Date of Award
Master of Arts
American historiography no longer discusses the over eighteen thousand African-American sailors of the Union Navy as property, percentages, or political conundrums, as previous scholarship had. Advancements in social history made by historians David Valuska and Joseph Reidy in the 1990s led to the realization that these were men with incredible stories. This realization led to the discovery of Samuel Henry Dalton as well as many truths about the society that shaped him and the one in which he achieved manhood. Isaac Noble immigrated to Jefferson County, Mississippi, in 1804 to begin his ascension into the planter elite that would help shape the economy and social structure of Mississippi for many generations. While in the Natchez District of southwest Mississippi, Noble experienced three boom-and-bust cycles of cotton capitalism, with the period from 1811 to 1817 being the most profitable in Mississippi history. Noble also experienced immense anxiety as Jefferson County's enslaved population of near sixty-nine percent spawned paranoia of a biracial insurrection orchestrated by white transients thought to be of a lax moral character. This paranoia and resultant vigilanteism motivated Isaac Noble to move his family to an abolitionist settlement in Jersey County, Illinois, in 1836. In 1849, Aaron, the youngest of Isaac Noble's children, purchased over twenty-one hundred acres in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and named it the Egypt Place. By the mid-1850s, Aaron was living on the Egypt Place and cotton was selling for only a third of the price it brought during the days that Isaac Noble was in southwest Mississippi. The sheer volume of the harvests in Bolivar County and the rest of the Choctaw Session, however, still yielded profits and inclined planters to bring more land into cultivation and more slaves to work the land. It was during this last phase of expansion that Samuel Dalton was brought to the Egypt Place as the United States became more politically and socially embroiled over slavery. The eruption of the Civil War in 1861 put immense pressure on the planter elite to ensure the endurance of the social structure they had so tirelessly built. As the war got ever closer to Mississippi, that pressure pressed ever harder on Vicksburg, the long-defiant fortress keeping the Mississippi River in Confederate hands. The Confederacy could not survive if Vicksburg surrendered, which it did in July 1863. The fall of Vicksburg presented a windfall of opportunity for Dalton and the more than three hundred thousand other enslaved of Mississippi as the planter elite scrambled to save what wealth and property they could carry off as the Union Army quickly approached. Life would never again be the same for the planter elite nor the enslaved. With the overseer having fled and there no longer being any means to enforce the oppression that was the social structure of western Mississippi, Samuel Dalton chose a very active path to freedom by fleeing the Egypt Place and enlisting in the Union Navy the day after Vicksburg's fall. For fifteen months, from July 1863 through October 1864, Dalton served aboard two gunboats of the Mississippi Squadron. His time aboard the USS Juliet was very dull, while his service aboard the USS Hastings was extremely dangerous given the latter ship's involvement in the ill-advised and ill-executed Red River Campaign into central Louisiana. The twice promoted and twice shackled Dalton survived the expedition and was honorably discharged at Cairo, Illinois. After discharge, Samuel Dalton remained in southern Illinois in defiance of the rarely enforced Black Laws of 1853, which made African-American residency in the state punishable by fine or imprisonment. It was in southern Illinois, a region ironically called Egypt, that Dalton achieved the manhood so desired by the freedmen, as explained by historian Donald Schaffer. In the fifty years Dalton lived in Carbondale and Murphysboro, he became a property owner, husband, father, active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, and lived peacefully in an integrated neighborhood with the respect of his white neighbors before his death on 7 June 1920.
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