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Siah Carter

Siah Carter on the deck of the USS Monitor.
Siah Carter on the deck of the USS Monitor. (Credit: Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum)
Under the darkness of night, with the moon and stars reflecting off the water to guide him, a young man silently rowed down the James River to escape his life as a slave. To Siah, freedom was worth the risk.

In 1862, 18 slaves, including Siah Carter, ran away from the Shirley Plantation while the Union army occupied the plantation property. Enslaved labor was an intricate part of the Virginia plantation, as well as numerous other large farms throughout the South. Slaves were fundamental to the plantation system. They tended the fields, harvested the crops, maintained the house, cooked the meals, and provided the majority of skilled labor, including carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing.

Laborers at Shirley Plantation following the Civil War.
Laborers at Shirley Plantation following the Civil War. (Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Plantation)
The Civil War, however, brought many changes at Shirley. From 1860 to 1865, 80 slaves fled the plantation in hope of gaining freedom with the Union armies. It was noted that in 1863 when the Union gunboats came up the James River, 15 slaves left with them. Many of the slave men who left with the Union army in 1862 returned to the Shirley Plantation in 1864 to collect their family. This action in 1864 was the last of the mass exodus by the slaves at Shirley because in 1865 the 13th Amendment was ratified, and slavery was abolished. The former slaves who remained at Shirley after the abolition of slavery became hired workers, known as tenant farmers.

Siah Carter, also known as Josiah Hulett, was the first recorded slave to flee. Siah saw his chance to escape when the Union ironclad USS Monitor anchored down river at City Point, which is now the present day city of Hopewell. Siah successful getaway down river allowed him to seek refuge on the Union ship.

USS Monitor crewman cooking.
USS Monitor crewman cooking. (Credit: Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum)
Once he came aboard, he was given various jobs such as coal heaver, carpenter, and assistant to the cook. He was skilled in these areas, and an asset to the crew, as these were some of his occupations as a slave.

While working in the close quarters and intense heat, he stated that the work on the ship was often as difficult as when he was on the plantation and that the white crew around him did not treat him much better than his old master. However, Carter worked on other Union vessels after the sinking of the Monitor and has been recorded as speaking of the utter feeling of freedom and peace that he felt being away from his master and working for the Union.


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