In the darkness on the east bank of the Cape Fear River, eight runaway slaves crouch in the shadows at the foot of Orange Street, careful to conceal themselves behind barrels and bales, listening hard against the patter of rain on wharf and river for the sound of Confederate patrols. They wait long into the night, until the streets are deserted and the river is an inky black smear at the edge of their vision, more heard than seen.
Their leader is a 24-year-old master brick mason and plasterer named William B. Gould. The son of a white Englishman and a slave woman, Gould is slightly built and stands 5 feet and 5 1/2 inches tall. But he is strong, and more important on this night, he is bold. Gould is one of 69 slaves owned by Nicholas Nixon, a peanut farmer with a plantation north of the city at Porter’s Neck and a stalwart of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington. Gould, like many other skilled artisans, lives in Nixon’s city slave quarters, four blocks away on Chestnut Street.
Tonight, he plans to leave Wilmington and the South forever. His companions are William Chanse, John Mitchell, Charles Giles, George Price, John Mackey, and brothers Andrew and Joseph Hall. In the government census, their names have not been recorded; each is just three-fifths of a human being, under the compromise hammered out by the aristocratic gentlemen — many slaveholders among them — at the Constitutional Convention that created the governing document of the United States of America.
Collectively, the eight of them add up to a mathematical remainder: four and four-fifths human beings. A quantity of property. An economic asset to use and dispose of like any other. Gould has always chafed under his bondage and has done all he can to prepare himself for freedom. He has learned to read and write, although for slaves such education has been against the law since before he was born. He can recite Shakespeare, speaks passable French, and knows a smattering of Spanish.
He is not a man to remain anonymous. When he worked on the fine interior walls of the John D. Bellamy mansion, he signed his initials in elegant cursive in the wet plaster. He will be remembered.
Gould and his seven companions are bound for a place where their names will matter.
Help from their own
At last, it is time. Gould and his men steal aboard the small boat tethered to the wharf. It carries oars and a sail, but they will not risk raising the sail until they are in the estuary, some 20 miles downriver. The white sail could be too easily spotted by the lookouts of the nine forts they will pass, or the slave patrols that will soon be scouring the city and countryside for them once they are missed.
The water has always been a tantalizing lure to slaves — not just the coast, with its limitless ocean vista, but the rivers as well.
A generation ago, a slave named Peter, one of many black river pilots, helped to guide fugitive slaves downriver to Smithville, a small settlement at the mouth of the river. He arranged clandestine passage aboard oyster sloops owned by two Quakers named Fuller and Elliot, for Quakers have long been opposed to the practice of human bondage. From the sloops, the fugitives would be transferred to outbound schooners. They were all part of the nautical Underground Railroad.
But it isn’t just Quakers and other white people of conscience who aid runaways. Indeed, their help comes mostly from their own community: other slaves, runaways hiding out in the swamps, free blacks willing to take a chance.
There is the plantation culture that the white owners see — the opulent household of the master, the seemingly obsequious “darkies,” and the sentimental minstrel shows. But there is another culture on the plantation as well — a culture that encompasses larger areas and stirs abroad, mostly at night, in remote places, far from the prying eyes of owners and their agents. Slaves move back and forth between plantations, visiting family, making friends and alliances, laying up supplies and precious cash, trading in such forbidden commodities as weapons and books, swapping information and news, mapping escape routes.
In North Carolina, there are more than 331,000 slaves and another 30,000 free blacks. Despite the draconian laws, curfews, prohibition against travel, the roving slave patrols, there is just no way to control the movement of so many able-bodied beings who know the countryside and are well-practiced in stealth. Slavery is their curse. Their survival requires constant vigilance, the ability to seem like what they are not, and the discipline to keep secrets. Even if they are legally free, there is always the risk of being taken for a runaway. They subvert the system quietly every day.
