From Slavery to Freedom
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Bernard George penned this story for the New Bern Historical Society 2018 Annual Journal. It was republished in February 2020 by the New Bern Sun Journal.
Late historian Dr. John Hope Franklin reportedly cited New Bern and eastern North Carolina as having the most comprehensive African American history in this country. However, as a young African American boy growing up in New Bern during the 1950s and 1960s, I was oblivious to the rich African American history of our community. I can still hear my grandfather’s voice as he repeatedly recounted stories handed down from generation to generation of almost 300 years of family history in Craven County. Most interesting were his stories about the Civil War and his grandfather’s enlistment in the Union Army. Fortunately, I now have the benefit of my own research and that of many respected scholars who have researched and documented a much more factual and inclusive history of the local African American experience. That experience permeates local, state and national history, illustrating our community indeed has “one history, many stories.”
Freed slaves coming into Union lines at New Bern, NC following the Emancipation Proclamation American engraving, 1863 (Harpers’ Weekly, February 21 1863)
African Americans on the Eve of the Civil War
In 1790, when the first census was taken, African Americans numbered about 760,000 — about 19% of the nation’s population (United States Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 North Carolina). By 1860, at the start of the Civil War, the country’s African American population had increased to 4.4 million. The vast majority were slaves, with only 488,000 counted as “freemen.” The population of North Carolina included 331,059 slaves, representing 33% of North Carolina’s total population (Joseph Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior). My great-great-grandfather Theophilus George and his wife Sarah, who lived on Clubfoot Creek in North Harlowe, were among only 30,463 North Carolinians listed as free people of color in the 1860 census. This free colored population was mainly found along or near the eastern seaboard, in what has historically been known as the “black district” of North Carolina. Craven County, home to the state’s highest free African American population, with more than one-fifth of the colored population being freemen, provided the region a rich resource of boatmen, builders, laborers, skilled craftsmen and other vocations for the local economy. By the time Theophilus George died in January of 1861, the nation was on the verge of the Civil War.
The Battle of New Bern and the push for a New Birth of Freedom
The Civil War had an immediate and major impact on New Bern and eastern North Carolina. Many citizens, both black and white, felt the question of slavery and of slave holders’ so-called “property rights” in human chattel would finally be settled, as it should have been 85 years earlier by the country’s founding fathers’ powerful words in The Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal ….” Although most references do not mention the profound impact of the Battle of New Bern on the local African American population, it is clear that New Bern became a mecca for freedom well before the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands of escaped slaves sought safety within Union lines at New Bern, eventually establishing James City, the largest freeman settlement in the state. New Bern’s progressive black community offered former slave refugees the first rays of hope and renewed faith in the promise of freedom, as local African Americans helped establish some of the state’s first schools, churches, civic organizations and businesses for newly freed slaves. Before the war ended in 1865, black leaders from New Bern and Beaufort led by freedom fighter Abraham Galloway, met with President Lincoln to demand basic rights of citizenship for the newly freed slaves. The historic meeting on April 29, 1864 was the first official White House meeting of its kind with a southern delegation of former slaves (David Cecelski, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & The Slaves’ Civil War, pp. 115-117).
The First North Carolina Colored Volunteers (later the 35th USCT)
With the mounting loss of lives and morale, increasingly intense pressure was brought upon President Lincoln and the War Department to replenish Federal forces. At the insistence of Frederick Douglass and white leaders, the door was finally opened in 1863 for black soldiers to enlist in the Union army in large numbers. The Emancipation Proclamation authorized recruitment of Negro volunteers for Federal service beginning on January 1, 1863.
Influenced by the success of the 54th Massachusetts, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and General Edward A. Wild saw potential for recruiting former slaves in occupied northeastern North Carolina. Many Union officials in North Carolina opposed raising black troops. Most whites questioned the ability of Negroes in general to perform as soldiers and others believed that ex-slaves were less capable than free blacks. However, since the beginning of New Bern’s occupation in March 1862, thousands of escaped slaves had poured behind the lines seeking freedom and aid. New Bern’s large black population and strong support for the Union made it an ideal location for recruiting fresh troops and laborers (Richard M. Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era).
The efforts of northern civilians and soldiers became crucial for the success of recruiting black soldiers. Governor Andrew was instrumental in drawing attention to North Carolina. The success of his two African American regiments, the 54th and the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, led him to believe that the South offered potential for black enlistments. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton suggesting the idea of sending “some able, brave, tried, and believing man as a brigadier” to raise a brigade in North Carolina. He knew that within Major General John G. Foster’s department there were from 2,500 to 5,000 black men available to be recruited. Several prominent abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips, George Stearns, Edward Kinsley, and Francis Bird were among those who supported Governor Andrew’s efforts. Realizing the difficulty of attracting blacks to join White troops, Andrew recommended sending the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to be the “nest egg of a brigade” of North Carolinians. If the government refused to sanction the North Carolina undertaking, Andrew was prepared to welcome North Carolina fugitives into his Massachusetts regiments. He preferred, however, to see the work going on in the South, where more slaves were apt to volunteer (Brigadier General Fred C. Ainsworth and Joseph W. Kirkley, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, pp. 109-111).
