Siah Carter’s Escape to Freedom: The Story of an African American Sailor Aboard the USS Monitor
By Carter Stewart, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2018
Editor: Dr. Sheri M. Shuck Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University
The USS Monitor famously fought its Confederate counterpart, the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads in 1862. This ship also helped to free enslaved African Americans in the South, both indirectly and directly. This Union vessel fought for a cause that, in victory, brought an official end to slavery in the United States. But it also directly aided escaping slaves, providing a refuge for these ‘contrabands.’ Siah Carter (likely the man pictured above on the front right of the Monitor) was one man who not only found freedom in this ship, but also saw the ship as an opportunity to participate in the war. Explore with us Siah Carter’s rich and compelling history as an escaped slave who fought for the Union on the innovative ship, the USS Monitor, and the complex, troubling times that surrounded him.
The Civil War Begins
Siah Carter gained his freedom during a massive war that engulfed the country. This war began after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the office of President of the United States in 1860. South Carolina saw Lincoln and his party as a threat to slavery, the power of Southern states to govern themselves, and the South’s ability to expand the institution of slavery into territories that the country controlled. In April of 1861, after Lincoln refused to surrender the forts in southern states to the new Confederate States of America, comprised of South Carolina and the states that had joined it, the Confederate Army attacked and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
In response to this attack, Lincoln decided to counterattack. When he received orders to muster the state militia, Virginia Governor John Letcher, who had tried maintain Virginia’s position in the Union and held views similar to many Virginians at that time, responded: “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet you in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited towards the South,” arguing that the southern invasion was illegal. Subsequently, Virginia and three other states seceded and joined the Confederacy. Thus began the Civil War, which would bring four years of difficult, bloody war to Northern and Southern states, a long period of recovery for the reunited nation, and freedom (albeit not full equal rights) for the rest of those Americans who lacked it.
Two major developments in the early part of the Civil War affected Siah Carter and the USS Monitor. One was a decision regarding escaping slaves. At the beginning of the war, the North was trying to prevent the secession of the South, but did not attack slavery. The Border States, which remained in the Union, still maintained slavery and Lincoln needed their support during the war. One month after Virginia seceded, Union General Benjamin Butler, who commanded Fort Monroe on Virginia’s coast, decided not to return three slaves, who had escaped from their master and come to the fort, to their owner. Butler argued that he had a right to confiscate slaves because the Confederates were using them in their military efforts. This reasoning allowed Butler to refuse to return the slaves, without attacking slavery itself. These fleeing slaves were afterwards called contrabands. Many aided the Union war effort in numerous ways and in various places and settings throughout the conflict.
The other important factor to consider was the establishment of a blockade of the South. At the beginning of the war, many Northerners believed that they only needed to pursue limited measures to convince average Southerners to abandon their leaders, whom Northerners blamed for the crisis, and return to the Union. In order to achieve this goal, they decided to cut off the South from trade to damage its economy and to quickly capture Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States. They hoped this would bring most Southerners back into the United States and end the war. This plan, developed by General Winfield Scott, a Virginian who remained loyal to the Union even after Virginia’s secession, devised the details of this plan, often known as the Anaconda Plan. This became the official Union policy in April of 1861. These two developments became significant for both Siah Carter and the USS Monitor
The Need for Ironclads
When Virginia seceded from the Union, it quickly took control of two important military sites that would be vital to its war effort. State forces captured Harpers Ferry, an important position in the Shenandoah Valley and the site of an armory whose weapons the state and the Confederacy needed. It also took control of its major port at Norfolk and its navy yard. Though the Union officers attempted to destroy everything of value before they evacuated the navy yard, the Virginians gained control of the remains of the USS Merrimack. Using the Merrimack for the parts his country lacked, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory planned to create an ironclad warship to help the Confederacy address the problems created by the Union blockade.
