Captain Elijah Swan, USA

Escaped slave, “Captain of Technological Innovations” for the 13th R.I. at the time of its spectacular victory against the Richmond Special Legionnaires at The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek.

b: October 9, 1838, Midge Lake, NC
d: December 7, 1886, Boston, MA

(Scroll down to watch video!)

The brilliant inventor and military hero Captain Elijah Nathaniel Swan was born on a modest North Carolina cotton plantation. He was the illegitimate son of a white woman, Mary Boyd Swan, and a black man –  a slave remembered today only as “Nate”.  Mary Boyd’s husband, Lambert Swan, suffered from extreme myopia and throughout his life was unaware that Elijah was not his biological child.  This acceptance, combined with a host of elaborate machinations on the part of his mother, allowed Swan to pass his childhood oblivious of the concepts of race, racial inequality, or slavery.  Thus, despite being a Negro boy in the slave-holding South, Swan was able to thrive emotionally, physically, and intellectually, and to develop, in an unfettered manner, his vast natural talents for science and engineering.

Elijah's hairbrushing machine 550x

“Hairbrushing Machine”, 1846 (not known to have been prototyped)

In 1853 tragedy struck when Swan’s parents succumbed to an outbreak of Yellow Fever. Ownership of the plantation was assumed by the Pliddels (some less-than-sympathetic relatives) and Swan’s happy misapprehensions were dashed as he was forced into slavery on what, by all rights, should now have been his land.  Swan remained in bondage for the next nine years.  Despite the hardships he endured, he continued to develop his inventing skills, designing several devices intended to ease the burden of physical labor.

Left: The Pliddel family, 1851. Right: Slaves on the Pliddel Plantation (Elijah and Aggripina Swan: top row, 2nd and 3rd from left)

In late 1861 Swan married Agrippina Calhoun.  When Agrippina announced her pregnancy several months later, Swan modified his latest invention, the Aerial Planter, into an escape balloon.  In this vehicle they managed to reach Fort Macon, which was just then being captured by Union forces.

"Contraband of War" - a new status for escaped slaves

“Contraband of War” – a new status for escaped slaves

There they joined the hundreds of slaves that had entered Federal lines seeking protection as “Contraband of War”.  These “Contraband” were assigned to Col. Hale’s 13th Rhode Island just days before that outfit was detached from the brigade and sent into the field on an unspecified mission.

Within this milieu, Swan’s inventing skills quickly stood out as a valuable asset.  Hale brevetted him Captain of Technological Innovations and set him to the task of designing weapons for the regiment.  This effort culminated with two critical inventions:  the Dope Bomb and the Maneuverable Air Ship –   both of which would prove indispensable to the Federal victory at Pussy Willow Creek.

Elijah at desk 350x

Capt. Swan at his field desk, Spring of 1863

Click To View Elijah Swan’s Inventions

Watch an excerpt from the documentary about Swan’s promotion to Captain.


Return To Top