The most subversive black man of all was probably David Walker, son of a black man and a white mother, and consequently, in the peculiar calculus of racial inheritance, a freedman. Walker went north from Wilmington at the earliest opportunity, and from Boston in 1829 issued his famous — or infamous — Appeal, in which he urged slaves to rise up against their masters. The pamphlet was sewn into clothing sold to sailors at Walker’s shop, smuggled into the Cape Fear region, and passed hand to hand all up and down the Southern coast, creating a panic. It was rumored that a general uprising was planned for Christmas.
Just a year later, Walker died mysteriously — many suspected pro-slavery agents poisoned him.
Invisible to white society
The plantations along the Cape Fear River — like all those up the coast as far as the Great Dismal Swamp — are far-flung and full of difficult terrain: bogs, tidal creeks, pocosins, marshes, rivers, and black-water swamps. The overseers depend on slaves who can handle boats, navigate treacherous creeks and rivers, and find their way to remote turpentine works in blind forest. The slaves often must rove far from their overseers, working in small teams that are too scattered to be supervised closely. They get used to a certain amount of mobility, a small degree of freedom.
So has evolved a strong clandestine tradition of black watermen, who help their fellow slaves navigate the soggy maze of coastal waterways to freedom — in flatboats, dugout canoes, flatties, punts, and periaugers. They travel by night, trust only each other.
Among their most reliable allies are small pockets of runaways who have made a life in the remote fastness of pine woods, river cane breaks, and swamps. They are known as Maroons and live beyond the pale of slave law. The Maroons live invisible to white society, out in places no one else seems to want, but they provide a temporary oasis for other runaways. On the Pasquotank, Albemarle, and Chowan rivers, as well as in the Great Dismal Swamp, some bands number 30 or 40 people and have been thriving for generations. Even if they could find these hideouts, slave catchers know better than to go up against the Maroons: they are well-armed and will fight if provoked. There is strength in numbers — and determination.
But the life is hard. Some of the Maroons hire out as day laborers at the turpentine camps, boxing pines for their rosin, or find work at the Dismal Swamp Land Company, cutting shingles or sawing wood. The foremen look the other way — they need the hands. The pay is $2 per month, a pair of rough trousers, a shirt, and plain food.
From the rice and turpentine plantations, the runaways follow the Cape Fear to Wilmington. From tobacco and cotton plantations in the Piedmont, they journey down the Neuse and Trent to New Bern. The Tar River takes them to Washington, the Roanoke to Plymouth. Each port city is a doorway to a new world, albeit a dangerous one.
Any sailor or ship’s master can betray the runaways to earn the bounty. Any port inspector can discover them. Examiners sometimes fumigate the ships’ holds just to drive out stowaways by burning pitch or brimstone between decks — the same method they use to drive out rats.
If captured, runaways are turned over to the slave patrols to be whipped and sent back into bondage.
So they must have enough money for both bribes and passage, and the passage may cost many times what a white passenger would pay. Some wait for months for their chance; others, years. A 34-year-old carpenter named Henry Gorham hides out in the forest for 11 months before he can arrange safe passage. Another, Ben Dickenson, bides his time for three years. Harriet Jacobs tucks herself away in an attic in Edenton for a full seven years before being taken aboard a schooner bound for Philadelphia.
Assets to the enemy
This rainy September night, Gould and his companions row hard and are swept downriver past the moored blockade-runners; past the magisterial sprawl of Orton Plantation and the mouth of Town Creek, where Bellamy’s 10,000-acre plantation, Grovely, lies; past the artillery post on Sugar Loaf Bluff and Anderson’s Battery; past the guns of Fort Anderson and Fort Johnston on the opposite shore; past the sweeping bend at Smithville, Fort Fisher on Confederate point looming to the left, Fort Caswell, an old Federal masonry fortress, on the right.
It takes all night to make the passage. Now it is past sunrise.
Out beyond Smith Island, the open sea beckons. Gould and the other men hoist the sail and scud along in the fresh morning breeze. Before long, they are spied by lookouts on the U.S.S. Cambridge, one of the blockading Union squadron, which records the event in the log: “Saw a sail S.W.S. and signaled same to other vessels. Stood for strange sail and at 10:30 picked up a boat with eight contrabands from Wilmington, N.C.”
