Slavery and the Civil War in the Middle Peninsula Area

Slave, Contraband Sailor, Citizen—Middlesex County, VA
Davaline Taliaferro, great granddaughter of David Harris

My great grandfather, David Harris, was born around 1842 in Middlesex County, VA, in Sandy Bottom (now Deltaville) where he grew up. Most probably, he was born a slave. In any event he was certainly a slave on the morning of July 15, 1861, when at age 19, he and five other frightened runaways (Miles Hunter, Samuel Hunter, John Hunter, Peter Hunter and Alexander Franklin), also from Middlesex County, made history as the U.S.S. Mount Vernon, a 625 ton wooden screw steamship, attached to the Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Hampton Roads, picked them up from the Stingray Point Light House to which they had fled via small boat the night before. Their place of refuge was the hexagonal wooden cottage on piles that had been built in the mouth of the Rappahannock River to help guide shipping traffic into it and the Piankatank River from the lower Chesapeake Bay. It was a little over a mile away from shore and a short distance from where, David Harris, then owned by a local oysterman, lived and worked, and most probably watched the Union vessel as it arrived to patrol and blockade the Confederate-held coastline the day before.

Because it occurred so early in the Civil War, the Stingray Point event and much of what transpired in months that followed are vividly documented in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Series I, Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadron–July 16, 1861-October 29, 1861)1. Other than being of assistance to me in researching my own family history, this material has significance for the following reasons:

  • It provides an enlightening view of what took place in lower Middlesex County, VA and vicinity at the beginning of the Civil War; explains why these slaves fled in the manner and at the time that they did; and shows what they must have known about the “Butler contraband policy”2 and the Atlantic Blockading Squadron efforts at Union-controlled Hampton Roads.
  • It shows, in retrospect, how these Stingray Point slaves (and hundreds from the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck area who followed) facilitated not only their own emancipation but the national emancipation movement—first, by "voting with their feet"--rushing to Union naval vessels as federal jurisdiction expanded outward from Hampton Roads; and second, by providing a gravely needed military resource for the "Union Cause".
  • It tells how the Navy's contraband sailor policy formalized itself around the Stingray Point slaves (who by then had been joined by fugitive slaves from Mathews and Lancaster Counties) while they waited aboard the USS Mount Vernon as communications passed regarding their disposition between O.S. Glisson, the boat commander1a, Flag-Officer S.H. Stringham, Commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Hampton Roads1b, and Gideon Welles, Secretary of Navy, in Washington, DC. On orders from Secretary Welles1c, and after the passage of the First Confiscation Act, these slaves obtained the first opportunity they ever had to legally fight for their own freedom (On September 16, 1861, David Harris, Miles Hunter, Samuel Hunter, John Hunter, Peter Hunter, and Alexander Franklin were among the first group of contraband slaves to formally enlist in the US Navy at Hampton Roads; this was one year before it was legal for blacks free or enslaved to serve in the US Army).

Because of their interest in the official documents, the history of the emancipation issue3, the Stingray Point rescue site, Civil War articles which belonged to David Harris and Deltaville Maritime Museum's the upcoming exhibit on slavery, the Middle Peninsula African-American Genealogical and Historical Society of VA will be in Deltaville on April 14, 2012.

1 Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. / Series I - Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadron (July 16, 1861 - October 29, 1861); North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (October 29, 1861 - March 8, 1862) (More Information)

  • 1a pages 8-9
  • 1b page 9
  • 1c page 10
2 Contraband (American Civil War) (More Information)