Capt. Abner West (1811–1902) of Vineyard Haven had just about retired from the sea. He had been aboard ship most of his life, having begun his whaling career as a mess boy at the age of 10. He had whaled ever since, commanding at least four different ships on more than a half-dozen lengthy voyages spanning the globe. By the time he turned 50 in 1861, he owned a comfortable house on William Street, held substantial savings and real estate holdings, and was raising two young children with his wife Sarah. He was ready to settle down. But then he was recruited by the U.S. Navy.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Navy rapidly purchased hundreds of merchant ships, and recruited thousands of civilian mariners to meet the expanded needs of the force, including some highly experienced captains like West.
But West, whom one reporter remembered as “an irritable man much given to profanity,” quickly regretted his decision. Official letters show he made several failed attempts to return home. He told his naval superiors about the importance of returning to Martha’s Vineyard to sell his share of a whaling ship, probably the bark America. The Navy denied his request, and in September 1862 assigned him to the Potomska, a wooden New Bedford merchant schooner newly refitted as a Union gunship.
And so, on Nov. 7, 1862, Acting Master West found himself sailing up a tidal river in southeastern Georgia as an officer aboard the USS Potomska of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. They were defending a special Army unit temporarily occupying three plantations along the banks of the Sapelo River. With more than 35 years in the whaling industry, West was by far the most experienced mariner on the mission, which would become known as the Sapelo River Expedition.
The primary mission of the Potomska during this operation was to use its five naval guns to defend the 110 new Union soldiers, all Black men, including 50 raw recruits, on the transport ship Darlington, who were to occupy the riverside plantations along the Sapelo and destroy their saltworks. Salt was critical for food preservation and for curing leather, and was in short supply in the Confederate economy.
West was no career naval officer, and had not served in the armed forces previously. He wore his uniform reluctantly, and desperately wanted to return to civilian life. Now 51, he was 20 years older than the 30-year-old commander of the Potomska, Lieut. William Budd, and had more years of maritime experience than Captain Budd had been alive.
At five o’clock in the morning on Nov. 7, the officers and the crew of the Potomska started the steam engine of their 136-foot, three-masted schooner and began the journey up the winding Sapelo River. The men knew to expect Confederate defenders armed with artillery and muskets. The plantations along the banks of the river were known for growing rice, but the regional business model depended on the enslavement of hundreds of men, women, and children. The Potomska (about 20 feet shorter than Vineyard Haven’s familiar Shenandoah) could operate in waters where a larger naval ship could not sail. The Potomska’s crew consisted of 90 men from eight different countries, and included 13 Black men, six of whom had escaped slavery in Virginia, Georgia, or Maryland. Only one month prior to the Sapelo River Expedition, two African American men, Richard Schuyler and John Gaines, had fled from their homes in Confederate Georgia to enlist in the Union Navy aboard the Potomska.
The Darlington followed the Potomska up the Sapelo. The Union Navy had captured the Darlington in Confederate Florida several months previously, and converted it into a transport ship. It was a side-wheel steamship with a single howitzer, and could operate in even shallower waters than the Potomska. The 110 soldiers on the Darlington were formerly enslaved men from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Some of the soldiers were preparing to return in uniform, with muskets and bayonets, to the very same plantations where they had been recently enslaved, and where their family members and loved ones remained in bondage. If captured by Confederate forces, the Black soldiers and sailors of the Potomska understood, they would face extreme physical punishment, a return to slavery, or death. The white officers on both ships would have expected to be hanged if captured, because of their command of Black military personnel. One eyewitness reported that the soldiers of the Darlington did not sleep well the night before the expedition, anticipating the return to their enslaved families wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons.
At 10:40 am, the two Union ships approached the Mallow Plantation, owned by Reuben King. A large group of people in forced bondage to King gathered to watch a hundred Black Union soldiers disembark from the Darlington. At the prospect of freedom, people ran toward the soldiers and the ships with bundles on their heads, children in their arms, and carrying chickens, ducks, and pigs. More than 60 people were rescued and brought to the Union ships, together with leather from the plantation’s tannery.
The river was now too shallow for the Potomska to sail safely further upstream. Acting Master West remained on board as it anchored near the Mallow Plantation. The Darlington continued upstream, stopping at two more plantations and rescuing only a small number of enslaved people, because the ships were not prepared to take on any more people. Some of the Union soldiers aboard had escaped from one of these very plantations, and were forced to leave behind family and loved ones. The Darlington returned to the Potomska, and the two ships prepared to sail downstream and return to the relative safety of the Atlantic.
But the most violent engagement of the expedition took place on the return journey. Snipers, soon joined by 80 Confederate soldiers, began to fire on the Union convoy from the bluffs along the banks of the river. Confederate Capt. William Brailsford organized this attempt to stop the expedition and to protect his own nearby plantation and mansion. Brailsford was well known to some of the Union soldiers and their new passengers because of his extreme brutality toward the people he held in bondage. One of the rescued men on the Darlington, Sam Miller, was a recent victim of Brailsford’s cruelty. Brailsford had only recently ordered Miller to receive 300 lashes for not providing information about the escape of others from the plantation. The Darlington’s soldiers marched about a half-mile inland to burn buildings on the plantation, including Brailsford’s mansion. The Union suffered three relatively minor injuries and no deaths.
Within days, a Georgia newspaper published an article titled “Abolition Vandalism on the Coast,” which described the Union soldiers and sailors of the Sapelo River expedition as “miserable wretches” who were “stealing negroes and other property.” The Northern press lauded the accomplishments of the Black recruits, calling them “heroes.” Lieut. Col. Oliver Beard was quoted as reporting, “The colored men fought with astonishing coolness and bravery … they behaved bravely, gloriously, and deserve all praise.” The Cleveland Daily Leader declared it a “complete success,” declaring that “the experiment of making soldiers of negroes has been faithfully and successfully tried.”
Within two months of the expedition, the soldiers on the Darlington would form the nucleus of the second Black regiment of the war, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the first officially recognized by the federal government. The 1989 movie “Glory” portrays the actions of the Black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, which was activated four months after the Sapelo River expedition.
West resigned from the Navy in June 1863, and returned to the Vineyard. He never went to sea again. He and Sarah would have two more children, daughters Sarah and Marion.
Capt. West died in 1902 at the age of 90. He lived long enough to meet his Black grandson, Ralph Crosby Lair of Vineyard Haven, the child of his daughter Marion West and William Hammond, a formerly enslaved man from Maryland.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018. Justin Baer is a federal government retiree living in Maryland, and a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The brothers are great-great-grandchildren of Capt. Abner West.