Notes on collections at the RIHS
The R.I.H.S. has acquired a stirring Civil War letter written by Carrington Palmer Slade (1845-1918), an African American, Rhode Island sailor who was aboard the U.S. Sloop Housatonic at a crucial point in history off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The sloop, built at the Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown, Mass. in 1861, was part of the Union’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The letter is dated Feb. the 7th 1864 and is addressed to his mother in Bristol.
“Dear Mother and Father,
I now take my pen in my hand to inform you that I am well and hope that these few lines may find you all well at home. Please give my love to all the folks and to all the boys and girls. There is a great ram fever down here. We expect attack here every night by the rams. They started out last week. One was coming out of Fort Sumter and one was coming out of Breach Inlet…”
The U.S.S. Housatonic was sunk 10 days later on the 17th of February in the first successful submarine attack on a warship by the Confederate H.L. Hunley. Three other ships were sunk as well. The men, presumably including Carrington Slade, were able to escape on life boats except for 2 officers and 4 sailors who lost their lives that night.
He was born in 1845 to Daniel Carrington Slade (ca. 1800-1872) and Amoretta Munro (1805-1881), both of Bristol. They appear in the 1860 Federal Census with Carrington and two other children. The entire family has their race marked “B’ for black. The father and older brother Daniel are listed as laborers. His older sister Jane C. is working as a domestic, and Carrington is at school.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 9, 1863 in New York City where his occupation is listed as a “laborer/waiter” and his complexion is listed as “negro.” On October 1 of that year he was mustered on the U.S.S. Housatonic from which he wrote this letter. He also went on to serve on the Perry (31 Mar 1864) and then back on the U.S.S. Housatonic (1 Oct 1864.)
After his time serving at sea, Slade apparently returned to Rhode Island where he then enlisted at Providence as a Private on February 1st of 1865. That same day he mustered into the “H” Company of the R.I. 11th Heavy Artillery (previously the 14th Heavy Artillery) also known as the Colored Artillery. His U.S Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) Descriptive Book notes that he was 5’6” tall, with a dark complexion and black hair and eyes, his occupation listed as a seaman.
With such a distinctive name, Carrington P. Slade appears numerous times in the R.I.H.S. Civil War Military Records featured here:
By the time he mustered out October 2nd of 1865 he had been to Louisiana and back, and was still only 20 years old. On 16 February 1869 he married Anna Potter DeWolf (1839-1932), daughter of Pauledore Dewolf (1795–1876) and Adjua Aggie (1794-1868) both born in Liberia, Africa. Adjua was supposedly brought to Bristol directly by Captain James DeWolf from Africa as an enslaved “Christmas present” and retained her African name which is for girls born on a Monday.
Carrington and Anna were married in Bristol, R.I. which they both listed as their residence on the marriage record. They are both listed as “colored” and his occupation is as a porter. In the 1875 City Directory for Providence he is listed as a porter at 92 Canal.
This story seems straightforward. But the issue of the family’s race became more confusing as I examined the paper trail of records. In the 1880 Federal Census the whole family is listed as “black” and living on Franklin St. in Bristol. Then the 1900 Federal Census they is listed as “black”, but in 1910 Federal Census they are listed as “white”. Both have Slade owning his house at 83 Franklin St.
Carrington P. Slade is buried in the North Burial Ground at Bristol with his wife and their daughter Isabella DeWolf Slade (1874-1890) who predeceased them at age 16. The group gravestone does not have death dates carved for Carrington or his wife Anna. But the death records in Bristol show that he died 18 Apr 1918 at age 73 of Bright’s Disease. His race is listed as “W” for white.
Can we attribute this to bad records or to a more American story about race and society? In either case, it is a fascinating letter written by a witness to, and maker of, history. Come view it in person at the Robinson Research Center.
~ Phoebe Bean, Librarian