been fought in Hardin County the previous April.
It is unusual for the names of those who had claimed ownership of these men in bondage to be recorded on the ship’s muster roll. One reason why it may have happened aboard the Alfred Robb was because the officer who enlisted them requested that information- perhaps with the intent of “accounting” for the men as if with seized property. Each of the men enlisted for a single year, and there is no evidence that they served on any other U.S. vessels during the war. But even the detail we can glean from their Alfred Robb muster entries tells a tale. For example, if we take a look at the age of Charles Anthony, we can see that he had very little idea of how old he was- he thought he could have been 50, but he may also have been 60. Many African Americans who endured enslavement had this difficulty. Aside from the fact that the majority were illiterate, denying those in bondage knowledge of their origins, personal information and means to mark the passage of time was an all too common feature of enslavement.
Although Charles and Henry are difficult to follow after their time in the U.S. Navy, it has been possible to uncover something of the pre and post-naval service of the third man, Samuel Benton. Samuel had been enslaved in Savannah, Hardin County. Although no age was recorded for him on the muster sheet, we know from other records that he was around 41-years-old in 1863. At the time he escaped enslavement, he appears to have been the property of William Seaman. Seaman was then only in his early 20s, and in the 1860 Census was recorded as living in the household of E.W. Porter, a farmer who held a large number of people in enslavement himself. It seems probable that Samuel’s role while in bondage was that of a household servant; this would also fit with his Rating as Captain’s Steward aboard the Alfred Robb.
There is another aspect of Samuel’s life that we can unpick- that of his marriage. On 15th September 1848 he had wed Martha Russell, who like Samuel was enslaved in Hardin County. Martha was then the property of Andrew Falls- the couple were married in in the kitchen of the Falls house by an African American minister, with Martha’s owner and his sons looking on. Martha bore the family name “Russell” because of the name of her previous owner, William Russell, who had “bought her when she was just a girl.”
This information is preserved for us because of Martha’s subsequent application for a pension#, based on Samuel’s service on the Alfred Robb. After the war, Samuel and Martha stayed close to where they had been in bondage. They managed to get a little house of their own, moving to “Newtown”, near Savannah, where they had a three and-a-half acre plot. Still, it seems life was hard. Samuel continued to work as a Domestic Servant, though at least now he could receive pay for his labours. Martha likewise seems to have remained closely tied to the people who had once enslaved her, seemingly being employed once again by the Russell family. She outlived Samuel, who passed away on 15th November 1874, when he was about 52-years-old. Although the Navy veteran may not have moved far, at least he had spent the last 11 years of his life free from bondage.
Thanks to @Okapi24 and @monkalie for bringing these three men to our attention, offering us another opportunity to delve into the details of their lives and service, and to uncover something of their wartime experience. If you would like to join our Civil War Bluejackets community, there are thousands of stories just waiting to be uncovered- you can find them on our Zooniverse Project Page!
NARA Muster Rolls
1850 & 1860 Slave Schedules
1860 & 1870 U.S. Federal Census
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
Navy Widow’s Pension Certificates