Retired Charles City County High School teacher Albert Ghee’s grandmother polished silver at Shirley Plantation in the early 1900s.
Ghee and his family have visited the historic plantation — where generations of other Charles City residents have worked over the years — many times.
But it wasn’t until recently that Ghee learned that 150 years ago today, his great-great-grandfather was one of at least 20 slaves who took a daring swim in the James River to enlist in the Union Navy.
Ghee had heard his parents talk about his second great-grandfather Edward “Ned” Christian in passing, but with no story attached. He didn’t know much about his family history — only that their roots were in Charles City, the place he and his siblings have called home all their lives.
“Knowing that gives you a greater appreciation for your own history, to know what your forefathers went through,” he said.
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News of Union ships’ capture of Fort Powhatan on July 14, 1863, traveled fast among slaves on plantations along the James River. The U.S. Congress had passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act a year before, which freed Union-enlisted slaves from their Confederate owners.
It was unclear how long the ships would stay in the area, so a plan had to be quickly hatched if they were to escape to freedom.
Most of the slaves’ quarters were about a mile from their owner’s house on Shirley Plantation, so a river escape under the cover of night was plausible but still risky, Shirley Plantation visitor services manager and historian Julian Charity said.
At least 20 men — ages 15 to 60 — fled July 18, 1863. The swim itself was also a risky move. Portions of the James River near Shirley Plantation are up to 30 feet deep and it was a half-mile swim with strong currents.
Union ships, deep in enemy territory, likely could have shot first and asked questions later, said Judy Ledbetter, a Charles City County Center for Local History volunteer and historian.
Ledbetter stumbled across the men’s feat while compiling a list of county residents who fought during the Civil War. Looking at early 1900s pension collection requests to the U.S. government for time spent in the armed forces, she read Charles Lewis’ statement defending William Harris’ widow’s right to his pension.
“He went in the Navy on the 18 day of July 1863. I and him shipped together. We were the only two that shipped from Westbury. There were 18 of us altogether that shipped …”
Union Navy records revealed at least two more men enlisted that day on the James River.
Descendants of both Lewis and Harris also still live in Charles City.
The Union Navy enlisted escaped slaves as early as 1861, Princeton University emeritus professor James McPherson said. McPherson’s latest book, “War on the Waters,” explores the impact of Union and Confederate navies on the outcome of the Civil War.
As more men showed up in rowboats, Union captains sent messages to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles asking what to do with the slaves.
Welles encouraged the captains to enlist the escaped slaves as war contraband, about a year before the Union Army considered doing the same, McPherson said.
In a county of about 7,000 where longtime residents are known more by their nicknames than family names, it was not surprising to Ledbetter, Ghee or Charity that personal connections to the county’s history are still within its borders.
It’s a sense of shared past, present and future that defines the diverse county’s Native American (7 percent), African-American (48 percent), and white (42 percent) residents.
Since so much history related to slaves is not documented, Ghee plans to make sure every family member at the next reunion knows about their courageous ancestor.