The man who saved General John G. Foster

Published 6:19 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

Little did the Black man, who was only known as Sam, know on the morning of April 15, 1863, that he would be credited with saving the life of Union General John. G. Foster. Confederate troops were circling Washington, and Foster’s troops were running low on supplies. Before being totally encircled, Foster decided to run the Confederate blockade on the Pamlico River, and head to New Bern to retrieve the sorely needed supplies. His means of escape was the steamer “Escort.” The only known details of Sam’s heroic actions on that day come from a letter written by New Bern resident, William Carlton Ireland on April 17 to his parents, after having spoken with those who were on the boat that day.

“General John G. Foster and staff being aboard and everyone being in readiness, at ten minutes past five on Wednesday morning, April 15, the boat ‘Escort’ started from Washington, NC with the determination of either running the batteries or sinking in the attempts. The pilot house and machinery were protected by bales of hay piled up around them in such a manner as to resist any shot which might be fired against them. The very large and handsome boat, painted white, steamed down the river. When they approached the first battery, all was silent as death. Not a whisper was spoken, not a man could be seen, and a full head of steam was put on until the boat seemed to fly through the water. Boom! Boom! Crack! Crack! Were the challenges of the cannon and muskets of the Rebels (along the shore) but not a cry was heard from the boat in return and not a gun was fired. At length the booming grew more distant and soon an orderly came down with the welcome words, ‘we have passed the first battery, General.'”

 As Ireland continued to detail the events of the day, the men aboard the “Escort” went topside to inspect what if any damage they may have suffered. They observed that one shot had passed through the stateroom of General Foster and pierced his pillow. As luck would have it, he was not in the room at the time. Several other shots had also hit their marks, but none were able to disable the vessel. However, they did discover that the boat’s pilot had been shot and killed.

 “Here was a moment of peril. Another battery to pass and no pilot. What was to be done? Someone informed the General that there was a negro (Sam) aboard who understood the river. He was summoned and appeared before General Foster who asked him if he knew the rivers’ channel. He replied that he had always lived upon the banks, and had some knowledge of the channel. The General then asked him if he could not pilot them safely by the next battery and he said he would try his best. A captain then escorted him to the pilot’s house, where lay the first pilot on a lounge, sweltering in his own blood, and, pointing a revolver at his head, told him if he ran the boat aground he would blow his brains out. A delightful prospect ahead for poor Sam, but he did his duty well and steered them safely by the batteries. He was then the hero of the occasion. Too much praise can not be given to him so nobly did he rescue the precious freight.”

 Sam would later be honored for his gallantry in a parade, which was held in New Bern.

Brown Library historian, Stephen Farrell, just happened upon the letter written by Ireland, while researching war time hospitals. “Here is a Black man who had lived along the river in Washington his entire life, and as best as we can determine, was a deckhand on the “Escort,” said Farrell. “He most likely worked on other vessels, as well, and was very familiar with the river, its depths, and had some navigational skills. This story shows his true heroism when faced with the adversity of a life and death situation. Not only did he save his own life, but all of those who were on the vessel. He has cemented his name in the history books of Washington and Beaufort County.”

Farrell added that this is yet another piece of Washington’s history that was previously unknown and paints a broader view of the big picture. “I believe we are currently in the midst of a revitalization of historic preservation and historic education in Washington and Beaufort County. I think we can really make the county standout in eastern North Carolina for its history and impact on the state, and the country. These are our unique stories and nobody else’s, and they need to be celebrated and heard.”

In recognition of Black History Month, Clark Curtis will be taking a closer look at some of the people, places, and events that have helped mold the story of Washingtons’ wealth of history and her interesting people.