Archived Story

An intimate look at Big Bob, the slave martyr

Published 10:05pm Wednesday, February 27, 2013

By LEESA JONES

People attending the black history program at Emmanuel Temple in Washington sat attentively listening. A few wiped tears from their eyes as they heard about the many heroic deeds and contributions African-Americans have made to Washington’s history. Young and old nodded their heads approvingly with an with an occasional “Wow!’ from the children.
I told them of Hull Anderson’s life and contributions he made to Washington’s history, as well as about William Mayo who has a street named after him. The audience was amazed by the many contributions “contraband” or escaped slaves had made to building of Washington, but none seemed to capture their hearts more than the story of Big Bob, the slave martyr who died defending Washington.
Big Bob, while not from Washington, has certainly left a tremendous impact on its history. Even as I told Big Bob’s story, I remembered the echoes of years past of the stories I heard as a child about “Preaching Bob” who died on the river as a hero for the Union or as he was affectionately called by my ancestors, “Bobby Dobb.”
“Yes sirree, Bobby Dobb!” was a term I heard my grandmother say to mean “to do the right thing even though it might cost you something.” Since no one knew Big Bob’s last name, and the name Dobb or Dobbin was a nickname for Robert or Bob, it just seemed that saying “Bobby Dobb” was a way of affirming the statement.
Once, when I was in fourth grade, I had run home to evade the class bully. I got a lecture on standing like “Preacher Bob,” and I was told, “Yes sirree, you stand like Bobby Dobb, the Union scout! You don’t run from no trouble!” by my grandmother.
“Big Bob” came to Washington during the Siege of Washington from around the New Bern area in March 1863. He and other slaves had been taken and were being enrolled in the Rebel army. They were being compelled to serve as cooks, cleaners and do other menial work. They had been put under guard shortly before being taken to the Rebel’s nearest command center.
Big Bob, not wanting to work for the Rebel cause, came up with a plan to escape and invited his fellow slaves to join him. The plan included seizing the guard assigned to them and escaping with the guard. They captured the guard and traveled 30 miles from the camp before they let him go, but not before taking the guard’s uniform. Bob put the guard’s clothes on, and they made their way to the nearest “contraband” camp, which was in Washington. Once in Washington, they hailed the nearest Union gunboat and were taken aboard.
No sooner than Big Bob and his companions were on board, they were pressed into service. They were asked to take on an expedition that was extremely important and dangerous. They were needed to go into the “interior” and to infiltrate the enemy’s camp. They did so successfully and captured three important Rebels and handed them over to the Union fleet. They were highly praised by their commander.
One week later, Big Bob and his scouts were given an even more dangerous mission. They were asked to destroy a Confederate supply base near Pactolus called “The Mill.” They were needed to destroy the salt works and a tannery, which were vital to war production. Without the salt, the Rebel army could not preserve food. Without the tannery, the army could not make harnesses for the horses, cartridges for weapons or shoes and vests for themselves.
Big Bob and his companions destroyed the salt works, tannery and freed 23 slaves from the Rebel camp. Big Bob and the slaves armed themselves with the guns they had taken during the mission. The return from this defeat was not so easily accomplished, for the enemy had placed themselves on the line between them and the gunboats. When they reached within four miles of Rodman’s Point where the fleet was, a fight broke out between Big Bob’s men, which totaled 40, and 100 of the Rebels. The fight lasted for an hour, and Big Bob and his men charged the Rebels firing their guns. Big Bob’s men gallantly fought on hearing his declaration, “I never surrenders!” Big Bob’s unit suffered a loss of three men and 10 injuries, but it made it back to the fleet.
The next day, March 31, Big Bob was accompanied by a flatboat filled with soldiers and Capt. Charles Lyons (who had been told to “hold Rodman’s Point at all cost”). Big Bob and his men attempted to land at Rodman’s Point. The Rebel fighting was heavy, and the men were all in peril of being killed. To make matters worse, the flatboat became stuck on a sandbar. While it rained down bullets, Big Bob realized something had to be done. He got out of the boat declaring, “Somebody’s got to die, it might as well be me!” He pushed the boat off the sandbar and was shot five times. He fell, dying, in the boat.
Lyon’s men got the boat back to safety where senior medical field surgeon Dr. Robert Ware of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry worked to save Big Bob. He amputated Big Bob’s leg and cut out part of the bone from one arm, desperately trying to save him, but it was to no avail.
Ware later wrote a newspaper account describing Big Bob’s heroism. The account read, “I must tell you of one hero who saved a company of soldiers from certain death. A flatboat full of soldiers with a few Negroes attempted to land at Rodman’s Point, but was repulsed by terrible fire of Rebel bullets. All were tumbling into the flatboat to escape being shot. Meanwhile, the boat stuck fast on a sandbar on the shore when this noble African said, ‘Somebody’s got to die to git us out of dis, it may as well be me.’ He deliberately got out of the boat and pushed it off the sandbar and fell into it pierced by five bullets. The man died, an instance of pure heroism unsurpassed by any the war affords.”
No wonder my ancestors were so proud of Big Bob, the preacher who helped the Union Army, and no wonder we learned to stand in the face of adversity.
“’Yes sirree, Bobby Dobb!’ You truly are a hero!”
Leesa Jones, a teacher, is creator of “I’m From Washington NC and nobody told me this!” and The African-American History Walking Tour in Washington.

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