Three Black Prisoners Who Refused to Be Forgotten

The following is a guest blog post by Lorien Foote, author of Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War. Blending military and cultural history, Lorien Foote’s rich and insightful book sheds light on how Americans fought over what it meant to be civilized and who should be extended the protections of a civilized world.

Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day, a time when the United States remembers and honors those who are missing in action or who are being held as prisoners of war.  Currently, there are more than 81,600 Americans who are still missing:  

This day is an appropriate time to tell the unknown story of three Black servicemen from the United States Navy who were prisoners during the American Civil War.  Their determination to be remembered and accounted for changed the fate of other Black captives held by the Confederate States of America.

Orin H. Brown, a barber by trade, William H. Johnson, an unskilled laborer, and William Wilson, a waiter, were born free in New York.  At different times, each enlisted in the United States Navy, and all three shipped from New York on September 26, 1862 on the gunboat Isaac Smith.  The vessel sailed to Charleston Harbor, where it was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  The Isaac Smith often patrolled the Stono River.

 On January 30, 1863, Confederates set a trap for the Isaac Smith and her crew.  They camouflaged artillery and sharpshooters behind bushes and trees, and when the vessel anchored opposite a plantation, opened fire.  The Federals were caught in tremendous crossfire and a bend in the river.  A shot through the engine stopped the vessel, and its commander surrendered the entire crew.  Confederates captured 11 officers, and 108 enlisted men, including Brown, Johnson, and Wilson.  They took the prisoners to the Charleston Jail.

 Confederates immediately paroled all of the white captives from the Isaac Smith.  U.S. naval authorities had no idea what happened to Brown, Johnson, and Wilson.  Confederate commanders in South Carolina refused inquiries on the subject.

Confederates considered all Black men in Federal uniform, even if they had been born free in northern states, to be slaves engaged in insurrection rather than legitimate combatants entitled to be treated as a prisoner of war.  On May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress passed resolutions that required captured Black men who were citizens of northern states to be handed over to state authorities to be tried as felons.

Brown, Johnson, and Wilson were confined in a small cell in the Charleston Jail. They were fed nothing but a little cornbread and water.  They had sympathizers in the jail and in the city, however, who smuggled them paper and pencil, smuggled out the letter they wrote, and delivered it to the United States Consul in Nassau, the Bahamas.  

“Our sufferings are unspeakable,” the American prisoners wrote.  “In the name of God, are we to be protected and aided or are we to be left here to die?  We belong to the United States Navy and we ask for aid and protection.”

The consul forwarded the letter to Gideon Welles, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, who gave it to Edwin Stanton, the U.S. Secretary of War, on August 3, 1863.  “From the walls of their prison they make themselves heard,” Welles said.  The U.S. War Department acted immediately.  Only four days earlier, the United States had demanded that the Confederacy treat Black men as prisoners of war and had issued an order announcing the intention to retaliate if the Confederacy tried and executed Black men who were born in northern states. 

Stanton placed three Confederate prisoners from South Carolina in a cell and informed the Confederate Secretary of War that the men were held as hostages to secure the safety of Brown, Johnson and Wilson.  If the Confederate government executed the Black New Yorkers, the United States would execute the white South Carolinians.

Internal correspondence within the Confederate War Department revealed that its officials believed the United States would retaliate in this case.  Additionally, they were deeply divided over the legality of trying and executing Black United States servicemen who were born free in northern states.

Confederate authorities decided to treat Black men who were citizens of northern states as prisoners of war.  In the aftermath of subsequent battles, they put captured Black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts and the 8th U.S. Colored Troops (recruited in Philadelphia) in military prisons with white soldiers. 

Although Brown, Johnson, and Wilson endured fifteen more months of agonizing confinement, on October 18, 1864, Confederate officials released them.  All three men returned to New York and lived there for the rest of their lives.  They demanded that the United States account for every one of its prisoners, and on this day let us honor their memory by doing the same.

Lorien Foote is Patricia & Bookman Peters Professor of History at Texas A&M University, and author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy.