The planters of eastern North Carolina have long lived in fear of a slave uprising. Many of the 35,000 slave owners in the state make their homes in the broad Coastal Plain and eastern Piedmont, where a large proportion of the state’s 330,000 slaves are concentrated on the farms and plantations of the rich river basins.
An 1830 law prevents the education of slaves because “the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State.” Other draconian laws allow slave catchers to inflict cruel and violent punishments on recaptured fugitives. Furthermore, state law makes it difficult for a master to free his or her own slaves without posting exorbitant bonds and guaranteeing that freed slaves will leave the state, never to return — or else be auctioned back into slavery. In a decision upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1844, even free blacks have been prohibited from owning firearms, on the grounds that they are not legal citizens.
The white slaveholders’ fear is partly a result of numbers. In coastal counties such as Brunswick, New Hanover, Onslow, Craven, and Beaufort, slaves make up one-quarter to one-half of the population, and in the adjoining counties further inland, such as Jones, Lenoir, Pitt, Greene, and Bertie, they constitute a majority of the inhabitants.
Over the long history of slavery, rebellious slaves in Virginia and the Carolinas have occasionally murdered their masters, and these rare violent episodes have only fueled white paranoia. In 1863, the war takes a turn that makes landowners’ worst nightmare come true: Black men with guns will march into their home counties, bent on righteous reprisal. They will number almost 2,000. They will be trained and disciplined, and they will act with the full might of the United States Government behind them.
Once utterly powerless, the slaves will now wield the power of life and death.
Slaves become soldiers
In January 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is derided by the Chicago Times as “a wicked, atrocious and revolting deed.” But abolitionists across the North widely hail the move as a new definition of war aims: The Civil War has now become not just a violent sectarian conflict, but a crusade to free enslaved human beings.
The Proclamation, in freeing slaves in the areas under rebellion, sets the stage for General Order No. 143, which instituted the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit all-black regiments officered by whites. In North Carolina, that duty falls to Brig. Gen. Edward Augustus Wild, a steely, one-armed Union veteran who is sent to work with local free black leaders, like Abraham Galloway, to raise three regiments.
In the Union ranks, many soldiers are outraged by the move. Cpl. Felix Brannigan of the Army of the Potomac is typical. “We don’t want to fight side by side with the nigger,” he confides in a letter to his sister in New York. “We think we are a too superior race for that.”
But others welcome the new recruits to help break the back of Confederate resistance and deprive the enemy of the capacity to wage war. Another soldier says of the Proclamation, “I’d thought of it myself, but I didn’t think Linken’d hev the grit to up and do it. It’s an all-fired good move, so far’s the army’s concerned.”
In due course, the regiments are raised in New Bern, mostly manned by freed slaves, many of them from the local districts. To the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers and the other regiments, soon to be reclassified as U.S. Colored Troops, fall the labors of digging entrenchments, building roads and forts, hostling wagons, wrangling mule trains, and other “fatigue” duties. Gen. John Foster, commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, has little faith in the fighting mettle of the black troops, and he fears they will prove only a provocation to North Carolina Unionists to join the Confederate cause. But some of their white officers are eager to prove the black soldiers’ worth in combat.
One such officer is Col. Alonzo G. Draper of the 2nd North Carolina Colored Volunteers, a hard-driving field soldier and strict disciplinarian. With General Wild’s and his own regiments temporarily posted to Virginia by Foster, Draper conceives and executes a raid into the heart of territory infested with “irregulars” — guerrilla forces that have been sniping at pickets, ambushing patrols, and smuggling provisions out of New Bern and Beaufort to Confederate forces.
Colonel Draper is a strong supporter of the U.S. Army’s new hard policy regarding guerrilla troops — an increasing problem in and around all zones of occupation. General Wild orders Draper that, in the event his troops are fired upon by irregulars, “you will at once, hang the man who fired.” The bodies of such miscreants are to be hanged with a sign proclaiming their crime. Wild is clear: “Guerrillas are not to be taken alive.”
In late November, Draper selects 118 officers and men from the 800 in his regiment and heads south. In nine days, they cover 250 miles and liberate almost 500 slaves, with other contraband borne back to Norfolk on captured livestock and wagons. For Draper’s black troopers, the raid presents their first chance to return to their home ground to free family members and friends left behind, while exacting a measure of justice and revenge.
Many of the soldiers in Colonel Draper’s command have escaped from the same plantations they are raiding and can identify who is a Unionist and who is a Confederate partisan — and should therefore be punished. Draper makes it clear that he believes the liberated slaves have a right to their masters’ property, encouraging the widespread confiscation of horses, mules, and wagons on which to ride to freedom.
Draper’s minor foray is so successful in its mission of freeing slaves and suppressing the guerrillas that General Wild quickly conceives of a much larger expedition — this one focused on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, a trading conduit between Virginia and North Carolina tracing its usage back to the days when it was developed by a consortium headed by George Washington.
The Great Dismal expedition
Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who succeeds the more timid Foster as commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, offers a straightforward rationale for the raid: “Our navigation on the Dismal Swamp canal had been interrupted, and the Union inhabitants plundered by the guerrillas.”
General Wild’s force of nearly 2,000 includes troopers from the 1st and 2nd N.C. Colored Volunteer regiments, the 1st U.S. Colored Troops, and the 55th Massachusetts. Again, many of the black troopers find themselves returning to their home districts as armed liberators — in Currituck, Camden, Pasquotank, Perquimans, and Gates counties. It is the first time in history that U.S. Colored Troops conduct a significant combat operation on their own, not as part of a larger enterprise.