The South knew it had to address the Union blockade; it needed to import weapons and goods so that its military forces could fight their enemy, who outnumbered them and had more supplies. The South lacked the means to adequately equip and supply itself. Fighting the blockade was a difficult thing for the Confederacy to do. As one scholar noted, “the blockade meant that the Confederate States Navy had to defend the South’s rivers and harbors against attack, and protect Southern shipping while preserving the South’s seaborne lifeline to Europe.” The Confederate navy was vastly outnumbered at the beginning of the war. Because the South faced a shortage of ships and difficulties creating more, in addition to going up against a superior, established, fully functioning navy, Secretary Mallory decided that he needed ironclad ships to confront the U.S. Navy. Mallory planned to use European-made ironclad ships that could safely function at sea, but he had more immediate needs for ironclads than European builders could meet. He began work on turning the remains of the USS Merrimack into a useful ironclad warship. His work on the Merrimack would eventually produce the ironclad ship, CSS Virginia.
The work on the Virginia affected the development of Union ironclads. According to historian William Roberts, “The Federals were especially concerned about the Virginia project because besides breaking the blockade of Norfolk, the ironclad might bombard Fort Monroe or steam up the Potomac River to threaten the Union capital.” The Navy asked the public for ideas for a design for ironclad warships. The Confederate work on the Virginia did not require the Union to do something unprecedented. Naval technology had been changing over the century. Steam ships had played a role in every naval battle since a civil war in Greece that ended in 1829. Navies in Europe had been trying to build ironclads, and, after some achieved successes in their work, the British even refused to build wooden ships for its navy. This occurred shortly before the Civil War began in America. The CSS Virginia did force the Union to build, though The Union navy decided to build three different designs so that they were more likely to succeed if some did not work properly. The Monitor had one advantage. It had the shortest requirements of time needed to construct it. The Union needed ships built rapidly. Design plans changed because they had to work so quickly. The Monitor was commissioned in February of 1862. So was the Virginia.
The Monitor missed the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the Virginia attacked the Union ships in Virginia’s waters, destroying two and temporarily disabling a third, the USS Minnesota, as well as one other ship. This left the Union fleet with only one ship that could fight when the battle ended that day. The Virginia, on the other hand, had the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser—the other ships in its James River Squadron and from other sources—assisting it. At 2:00 in the morning of the next day, the Monitor arrived beside the Minnesota for instructions, and in the words of the Captain of the Minnesota, “all on board felt that we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial.” The Monitor fought with Virginia on March 9, 1862. The two ships fought each other to a draw. Neither ship was seriously damaged, though the Monitor drew off from the engagement after its Captain was blinded by a shot that struck its turret, and the Virginia withdrew. Both sides believed that they had won the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Siah Carter Joins the USS Monitor
Events following the Battle of Hampton Roads would bring Siah Carter on the now famous ship. After the battle, Union commanders decided to attempt a naval attack on Richmond. On May 15, the Monitor and several other Union ships, led by the ironclad USS Galena, began a battle with Confederate forces on Drewry’s Bluff, consisting of many crew members and guns from the James River Squadron, including the CSS Virginia, at a point on the James River where the Confederates had sunk ships to halt the Union advance. The Confederates defeated the Union attack on Richmond at Drewry’s Bluff.
After the Battle, the Monitor spent the night near a place called City Point. The officers had given orders to protect the ship in case Confederates attempted to board it during the night. The guards received a test of their vigilance when a boat reached the ship. Expecting a possible Confederate attack, the sailors instead discovered Siah Hulett Carter, a contraband who had fled from slavery at Shirley Plantation under his owner Hill Carter, a colonel in the Confederate army. He joined the crew of the ship on May 19, gaining the rank of Ship’s Boy First Class. He was the first African American to escape from slavery and join the crew of the Monitor. Others would follow.
Who Was Siah Carter?