Contraband: the new word for an escaped slave.
Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler coined the term “Contraband of War,” meaning they are assets to the enemy, so capturing them deprives the enemy of one more resource with which to wage war. Outside the Confederacy, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applies. The future of black slaves is very much at issue in this war.
Indeed, almost at the very hour that seamen are taking Gould and his companions aboard the Cambridge, President Abraham Lincoln summons his cabinet to brief them on a speech that will restate the Union war aims. He calls it the “Emancipation Proclamation.” It will declare that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Gould is not finished with his adventure. He enlists in the Union Navy and now, as a serving hand on the Cambridge and later on the Niagara, will chase blockade-runners, sinking them or running them aground.
Gould’s contingent is just the bellwether for a wave of blacks seizing the chaos of war to escape to freedom. In August, when yellow fever strikes Wilmington, affluent families flee, leaving their homes and businesses in the charge of trusted slaves. But many of those slaves take advantage of the opportunity and make their way to the river, thence to the sea, where they are welcomed onto the ships of the Union blockaders. The shoreline has become the new boundary between slave and free states.
Gould’s own U.S.S. Cambridge takes aboard a dozen contrabands from a small boat in October, a month before a freak snowstorm kills off the mosquitoes vectoring the Wilmington epidemic.
The proximity of the beach leads to a vexing security problem for the Confederates as they conscript hundreds of slaves to turn Fort Fisher from a few gun batteries into an impregnable fortress. It must successfully stand off the Yankee blockade and keep the port of Wilmington open to fuel Robert E. Lee’s army via the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, one of the few north-south railroads in the state.
The Yankee ships patrol just offshore, which means that if a slave can swim or paddle a boat out far enough, one of the smaller picket boats can pick him up. And on several occasions, longboat crews brazenly land on the beach and pick up runaway slaves — many of whom then enlist in the fight.
Col. William Lamb, the young commander and architect of Fort Fisher, loses one of his own slaves in this manner, with momentous consequences. In May 1864, Charles Wesley slips out to the beach and is picked up by sailors from the U.S.S. Niphong. Having helped to build the fort, Wesley proceeds to brief the Yankees on its layout; its fluctuating garrison of 800-odd artillerymen, regular soldiers, and junior and senior reserves; and its armaments.
Though it will stand for eight more months, the fort is now undermined, its fate already decided. Thus an escaped slave is credited with helping engineer the downfall of the mighty fortress. In its simplicity and turnabout toward vengeance, the Wesley saga is almost biblical.
In all, 180,000 black men will fight in the war. Eighty-two African-American men from the Wilmington area run away and join the Union Army or Navy, and a dozen of them return to fight in the final battle of Fort Fisher. Of the 9,000 troops who storm the redoubts, nearly a third belong to what are called United States Colored Infantry regiments — most of them former slaves. They are held in reserve until the final assault before being allowed to prove their mettle.
One veteran of the 37th regiment of volunteers who was raised in Kinston marches into Wilmington in triumph and spies his mother standing on the sidewalk. Beaming, she remarks that he left a slave and returned a soldier and a free man.
A Union soldier records the jubilation of the black crowds thronging the sidewalks as the regiments parade past: “They all seemed to have an intuitive knowledge that their shackles were broken; that henceforth and forever, they were free.”
The author is indebted to the following sources: The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume I: 1843-1862, edited by Frontis W. Johnston, and The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume II: 1863, edited by Joe A. Mobley, both from The Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1963 and 1995; Legal Aspects of Conscription and Exemption in North Carolina 1861-1865 by Memory F. Mitchell, UNC Press, 1965; Zeb Vance, by Gordon B. McKinney, UNC Press, 2004; Silk Flags and Cold Steel by William R. Trotter, John F. Blair, 1988; and Zebulon B. Vance and “The Scattered Nation,” edited by Maurice A. Weinstein, The Wildacres Press, 1995.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.
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