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William Benjamin Gould’s diary traces road to freedom

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William Benjamin Gould’s diary traces road to freedom
Civil War veteran William B. Gould and his sons: (L to R) Lawrence, James, William Jr., Herbert, Ernest, and Frederick. (Photo: Dedham Historical Society)

   Retired Stanford Law Professor William Benjamin Gould IV receives congratulations after speaking at the Church of the Good Shepherd about his great-grandfather, Civil War veteran William Benjamin Gould. (Erin  Interests photo)

The day before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, William Benjamin Gould took freedom into his own hands. 

Setting off in a boat from Wilmington, N.C., the skilled mason joined seven other slaves in rowing up the Cape Fear River to liberty. Gould chronicled his escape and subsequent three-year service in the U.S. Navy in a detailed diary that came to light close to a century after he wrote the last entry. 

Written in a florid script with literary flair, the journal provides a remarkable insight into the struggles of African Americans not only to gain freedom but to fight for it. Gould’s journey would take him to ports along the Atlantic seaboard and Europe and eventually to the Boston suburb of Dedham, Mass., where he raised eight children, ran a successful plastering and masonry business and became a prominent member of Civil War veterans’ societies. 

During a forum last month in the Dedham church that Gould himself helped build, the great-grandson of the Civil War sailor read diary entries that started less than a week after the dramatic flight to freedom. 

“On Sept. 21, 1862, they departed from Orange Street in Wilmington against the strong tide of the Cape Fear River, and made the journey of 28 nautical miles to the Atlantic,” said retired Stanford Law professor and former National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV. 

Fortunately for the 25-year-old Gould, he was picked up by the naval frigate U.S.S. Cambridge and, in accordance with a policy set forth by Union Gen. Benjamin Butler — a future governor of Massachusetts — treated as contraband of war rather than as property required under the federal Fugitive Slave Act to be returned to his owner. 

“On Oct. 3, 1862, he took the oath of allegiance and joined the effort to go after privateers trying to run the Union blockade of the Confederate states. He was defending, in his own words, ‘the holiest of all causes, Liberty and Union,’” said Gould, who was joined by his namesake son and grandson and a host of other relatives to mark the 150th anniversary of their ancestor’s dash to liberty. 

Deeply moved by family stories of his great-grandfather’s patriotism, Gould published “Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor” in 2003 after reading the diary, combing through military records and visiting his many ports of call. The Dedham homecoming, sponsored by the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Dedham Historical Society, drew a full crowd to hear the past come to life. 

The Emancipation Proclamation, which offered liberty to slaves living in the states of rebellion, was signed on Sept. 22, 1862, the day before Gould’s escape, but did not take effect until New Year’s Day, 1863. Nor would the Union army begin recruiting black soldiers until the following year, when the first unit, the famed Massachusetts 54th Regiment, mustered in Camp Meigs in Readville, less than a mile from the church where four generations of Goulds were baptized. 

Gould did not learn about the proclamation until March 8, 1863. His diary entry noted, “Read the Articles of War. Also the Proclamation of Emancipation. Verry good.”  The subdued passage contrasts with more passionate entries denouncing slavery, the mistreatment of black sailors, and “would-be King Jeff,” a reference to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. 

He also condemned colonization schemes to send African Americans to Africa or Haiti, saying, “We were born under the Flag of the Union and we never will know no other. My sentement is the sentement of the people of the United States.” 

Gould IV speculated that his great-grandfather learned to read and write from church missionaries in North Carolina in violation of laws prohibiting literacy among slaves. His surviving writings include not just diary entries but also several columns published under the pseudonym Oley in New York’s “The Anglo-African,” an abolitionist newspaper. His contributions were part of an active political and social life of concerts, lectures and meetings pursued during shore-leave in New York, Boston and other ports. 

In Nantucket, he met his future wife, Cornelia Reed, a former slave whose freedom was purchased with the help of prominent black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. After the war, Gould and Reed were married by the Rev. James E. Crawford in the African Baptist Church on Nantucket. 

Among the most poignant of Gould’s writings is a description of his return to occupied Wilmington — his birthplace, the scene of his escape and the place his skilled work can still be seen in the ante-bellum Bellamy mansion. 

Writing in the Nov. 4, 1865 “Anglo-African,” seven months after Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, Gould finds “the old Town anything but what we left it. Her streets are entirely deserted. Her wharves that used to groan under million of barrels and thousands of bales are entirely bare. Her stores are all closed with few exceptions and her workshops are silent. The river glides noiselessly by, and not a ship there to break the current. The grass is growing unmolested in her streets.” 

Nowhere is the double veil of which W.E.B. DuBois wrote in “Souls of Black Folk” more evident than in what follows: The reflections of a man — born a slave, now free, a black sailor in a white navy — looking at the dying embers of a city he once knew but seeing in its demise a new burst of freedom. 

“Yet with all this change for the worse, there is a still greater change for the better,” wrote Gould. “You miss the Auction block in Market Square where the traffic in Human beings used to be carried on. Her Traders Jails are turned into military Guard Houses, where at any time you may see any number of the former Lords of the soil taking a view of the passer by from a commanding position. The nine O’clock Bell, too is silent, and when you walk out at night the demand for your Pass is not made, and upon the whole, Wilmington is changed.” 

By that point in his life, Gould had seen more of the world than most Americans ever would: he had crossed the Atlantic in the U.S.S. Niagara to pursue Confederate ships off the coast of France, England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal; met famous writers and preachers like Henry Beecher Stowe, father of the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin;” and took up both pen and cutlass to combat the greatest evil of the age. 

Discharged from the Navy on Sept. 29, 1865, after three years and nine days of service, Gould soon married and moved to Dedham, just south of Boston, where in 1871, he helped found the Church of the Good Shepherd in Oakdale Square in the working-class eastern section of the Norfolk County seat. 

On nearby Milton Street, he raised eight children. All six sons served in the military, several as officers, in the Spanish-American War and World War I. His probity and patriotism were widely admired. As a masonry contractor working on St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Dedham, he discovered that inferior cement had been used and ordered all the work ripped out and re-done at his expense. The decision nearly bankrupted his firm. 

Gould was active in the Charles W. Carroll Post 144 of the Grand Army of the Republic and held nearly every post, including commander. He died at age 85 in 1923. 

The Dedham Transcript recorded his death under the headline: “East Dedham Mourns Faithful Soldier and Always Loyal Citizen: Death Came Very Suddenly to William B. Gould, Veteran of the Civil War.” 

Gould’s diary remained hidden until 1957, when it was discovered in an attic. Gould IV, who had moved from Dedham to New Jersey as a child, spent years poring through the passages and drafting the manuscript published after a distinguished career as an author, scholar, labor lawyer and mediator. 

In 2011, the University of Rhode Island and Cornell Law School graduate published “Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil” about his work as a mediator settling the 1992 baseball strike. 

During his Dedham homecoming, Gould stood in the sun-dappled sanctuary of the church his great-grandfather loved and praised him for instilling in his family “the values he preached of racial equality and a strong military.” 

On April 15, 1865, shortly after the rebellion ended, Gould wrote in his diary: “I heard the good news that the Stars and Stripes have been raised over the capitol in Richmond by the invincible Gen. Grant. The flag of equality.”