Siah Hulett, who took his owner’s last name when he joined the Monitor’s crew, was born under slavery to John and Molly Hulett in Virginia’s Charles City County on October 4, 1839. He was twenty-two years old when he escaped from slavery at Shirley Plantation. The plantation was almost as old as Virginia, having been established in 1611. Shirley Plantation focused on the production of wheat, but also had other crops and livestock, using slave labor to support the required work. 500 slaves worked on Shirley Plantation under Hill Carter. These slaves had many different jobs, and the work they did depended on their age and gender, but they all worked except on Sundays and certain holidays. Siah worked as a carpenter during his time in slavery. As a child he would have worked with his mother and the women on planting crops, and as he grew older, he would have added harvesting crops and other tasks to his work. He ate the food his master provided. He also may have eaten from a garden that he, or someone who was willing to share with him, tended.
As many slaves lacked such provisions, Siah likely lacked adequate clothing and decent shoes. During the war, he was forced to work for the Confederate army on fortifications and a road around Yorktown, Virginia. This was not uncommon. The South faced shortages of workers, and had to turn to their slaves. Slaves were often forced by their owners to do this work, but laws limited the number of slaves that could be taken and the time they could be kept, and masters received payment for the work their slaves did. Carpenters like Siah Carter were among the slaves and other laborers with skills that were of particular use to the Confederates on such projects.
In 1862 Siah Carter (often called Sigh), despite warnings from his master that Union sailors would drown him, decided to flee to a United States ironclad warship. He was the first slave from Shirley Plantation to join the Union cause, though during the war many more fled.  Gideon Wells, the United States Secretary of the Navy during the war, gave instructions to one of his captains regarding contrabands:
They can neither be expelled from the service to which they have resorted, nor can they be maintained unemployed, and it is not proper that they should be compelled to render necessary and regular services without a stated compensation. You are therefore authorized, when their services can be made useful, to enlist them… They will be accorded, however, no higher rating than boys, at a compensation of $10 per month and one ration a day.
This decree allowed Siah Carter to serve in the navy, but it limited his rank and pay. He joined the Monitor as the first assistant to the cook. Many other contrabands served in the Union navy, filling various roles during the war. Though African Americans could not serve in the U.S. Army before the war, the U.S. Navy allowed them to join crews in limited numbers, at the same rates of pay as the rest of the crew. The navy accepted both freedmen and slaves during the Civil War, and enlisted a significant number of them. Siah Carter was part of a large number of men who received freedom and opportunities for military service from the U.S. Navy during the war; the navy reached the southern coast and areas where many African Americans lived before the army. Consequently, the U.S. Navy began recruiting fleeing slaves before the army did, and it recruited a greater percentage of its overall number of enlisted men than did the army. Contrabands won respect from Union officers through the bravery they displayed as they faced many dangers seeking their freedom. In the Navy, they could serve on gun crews, shovel fuel into the engines, and fill many other jobs. By looking at Siah Carter, we can see a story of great courage.
Life on the USS Monitor
Siah Carter joined the crew of an interesting new ship. Other ships had armor on them and employed new technology, but the Monitor was something different, where they were primarily underwater. In his book on the technology used in the USS Monitor, David Mindell explains: “breathing processed air and propelled by steam, they were driven into battle by engineers, not by sailors.” The ship was so novel that one naval officer who saw the plans for the ship told the person who displayed them: “take the little boat home and worship it as it would not be idolatry, because it is made in the image of nothing in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.” The Civil War required both sides to work with innovation, leading to new advances in maritime technology.
John Ericsson, a Swedish-born inventor who had spent his life around engineering settings, designed the Monitor. After a number of inventions, successes and failures, he gained support from an American and moved to the United States. Ericsson did some work for the Navy, but ended that phase of his naval work after an accident with one of his designs killed several of President Tyler’s officials and put the President himself in danger. After the Civil War began, Ericsson was advising Cornelius Bushnell on a design he had presented to the Ironclad Board for consideration, and convinced him to submit a design he had created years before for a different war. The Navy decided to build it.