In May 1863 Wild began recruiting for the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV), placing the regiment under the command of Colonel James Beecher, half-brother of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. Recruitment was slow until Abraham Galloway negotiated terms of enlistment and humane treatment of black soldiers (Cecelski, pp. 78-80). Colonel Beecher established the regiment’s campsite on the south bank of the Neuse River just outside of New Bern, and the first recruits went to work clearing land and setting up camp and a parade ground. By June 7, two of seven companies were in uniform and all had begun drill instruction. They were mustered in on June 30, 1863. White soldiers from the Forty-Fifth Massachusetts regiment aided in training. With the exception of Major John V. DeGrasse, Assistant Surgeon and Chaplain John N. Mars, the top officers in the First NCCV were white. Company commanders chose promising enlisted men to serve as sergeants and corporals. Upon completion of training, the regiment joined others in forming General Edward A. Wild’s “African Brigade” (Reid, pp. 22-28). During a farewell ceremony held at the Academy Green in New Bern on July 24, 1863, the “Colored Ladies Relief Association of New Bern” presented the regiment a silk flag (Cecelski, pp.87-89).
Representation of Flag presented to General Wild on July 30 1863
by the African American ladies of New Bern North Carolina
Within a short time, the existing black units received orders for Charleston. Officials continued to recruit for the Second and Third NCCV, which took several months to fill and muster. Though the three regiments were intended to form a single brigade, their sequential organization resulted in widely varying experiences and effectiveness. Unlike the Second and Third regiments, the First regiment trained for a longer period of time under the careful supervision of General Wild. Thus, when the First NCCV entered combat, it was better prepared to fight than most other black regiments.
The regiment would prove to be both brave and reliable in battle. The regiment spent several months at Folly Island outside Charleston, where on February 8, 1864, Federal authorities redesignated it the Thirty-Fifth U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). The regiment soon deployed to Florida where it fought at the Battle of Olustee. One report stated “no regiment went into action more gallantly, fought more desperately, or did better execution” than the Thirty-Fifth (Noah Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, p. 148).
The Battle of Olustee or Battle of Ocean Pond was fought in Baker County on February 20, 1864. Union forces of 5,500 led by Brigadier General Truman B. Seymour were soundly defeated by Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan’s 6,000 well entrenched soldiers. Though the battle was a federal defeat, the valor displayed by the 35th USCT while providing critical rear-guard fire power for the retreating Federal forces played an important role in changing white attitudes about the capabilities of black troops. “The men’s refusal to collapse in the face of superior numbers and a flanking fire helped to prevent the Union army’s retreat from becoming a rout” (Reid, p.83). However, many Confederate attitudes hardened as evidenced by the atrocities committed on wounded and captured black soldiers and their white officers following the battle (Reid, p. 93). Despite heavy losses, the Thirty-Fifth served for the duration of the war in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Among the first of more than 100,000 southern black Civil War soldiers, including more than 5,000 from North Carolina, the First NCCV paved the way in demonstrating the importance of black soldiers to the Union’s preservation.
The Men of the 35th USCT
Edward Augustus Wild — Wild was a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War. After suffering a severe wound that required amputation of his left arm, Wild was promoted and assigned to recruiting duties. A fervent abolitionist, he aggressively recruited black soldiers for the United States Colored Troops, as well as helping recruit white officers to lead them. Wild enlisted James C. Beecher to lead the 1st NCCV. Wild took command of a brigade of black infantry that soon became known as “Wild’s African Brigade.” (This and other profiles in this section are drawn from Cecelski and Reid.)
Colonel James Beecher — Beecher commanded the regiment. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, Beecher drifted through various occupations during his early years, including a stint as a missionary in China. Labeled “The Odd One” by a biographer of the Beecher family, James seemed an unlikely candidate to command a regiment in combat, but he had previously served ably as lieutenant colonel in the 141st New York Infantry, and proved an efficient administrator and trainer during the unit’s early months.
