[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]
In his nonfiction novel Two Captains from Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War, Bland Simpson twines together the lives of two accomplished nineteenth-century mariners from North Carolina—one African American, one Irish American. Though Moses Grandy (ca. 1791-ca. 1850) and John Newland Maffitt Jr. (1819-1886) never met, their stories bring to vivid life the saga of race and maritime culture in the antebellum and Civil War-era South. With his lyrical prose and inimitable voice, Bland Simpson offers readers a grand tale of the striving human spirit and the great divide that nearly sundered the nation.
In the following excerpt from Two Captains from Carolina (pp. 10-12), we get a glimpse of Moses Grandy’s early career as a boatman—the freedom he felt on the water and the opportunities that lay ahead.
The Wharf on the Pasquotank River
Elizabeth City, North Carolina
CIRCA 1813, WINTERTIME
Boatman dance, boatman sing
Boatman do most anything
When the boatman gets on shore
Spends his money and works for more.
Moses Grandy was used to going to bed cold and hungry in a cabin in Camden and then waking up no less cold, no less hungry, a hoecake scarcely enough to stave it off , turning out at first light, the ground frozen, he underclad and unshod, and the only way to warm his feet was to rouse a hog and stand in the absolute mud where the hog had lain all night and let that rare warm earth wake his flesh and move his own blood. Now he was Charles Grice’s boatman, and Mister Grice saw to it that the man he had to trust with no small part of his commercial life the fifty miles up to Norfolk and then back again did not go to work on the water hungry or cold or barefoot. The young man got a griddle cake, a salted herring, an old blanket refashioned into a coat with a rope belt to hold it closed, an old pair of boots, and a big cypress boat.
Grice put Grandy in command of a rude sailing barge, two huge dug-out cypress logs with a long plank keel joining them, here in North Carolina called a periauger, most of forty feet long overall and low with room aplenty for barrels of flour, barrels of fish, and decking enough that a hog or a goat or small cow could be happy just long enough to reach the market up the way. His was a heavy craft, with a pair of sails and a small cabin forward, yet without a name, and it could be pulled, poled, rowed, scull-oared, sailed, whatever motive force was necessary and available. Sometimes there might be a second such boat, sometimes two more. However many there were, Moses Grandy commanded them all.
Wintertime, wartime, he cared not—in a life and in a world of captivity he was at last master of something important: his own movements for many days at a time. Cold, what was that? Start early, start while it was still dark and the hard winter cold had its rough grip upon all these broad low tidelands, when the moon hung in the night clouds and the black river seemed frozen to its edges. This was still a cold he could live with somehow. Raise those two heavy Bermuda sails and catch the bare breath of wind and move slowly away to the north, in this cypress freightboat past the cypress sentinels lining the river’s edge, some faintly lit by the setting moon, some silhouetted, and Grandy and his crew, guarded by the very trees, moved upriver like free men.
In the clear, frigid morning, the sun poured a bright light without warmth over the black water. A tall blue heron stalked the shallows of the side woods as Grandy’s freightboat crawled northward toward Norfolk, the heron croaking hoarsely at him as he passed slowly and she took flight, following the serpentine Pasquotank upriver, the Moccasin Track scarcely navigable for a working craft but a free and easy range for a big silvergray-and-blue bird on the hunt.
As the morning advanced, a redtail hawk flew, planing the sky high above Moses Grandy, whose day was a hunt of his own.
Mister Grice’s goods got to get to Norfolk.
War or no war, I guide these boats.
I guide these boats.
I guide these boats up and down the old canal
Up and down the old canal, night and day
That’s my way.
Moses Grandy worked at this for months, for years, till he became Captain Grandy, widely known and addressed as such.
What a momentous thing it was to move freely in the world, to study wind and wave and make predictions and direct actions rather than bear the brunt of someone else’s, Grandy mused unceasingly. The length and breadth of the journeying to and from Norfolk, the power of the trust placed in him by Mister Grice in Elizabeth City and, on the upper end, by Mister Moses Myers, the merchant in Norfolk—these at moments seemed as liberating as liberation itself. With Grice his de facto employer, Captain Grandy now worked on shares, his pay directly related to the freight he safely brought down the waterways from Myers’s wharf on the river in Norfolk to Grice’s warehouse and shop in Elizabeth City.
Approaching the Norfolk wharves for the freight-gathering upper end of these trips, Grandy could always spy Myers with ease—long, lean-faced Myers with the short gray hair and the dark bushy eyebrows. Myers and his wife, Eliza, had been in Norfolk twenty-five years and were its first Jews, people said, and theirs was among the first brick homes laid up after the Revolution, a big one, a showplace with gilding on the living-room mantel, and with an octagon wing added on by none other than Benjamin Latrobe, the great architect who would also build the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Canal and much more. Moses Grandy heard—not from Myers himself but from other men around Hampton Roads, and not all at once—how Myers dealt with the French, ran the Bank of Richmond, and ran the council of Norfolk.
Good to have such friends, thought Grandy, men who trust you like the sun.
From Two Captains from Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War, by Bland Simpson. Copyright © 2012 Bland Simpson.