The Monitor had many components. Its armor was made of two hard woods covered in iron, and the hull was built in two separate pieces, with the top part protecting the bottom. The ship had a turret and pilothouse on top of the hull, with everything else inside the bottom section of the hull. The ship had “two large deck air intakes and blowers” to force air into the ship to sustain the crew. Other novel inventions included “water closets, numerous engines, special gun mounts, skylights, and a cylindrical anchor well that allowed raising and lowering the anchor without exposing the crew.” Ericsson had many more plans for the ship that the Navy did not implement because they were so unusual and difficult to build. The turret turned to aim the guns, and it used a steam engine to function. Most of the ship spent the majority of the time underwater, with only a few specific crew members having the ability to see out of the ship at sea. No other ship at the time put sailors completely underwater. The Monitor had no way of moving apart from its engines, which was different enough from other ships and other designs that it caused concerns when the Navy was considering whether or not to create it.
The nature of the Monitor affected the living conditions of the sailors aboard. If conditions outside the ship were right, the crew was comfortable. But the crew was not always happy living inside the ship, especially when the temperature inside changed or the ship leaked, and they were afraid the technology might fail. In certain parts of the year, the ship could become exceptionally cold, prompting the crew to create heaters that were attached to the boilers to stay warm. The ship did not perform well in storms, when the water could interfere with the pilot’s ability to control the ship and could block the blowers and prevent the movement of air into the ship. This threatened both the men and the engines of the ship.
Siah Carter experienced many challenges on the Monitor when he first joined the crew. The ship had remained on the James River for several months, and the crew was stuck doing very little. As it was summer, the iron ship became exceptionally hot, with temperatures in parts of the ship well over 100 degrees. This became an even greater problem when Confederates began sniping at the crew, forcing them to stay inside the Monitor. When they could go outside, many turned to swimming in the river, and to amuse themselves, the crew engaged in various activities including fishing, reading and writing, and gambling when it was allowed. Many may have tried drinking as well, but the Union Navy decided to prohibit alcohol on their ships that July. With his duties assisting the cook, Siah Carter must have been involved with efforts to deal with a fire in the galley that broke out of the stove and nearly destroyed the ship. According to historian David Mindell, “the heroism of the crew lay not in their performance in battle- they were, after all, protected by thick armor- but in their willingness to live in this radically new environment.”
After the USS Monitor
Siah Carter was on board the Monitor when it began its final voyage. The Monitor was ordered south, past the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, as soon as the weather allowed it to leave. On December 29, 1862, the Monitor and another ship of a similar design (both towed by other ships) left Virginia for the Carolinas. They ran into a storm that slowly grew worse. The other two ships turned and managed to escape the storm, but the Monitor sank. Siah Carter survived.
The Monitor was not a perfect ship. Yet the ship became famous after the Battle of Hampton Roads, and many Americans saw it as the beginning of American naval power over the rest of the world. After the battle, Ericsson won the support of Gustuvus Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Navy wanted more and did not see any efforts to force the production of any other type of ship. Ericsson soon had supporters in Congress, and as a result, ships designed like the USS Monitor, with various modifications, became the primary type of ship for the Navy’s plans close to the coasts.
The survivors of the USS Monitor also faced new decisions. Several members of the Monitor’s crew deserted, leaving the Navy after their struggles with the ship. Siah Carter was not one of them. He served on several different ships following the sinking of the Monitor, and did not leave the Navy until he was discharged in May of 1865. He was the only African American member of the Monitor’s crew who was discharged after the end of the war. He lived in Hampton and Bermuda Hundred in Virginia following the war, having married Eliza Tarrow Hulett. They later moved to Philadelphia, where he died in 1892 at the age of 52. He had thirteen children. His courageous story and his legacy in the U.S. Navy lives on.
 “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” in “The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, par. 24-25.
 James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1997), 211.
