north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      The Emancipation Proclamation authorized recruitment of black 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. 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 a recruiting station.

      In May, Wild began recruiting for the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV), placing the regiment under the command of James Beecher, half-brother of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. He 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. Although the top officers in the First NCCV were white, company commanders chose “promising” enlisted men to serve as sergeants and corporals. Upon the completion of training, the regiment joined others in forming Gen. Edward A. Wild’s “African Brigade.” 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.

      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,” according to historian Richard Reid. Unlike the Second and Third regiments, the First regiment trained for a longer period of time under the careful supervision of Gen. 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 or did better execution” than the Thirty-Fifth.

      Though the battle was a Federal defeat, the regiment’s valor played an important role in changing white attitudes about the capabilities of black troops. Despite heavy losses, the Thirty-Fifth served for the duration of the war. As some of the first of thousands of southern black volunteers, including more than 5,000 from North Carolina, the First NCCV paved the way in demonstrating to the nation the importance of black soldiers to the Union’s preservation.


References:
Richard M. Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (2008)
David Cecelski, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War (2012)
Catherine Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, NC, 1770-1900 (2013)
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