Drafting Slaves into the Confederate Army

Divided Allegiances: Bertie County during the Civil War


With the rampant exodus of slaves from area plantations, opportunistic Northern recruiters at Plymouth attempted to exploit the situation by hastily enlisting large numbers of soldiers.  The recruiters sent out other blacks from Plymouth to assist the fleeing slaves in reaching the town so that they might be persuaded to join the Union army.

When faced with fighting for or against President Davis’s Confederacy, there was but one logical and ethical choice for Bertie County slaves-against. 1

1. Thomas, Gerald W.  Divided Allegiances:  Bertie County during the Civil War.  Raleigh:  North Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1996.

“This Monstrous Proposition”:  North Carolina and the Confederate Debate on Arming the Slaves   Mark L. Bradley
North Carolina Historical Review April 2003


Not every African-American from Bertie County who saw military service during the Civil War served in the Union army or navy.  At the age of twelve, Benjamin Gray was a powder boy aboard the Confederate ram Albemarle.  His principal duty was carrying bags of gunpowder from the vessel’s below-deck magazine to the gun deck above.  Later in Gray’s life the state of North Carolina granted him a pension for his Confederate service.  Photograph courtesy Harry L. Thompson. 2

2. Thomas, Gerald W.  Divided Allegiances:  Bertie County during the Civil War.  Raleigh:  North Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1996.


Powder monkey on a Union vessel during the American Civil War.

A powder boy or powder monkey manned naval artillery guns as a member of a warship’s crew, primarily during the Age of Sail. His chief role was to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges. The function was fulfilled by boy seamen 12 to 14 years of age. Powder monkeys were usually boys or young teens selected for the job for their speed and height — they were short and would be hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, keeping them from being shot by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. In recent times the term has been applied to a variety of workers who deploy explosives. The use of the term ‘powder monkey’ in English dates to the late 17th century. – Wikipedia


I have been unable to find Benjamin Gray in the 1860 census.  This suggests that he was probably enslaved at the time he was aboard the CSS Albemarle.

Pension Application

North Carolina Archives, Manuscript and Archives Reference System

Gray, Benjamin H. (Bertie County)
1917, 1924
Office of State Auditor
One soldiers’ application; one widows’ application for Margaret Gray; veteran served in the Confederate Navy aboard the CSS Albemarle

Benjamin H. Gray
2010; 1864, 1924
Alan Westmoreland (Reprographer)
Physical Description:
4″x5″ black and white (Negatives)
Benjamin H. Gray, copied from book, Ironclad of the Roanoke, Gilbert Elliott’s Albemarle, by Robert G. Elliott. Benjamin H. Gray enlisted under Capt. James W. Cooke for the crew of the Confederate ram CSS ALBEMARLE in 1864 at the age of 12. He served faithfully for the six months of the ship’s active career mainly as a “Powder Boy” (or “Powder Monkey”). He became a minister following the war and preached for many years in Bertie Co., NC. A July 13, 1924 issue of the “News and Observer” contained a statement by Judge Francis D. Winston of Bertie County taken from an earlier issue of the “Roanoke-Chowan Times,” praising Gray and his service to the Confederate States Navy. Gray and his widow both received Confederate Pensions.

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Categories: Bertie County

Author:North Carolina Union Volunteers

They have been forgotten, those white Southerners who fought on the Union side. They are the unknown soldiers of the Civil War. In the vast and growing literature of that conflict they remain practically unmentioned. There are historic reasons why this has been so, but it has not been because the men are historically unimportant or undeserving of remembrance. Not at all. They made a difference in the outcome of the war: without them, it would not have ended when and as it did. - Lincoln’s Loyalists

In the hour of their country’s peril, they were loyal and true.

Despite the assertions of southern governors that Lincoln would get no troops from the South to preserve the Union, every Confederate state except South Carolina provided at least a battalion of white troops for the Union Army.

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