William Nikolaus Reed — Reed was originally appointed as a lieutenant colonel and the regiment’s second-in-command on 11 July 1863, by Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. Colonel Beecher was on leave in the north when the Florida campaign began, so Reed commanded the 35th USCT at Olustee, Florida as regimental commander. Reed was reportedly the son of a Haitian mother, which would make him the highest-ranking person of color to serve in the Civil War. “...It also appears that the Lieut Col of the Regt (which is commanded by Col Beecher) is a mulatto and while he has been temporarily in command of the Regt he has done everything in his power to elevate the Negro…” (Letter from Major Horace Wirtz, Department Medical Director, to Major General Quincy Gilmore, Commander of Department of the South). Reed was mortally wounded in February 1864 at Olustee.
Dr. John V. DeGrasse — Regimental surgeon, he was one of the most controversial appointments in the regiment. Major DeGrasse was born in New York City and, on May 19, 1849, received his MD with honors. After graduation he traveled abroad to Paris where he became an assistant to the renowned French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau. When he returned to the States, DeGrasse became the first African American surgeon admitted to a medical society. When war broke out, DeGrasse volunteered his services to the United States Army, thus becoming one of only eight black surgeons to serve in the Union forces and the only African American to serve in a battlefield unit. For his service with the 1st NCCV, Governor Andrew awarded him a gold-hilted sword from the state of Massachusetts.
William Henry Singleton — He was born into slavery in Craven County, North Carolina, near New Bern. During the Civil War, Singleton escaped to Union forces and gained his freedom. In the summer of 1863, he recruited and helped lead the 1st NCCV, which became part of the 35th United States Colored Troops (Cecelski, pp. 76-77). After being wounded in the Battle of Olustee in February 1864, Singleton was assigned to garrison duty in South Carolina, which was occupied by Union troops.
Abraham Galloway — Galloway was born in Smithville (now Southport, North Carolina) in 1837. An escaped slave, Galloway was a fearless spy, courageous freedom fighter, and outspoken political leader who played an important role in supporting the Union Army’s success in North Carolina and the Mississippi valley. By early 1863, Galloway had become eastern North Carolina’s most important spokesman for African American rights. After leading a delegation of black leaders who met with President Abraham Lincoln on the issue of African American suffrage, Galloway attended the National Convention of the Colored Citizens of the United States in Syracuse, New York. He traveled across North Carolina speaking to black audiences about women’s suffrage and equal rights for African Americans. Galloway organized the state’s first Equal Rights Leagues in New Bern and Raleigh and was a leader in founding the North Carolina Republican Party. Following the Civil War, Galloway served in the North Carolina Senate during the Reconstruction period. His untimely death in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1870 was honored by over 6,000 people who attended his funeral
Furney Bryant — Bryant, who was one of the North Carolina noncommissioned officers, came to New Bern as a refugee dressed in rags. Unable to read and write, he joined Superintendent Vincent Colyer’s night classes. Bryant was rewarded for his diligence in school when he was selected to serve as one of General Burnside’s spies. He later enlisted in the 1st NCCV and was promoted to first sergeant for his display of intelligence and leadership.
Luke Martin — One of the first African American soldiers from the South was an enslaved man named Luke Martin. He was born on December 12th, 1836 in the town of Hertford, Perquimans County. Sometime between his birth and 1860 Luke was taken across the Albemarle Sound to Washington County, where he was among the 2,465 human beings accounted for in the county’s 1860 slave census. The total white population of the Eighth United States Census in Washington County enumerated 3,593. In the spring of 1863, Luke escaped from his slaveholder’s plantation near Plymouth and fled across the Tar and Neuse Rivers to the newly established freedom sanctuary behind Union lines in New Bern. Luke Martin enlisted in the First North Carolina Colored Infantry as a free man on May 22, 1863, and was later wounded in the Battle of Olustee. After the war Private Martin settled in New Bern, built a home, raised a family and helped establish and pastor Saint John Missionary Baptist Church.
Many local freemen and former slaves felt the call to fight for the Union, and by the War’s end more than 7,000 of the 180,000 United States Colored Troops hailed from eastern North Carolina. According to Dyer’s Compendium, black troops fought in a total of 449 engagements, 39 of which he rated as major battles. Over 37,000 black soldiers lost their lives in the conflict. Organized in New Bern in June 1863, the 1st NC Colored Volunteers (later designated 35th Regiment, USCT), one of the first Union regiments of former slaves, courageously fought in campaigns in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
That same courageous spirit of civic pride, moral leadership and support of this country’s principles of freedom, justice, and equality continues today in the greater New Bern community. In 2016 the Tryon Palace Foundation was awarded a Museums for America: Learning Experiences grant to develop an interpretive program entitled “An Eagle on His Button” based on the experiences of the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. With grant assistance, the 35th USCT Reenactment
Regiment was created to recruit, train, and educate interpreters who then serve as history ambassadors for the community’s rich and diverse African American heritage. The regiment includes more than twenty reenactors and living historians who proudly participate in historic reenactments and other public events across the state as they share New Bern’s unique African American Civil War history.