 John Letcher, “Joh Letcher to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, April 16, 1861,” The New York Times, nytimes.com.
 Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African American and the Fight for Freedom, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 30-31, 35, 38; Kate Masur, “’A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation’: The Word ‘Contraband’ and the Meaning of Emancipation in the United States,” The Journal of American History 93, no. 4 (2007): 1050.
 William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 10-11.
 James I. Robertson, Jr. The Stonewall Brigade (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 3-5; John M. Coski, Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron (New York: Savas Beatie, 2005), 7; John Quarstein, “Sink Before Surrender: The Story of the CSS Virginia,” 57-83 in The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, ed. Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 61-64.
 Coski, Capital Navy, 4.
 Dawson Carr, Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998), 3; Coski, Capital Navy, 3; Quarstein, “Sink Before,” 61-62; Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 13.
 Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 13.
 Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 14-15; John Quarstein, The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union’s First Ironclad (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2015), 15, 31; David A. Mindell, War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 14, 48; Craig L. Symonds, “Building the Ironclads,” in The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, ed. Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 26, 31.
 “Report of Captain Van Brunt, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S.S. Minnesota, March 10, 1862,” in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 7 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), 11.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 70; The Monitor Chronicles: One Sailor’s Account: Today’s Campaign to Recover the Civil War Wreck, Ed. William Marvel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 30; William C. Davis, “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” 1-17 in The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, ed. Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 3; Coski, Capital Navy, 27-28; Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 86, 88.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 123, 126-129; Coski, Capital Navy, 46-47.
 Paul Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor (New York: International Marine, 2006), 114; Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 137, 200.
 Genevieve Leavitt, “Slaves and Tenant Farmers at Shirley Plantation,” 156-188, in The Archaeology of Shirley Plantation ed. Theodore R. Reinhart (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984), 156; Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 270; Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic, 114; Leavitt, “Slaves and Tenant,” 156.
 Ervin L. Jordan, Jr, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia), 27-28; Earl C. Hastings, Jr. and David S. Hastings, A Pitiless Rain: The Battle of Williamsburg, 1862 (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: The White Mane Publishing Company, 1997), 45; “J. Bankhead Magruder to Colonel Garnett, June 3, 1861,” in The War of the Rebellion Series I: Volume II, 903; Bernard Nelson, “Slave Impressment Legislation, 1861-1865,” The Journal of Negro History 31, no. 4 (1946): 394-395; Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic, 114; Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign, 28.
 Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic, 114.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 270
 Jordan, Black Confederates, 77.
Gideon Wells, “Instructions from the Secretary of the Navy to Captain Craven, U.S. Navy, Commanding Potomac Flotilla, relative to contrabands (fugitive slaves). September 25, 1861,” 692, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 4 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896, 692.
 James McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 136-137; Clenn F. Williams, “Uncle Sam’s Webfeet: The Union Navy in the Civil War,” International Journal of Naval History 1, no. 1 (2002), 2; Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic, 114.
 Mindell, War Technology, 5.
 “C.S. Bushnell to Gideon Wells, March 9, 1877,” Gideon Wells’s Papers, Quoted in Quarstein, Monitor Boys, 29.
 Mindell, War Technology, 5.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 28-29, 31; Mindell, War Technology, 32-37.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 32.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 41.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 41, 43; Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 31-32;
William H. Roberts, “’The Name of Ericsson’: Political Engineering in the Union Ironclad Program, 1861-1863,” The Journal of Military History 63, no. 4 (1999): 828.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 63-66; William F. Keeler, Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy to his Wife, Anna, ed. Robert W. Daly (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1964), 23.
 Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic Battle, 115-117; Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 138, 140-141, 143.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 68.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 170-171, 270; Clancy, Ironclad: The Epic Battle, 128-130, 141-142, 270.
 Mindell, War, Technology, 1, 22-24; Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 22.
 Quarstein, The Monitor Boys, 200, 252, 270.