The column marches along the canal path deep into the heart of the swamp. One man records, “We were in the dreariest and wildest part of the Dismal Swamp, the darkness was dense, the air damp, and the ghostly silence was broken only by the hooting of owls and crying of wild cats. For two hours we rode through the Stygian darkness of the forest, when we arrived at South Mills.”
Two shallow-draft steamers have been outfitted to shadow the raiders, bringing up fresh provisions and ammunition, but they somehow get lost in the vastness of the swamp, and General Wild’s troopers must now live off the land. “Here we left the canal and descended into another swamp of Hades,” the same trooper writes. “The narrow crooked road was flooded with water and crossed with innumerable little rickety bridges, over which our horses made their way with great caution and reluctance.”
From South Mills, they strike overland and cross the Pasquotank River, and when they arrive at Elizabeth City, they inspire widespread panic: The citizens there have never seen armed black troops before. Whatever action the black troopers take, it is magnified, embellished, and distorted by wild rumor and the panicky exaggeration born of a fear going back many generations.
From their base at Elizabeth City, the troopers sortie as far as the Chowan River in search of recruits and guerrillas. “Finding ordinary measures of little avail,” General Wild reports, “I burned their houses and barns, ate up their live stock, and took hostages from their family.” He tallies four guerrilla camps destroyed, guns and ammunition captured, and two dozen homesteads burned, along with two distilleries. By his reckoning, his forces liberate some 2,500 black slaves from their bondage — many of whom will now be recruited into the ranks of the U.S. Army.
All but one of the 20 prisoners they capture are released, retained as hostages, or sent to Norfolk for trial and imprisonment. The lone exception is Daniel Bright, a Pasquotank County man. The general tries him before a drumhead court-martial, and he is found guilty of guerrilla activity. Bright is hanged, a placard around his neck proclaiming, “This guerrilla hanged by order of Brigadier General Wild.”
Confederate Col. Joel R. Griffin, posted in Virginia, is outraged by Wild’s raid and the summary execution of an irregular soldier — who, though acting on his own, was in fact a private in a Georgia cavalry regiment. Griffin writes, with barely tempered anger, “Probably no expedition, during the progress of the war, has been attended with more bitter disregard for the long established usages of civilization of the dictates of humanity than your late raid into the country bordering the Albemarle. Your stay, though short, was marked by crimes and enormities. You burned houses over the heads of defenceless women and children, carried off private property of every description, arrested non-combatants, and carried off ladies in irons, whom you confined with negro men.”
At last, Griffin arrives at the crux of the matter, the hanging of Daniel Bright, which he recounts in detail. “Therefore,” he declares, ignoring the savage irony of his own response, “I have obtained an order from the General commanding, for the execution of Samuel Jones, a private of Company B. Fifth Ohio, whom I hang in retaliation.”
General Wild, crusading champion
It is a sad measure of how far the generals have come from the quaint notions of chivalry and honor that laced their heroic speeches in the spring of 1861.
The first independent combat action conducted by Negro troops attracts all manner of commentary far exceeding its limited value as a military operation. A newspaper reporter who accompanies General Wild into the Great Dismal Swamp has nothing but praise for the actions and behavior of the black soldiers, writing, “by it the question of their efficiency in any branch of service has been practically set at rest.”
According to his testimony, the soldiers behaved with admirable discipline, obeying orders smartly. They “performed all the duties of white soldiers — scouting, skirmishing, picket duty, guard duty, every service incident to the occupation of hostile towns, and best of all, fighting.”
General Wild himself confirms that his men “marched wonderfully, never grumbled, were watchful on picket, and always ready for a fight. They are most reliable soldiers.”
But it doesn’t take long for Confederate voices to raise their own clamor. The Southern Recorder of Milledgeville, Georgia, runs a story about how “the negro ran riot during the Yankee stay in the Albemarle country.” Worse, it reports, under enemy fire, they “fled like wild deer.”
Other newspapers follow suit, decrying alleged atrocities and barbaric behavior they claim is natural conduct for an inferior race. They do not mention the many instances in which captured, disarmed black troops have been executed by Confederate victors.
General Butler recognizes the weapon he has helped to forge, which borrows its power partly from ingrained bigotry and unreasoning fear. He threatens the inhabitants of the region with more “visitations from the colored troops” if they do not drive the “Partisan Rangers” out of their home counties, declaring, “You will never have any rest from us so long as you keep guerrillas within your borders.”
Delegations in Chowan, Gates, Currituck, Perquimans, and Pasquotank counties draft resolutions to resist Confederate conscription and expel guerrillas. More than 500 residents of Pasquotank County alone petition Governor Vance to disband the guerrilla units operating in the coastal counties.
As for General Wild, the crusading champion of black troops, he has proven true the prophecy he made when, the previous summer, he was presented with the hand-sewn silk battle flag of the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers by 400 cheering members of the Colored Ladies Relief Association. The front of the flag features the Goddess of Liberty stomping a copperhead snake; the reverse is ornamented with a brilliant sun rising above dark clouds toward the word Liberty, underscored by the motto, “The Lord is our sun and shield.”
Receiving the flag on that sunny July afternoon, General Wild said, “I thank Him who has enabled you to give and us to receive this emblem of the future destiny of your race.” He ended his remarks to the hundreds of assembled free black men and women with a gesture: “I will now consign it to the care of those who I know will never disgrace it.”