“Running the Northern Blockade”
Captain Usina and the Leadsman Without Peer
Born in St. Augustine to Spanish parents, Captain Michael Philip Usina (1840-1903) enlisted in the Eight Georgia Volunteer Regiment (Oglethorpe Light Infantry) after the outbreak of war in 1861. Wounded at First Manassas, he joined the Confederate Navy after recovering and became one the South’s foremost blockade runners. Familiarly known as Mike Usina, his skill and daring made him famous in Nassau and Bermuda and in all of the Atlantic States. The [Northern] consul at Nassau, Mr. Whiting, eager for his capture by the cruisers which hovered near the British islands, bough Usina’s portraits from a local photographer, and sent them broadcast among the Federal commanders in order to identify him when captured, as many Southerners escaped long confinement by claiming to be Englishmen. Captain Usina seemed to have a charmed life, but he was in reality so cool under fire and so resourceful in a tight place or situation, that he slipped through their fingers frequently when his capture seemed certain.
“The leadsman on board a blockade runner occupied a very responsible position; he had to have great physical endurance and courage. When shoal water was reached, the safety of the ship and the lives of all on board depended upon his skill and faithfulness. Were he disposed to be treacherous, he could, by false soundings, put the ship in the hands of the enemy or run her in the breakers and endanger the lives of all.
My leadsman was a slave owned by myself. On the last trip of the Atalanta, while under fire, the ship was going very fast toward shoal water, I thought possibly he might get rattled, and to test him I said: “Irwin, you can’t get correct soundings, the ship is going too fast, I’ll slow her down for you.”
He answered: “There is no time for to slow down, sir, you let her go, I’ll give you the bottom”; and he did, he being a leadsman without a peer. I have had him in the chains for hours in cold winter weather, with the spray flying over him cold enough to freeze the marrow in his bones, the ship often on shoal water, frequently but a foot to spare under her, and sometimes not that. Yet I never knew him to make a mistake or give an incorrect cast of the lead.
He is the man to whom, when pointing to the island of New Providence, I said: “Every man on that island is as free as I am, so will you be when we get there.” He answered: “I did not want to come here to be free, I could have gone to the Yankees long ago if I had wished.”
And afterwards, when the war was over, I said to him: “I am going to England, perhaps never to see Savannah again, you had better go home.” His answer was: “I cannot go without you,” and he did not. The feeling that existed between us can only be understood by Southern men; by a Northern man, never.”
(Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916, James Sprunt, Edwards & Broughton, 1916, pg. 426)
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