The Case of David H. White and the First Emancipation Proclamation

Author: Raphael Waldburg

In the afternoon of October 9th 1862 the raiding cruiser Alabama had just made her latest capture, the Yankee schooner Tonawanda (1). Aboard the prize were 75 civilian passengers. Among them was the slave David H. White, body-servant to a Delaware businessman on his way to Europe. The Alabama crew was in need of men and Captain Raphael Semmes maintained that if the Union Army was treating Southern Negroes as "contrabands", he could well decide to take the 17 year old boy along ?under the laws of war? (2). The Laws of War in that case ruled "that every person connected with the Army or Navy of the Confederate States, arresting or coming into possession of any slave, by capture from the enemy, or otherwise than by lawful authority, shall immediately report the same to the commanding officer of the post, or brigade, or station to which he may be attached. The said commanding officer shall, with as little delay as practicable, send the slaves so reported to the nearest depot described in the next section, with a register of the place and date of their arrest: Provided, however, That the said slaves, or any of them, may at once be delivered to their respective owners, if claim is made and established on satisfactory evidence." (3). That meant he took the slave on a point of de facto law upon his authority as officer of the Confederate Navy, but not according to Naval Laws. And this created a delicate legal situation. As a commerce raider he could seize and destroy enemy merchant ships, but not take personal property of Union civilians. In 1862 there were no legal dispositions in the South permitting the seizure of a slave, "private property" of a Union citizen, and press him into service. However, the Yankees were already taking Negroes along. In addition, rumors existed of a certain "Emancipation Proclamation" drafted by Lincoln to declare every slave of a State "in rebellion" against the Federal government to become free on January 1863.

The Alabama’s cruise continued and in the course a few days the slave felt like at home, he even congratulated himself of the exchange he had made (4). He rendered excellent service and won the affection of everyone aboard (5). And Semmes made a decision. He proclaimed White, who was a legal slave in a Union State, to be free in the South, thus giving him the right to enlist on a Confederate warship. The legal circumstances were still questionable, but unlike Lincoln’s farce, which "freed" slaves where the Federal Government had no executive power to enforce it, Semmes disposition was a real emancipation measure with an immediate benefit to the subject (by irony of History, in Delaware slavery remained legal after the end of the war, as the State legislature rejected the XIII Amendment in February 1865 (from a strictly legal point of view, it was not ratified until February 12th 1901).

David H. White became a Black crewman of CSS Alabama, the exact date is not known, because he was retroactive registered on the day of Tonawanda’s capture, October 9th (6). As a well-trained body-servant, he was not mustered as a seaman or as a gunner. Semmes appointed him a wardroom mess steward (in the muster roll he appears as "wardroom boy". This was not because of his race or former condition, but because it was the only useful job he could do. And for the very first time in his life he received the "full payment of his grade and no difference was made between him and the white waiters of the mess" (7). White was cajoled by Yankee consular agents to desert while being ashore in Martinique, Jamaica, South Africa and Singapore, but "unlike others in the ship’s company he never sought to leave the Confederate States Navy"(8). Semmes stated, full of satisfaction of his Black crewman: "He seemed to have the instinct of deciding between his friends and his enemies." (9). Due to those facts, we may presume that White had become a truly devoted Confederate, full aware of the cause he was fighting for. The Alabama’s executive officer, John McKintosh Kell, wrote on Christmas Day 1862 a note of sarcasm in a letter home: "We hear that Mr. Lincoln’s fiat has gone for liberating four million slaves on the first day of January. Truly he is a mighty man!". (10).

During the final battle with the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France, in 1864, White carried out his duty till the bitter end: he went down with the Alabama and drowned. The proud man had never told anyone that he could not swim. And like so many other Blacks who gave their lives for the Southern Cause, he is forgotten today. In the words of Ervin L. Jordan Jr.:

"… their bones rest in unhonored glory in Southern soil, shrouded by falsehoods, indifference and historian’s censorship." (11).

The bones of David H. White rest today in the British Channel, inside the sacred shrine of the most legendary vessel of the South.


(1) G. T. Fullam, (edited by Charles G. Summersell), The Journal of George
Tawney Fullam, Boarding Officer of the Confederate Sea Raider Alabama, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1972, p. 33.
(2) Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat, Richard Bentley, London, 1869,
p. 465.
(3) From A Digest of the Military and Naval Laws of the Confederate States,.
Evans and Cogswell, Columbia, Ed. 1864. See: Disposition of slaves when arrested or captured, §1,Oct. 13, 1862, page 173. (It is to be supposed that the Delaware owner protested and made immediate claim to have his slave restored to him).
(4) Semmes, op. cit. p. 465.
(5) Arthur Sinclair, Two Years on the Alabama, reed. Tantalon Press, 2004,
pp. 35-36.
(6) Alabama muster roll is included as annex in Sinclair?s Two Years on the
(7) Semmes, op. cit. p. 465.
(8) See Charles G. Summersell comments in the 1972 edition of the Fullam
Diaries, p. 35.
(9) Semmes, op. cit. p 466
(10) Letter from Arcas Cayes, Mexico, 25th December 1862 to a relative, as quoted by John McKintosh Kell, Recollections of a Naval Life, The Neale Company, Washington, 1900, p. 206.
(11) Ervin L. Jordan, essay "Different Drummers" in Black Southerners in
Gray, Richard Rollins (editor), Rank and File Pub., Redondo Beach, CA, 1994,
p. 69. On page 20 there is a short reference to a Negro photographed aboard
CSS Alabama standing in the background of two officers, but there is no proven evidence that it might have been David White. The same reference and description, is given in the book Black Confederates, edited by C.K. Barrow, J.H. Segars and R.B. Rosenburg, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, 2001, p. 47. The mentioned photograph is in the US Naval Historical Center collection and shows Lt. Sinclair and Lt. Armstrong lounging against a 32 pounder naval gun. The man in their background is more probably a sailor with the skin darkened by sun and winds or just a graphic effect of the blurred photograph, but not a Black man.