The Moses Dallas Controversy, Union Sailor or Confederate Pilot?
by Gordon Thorsby
The Savannah Harbor was under blockade as all ports during the war and yet many supplies went out and came in throughout. It was on a pitch black night and in a warm and heavy rain on June 3,1864, in the pitch dark that several row boats crossed the inlet to seize the Water Witch, side-paddlewheel Federal gunboat anchored in Ossabaw Sound re-provisioning for blockade duty. The boats were a Confederate boarding crew commanded by First Lieutenant Thomas Postell Pelot and in the party was one Moses Dallas.
Moses Dallas was a slave, originally from Duval County, FL and there was nothing else about him before 1861. Moses had piloting skills learned possibly before the war guiding passenger and cargo steamers through the waterways around Savannah and along the coast. He was a sailor in the Union Navy into 1863 until documentation indicates that he deserted. After his desertion, Moses turned up piloting the wooden steam-driven gunboats C.S.S. Savannah, C.S.S Isondiga, and even the ironclad C.S.S Savannah, all part of Savannah's "mosquito fleet" that protected the harbor. His slave papers documented that his part of his work was being hired out as a CS Navy by Harriet Ann Jackson Elber (1788-1865). Pelot selected Dallas for the cutting expedition to be the pilot for the Water Witch once taken. Once seized, the Water Witch was to attack other targets of opportunity that night.
Between 2 and 3AM, seven boats left Beaulieu Battery on the Vernon River with 11 or 12 officers and 115 men from Georgia, Savannah and Sampson and rowed up on the gunboat.
The watch on deck the approaching boat with Pelot and demanded identification. "Contrabands!" When the watch hailed a second time, Pelot yelled, "We're Rebels damn you!" A scuffle ensued with rebel sailors climbing aboard and where the paymaster of Water Witch's fired unloaded his pistol on the lieutenant and killed Pelot. The raiders suffered an additional six raiders killed and 17 wounded but finally took control of the blockader. Union losses were 2 killed, 12 wounded and 62 captured. Pelot lay dead in the bottom of the boat and the Union physician of Water Witch reported: . "They also lost their pilot, a colored man, whom they considered the best of their pilots for the Savannah River and vicinity, as well as the Ogeechee." Without commander and a pilot to steer the ship into greater action, the crew hauled her upriver into the protection of Confederate artillery from batteries. One version has it that Dallas was killed in the fight as stated above. He was in the CS Navy and paid double the amount because of his skills. He was not free. The Confederate Navy, impressed with his service paid for a mahogany coffin and buried him with honors. There is a Moses Dallas gravesite in the Black portion of Laurel Cemetery in Savannah.
Unfortunately, the story above is not supported in other documents. On August 27, 1864, almost three months after the Water Witch episode, Moses Dallas' name reappeared on Union Navy enlistment records so the burial doesn't seem to match other records.
On March 9, 1865, Moses enlisted in Company E of the 128th United States Colored Infantry at its organization at Hilton Head, South Carolina, very close to Savannah. He was promoted to Corporal and mustered out with the regiment in October 1866. After the war, he and his family reappeared in Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville area) where life continued on; free to live and raise a family on their terms and confirmed in 1880. Moses passed away in 1880 and Harriet began receiving a widow's pension of a Union veteran.
The second story reported that Dallas seeing the fracas going in favor of the Confederates, leapt overboard, swam to shore, and raised the alarm to other blockaders that the Water Witch had been taken and was now hostile. The ships, fired their boilers, cleared for action and they hurried to clear distance to be out of harm. Pelot's boarding force had successfully seized a ship but could not exploit the action by taking or damaging other blockaders. Dallas' warning had prevented further losses. The Water Witch, and without a good pilot crawled upriver and to anchor in the Vernon River for future possible action. There was a Black cook on Water Witch who was on deck at the time and was killed in the fighting.
Six Months later, Gen William T. Sherman’s troops entered Savannah to open the port for resupply. The Confederate naval officials decided that destruction of Water Witch was the best step and burned and sank her.
These two versions are for you to consider. I believe the latter version because the Confederate government was dead set against Black military personnel having responsibility and his Union pension required investigation and confirmation at the time. There are other problems with the first story.
Decide for yourself.
On The Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia". Mohr, Clarence L., LSU Press, 2001.
Moses Dallas, African American and Confederate Naval Officer Robert G. Caron, Confederate Veteran, Volume 5, 1999, pp. 26-27.
http://thehistoricstruggle.blogspot.com/2011/11/black-confederate-naval-officer-blown.html Tuesday, November 22, 2011 "Dallas Moses Revisited", Baker, Rob, September 20, 2012 https://historicstruggle.wordpress.com/.
Still, William N. , The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men, and organization, 1861-65, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press.
Fold3, Ancestry.com, Moses Dallas of Georgia 1864.