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Dedham honors Black Civil War vet

Hundreds pay tribute to former slave William Benjamin Gould

Brian Wright O’Connor
Dedham honors Black Civil War vet
Gould’s descendants unveil his statue. PHOTO: ERINT IMAGES

William Benjamin Gould’s remarkable life, leading from bondage in the antebellum South to a daring escape and service in the Union Navy, was celebrated over Memorial Day weekend with the dedication of a bronze statue in Dedham, the town where he settled and raised his family after the Civil War.

The emotional unveiling of Gould’s dignified seated figure took place on the centennial anniversary of his death and in the presence of his great-grandson, William B. Gould IV, a retired Stanford Law professor, whose father grew up in the nearby family homestead on the Boston-Dedham line.

Several of Gould’s great-great-great grandchildren pulled on a black cloth to reveal the contemplative image, but the fabric snagged, requiring the aid of two 54th Massachusetts Regiment re-enactors to use their long bayonets to lift the cloth and complete the unveiling.

Several hundred Dedham residents, gathered to witness the ceremony at William B. Gould Park, broke into applause. The re-enactors fired volleys of tribute from their Springfield percussion-cap muskets into the still spring air.

Civil War vet William B. Gould and his sons (left to right) Lawrence, James, William
Jr., Herbert, Ernest and Frederick.

In remarks to the audience, Gould IV, 86, said that on a family trip to Wilmington, N.C., where his great-grandfather worked as an enslaved plasterer, they saw no statues of any Black veterans of the Civil War but passed by many of Confederate soldiers.

“Statues cannot be viewed as neutral and they do not exist in a vacuum. They project the memories of the past and the values associated with them,” Gould IV said.

“When the time capsules contained within this statue are opened, 100 and 200 years from now, it may be that William B. Gould’s values, expressed in war and peace here in Dedham, will in some way shape or promote the discussions of future generations.”

Those values led all of Gould’s six sons into military service, some as officers, in the Spanish-American War and World War I. The father was a founder of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dedham’s Oakdale Square, where he did the plastering work on the Episcopalian sanctuary’s interior.

The church honored the Dedham veteran during a Sunday morning service with the family seated in the same pew occupied by the Goulds for decades before the family dispersed around the country.

Gould also built strong ties to St. Mary’s Church in Dedham. He won the plastering contract for the church in the late 19th century. After discovering that inferior cement had been used, he ordered all the work ripped out and re-done at his expense. The decision nearly bankrupted his firm but won him plaudits for his honesty and probity.

Gould’s adventure from slavery to freedom began in the bustling riverport city of Wilmington. On the day before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in the states under rebellion, the 24-year-old Gould joined seven others in rowing 28 miles up the Cape Fear River into the open Atlantic, where they were picked up by the passing frigate U.S.S. Cambridge.

Gould and his companions were declared “contraband of war,” thus circumventing the requirements of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that they be returned to their enslavers. Gould himself enlisted on board and served through the end of the conflict.

He kept a detailed diary of his experiences, which his great-grandson published in “Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor” in 2002.

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 several columns published under the pseudonym “Oley” in New York City’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 Rev. James E. Crawford in the African Baptist Church on Nantucket. They raised eight children together, six sons and two daughters.

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 antebellum Bellamy mansion.

Writing in the Nov. 4, 1865 “Anglo-African,” seven months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Gould finds “the old Town anything but what we left it. Her streets are entirely deserted. Her wharves that used to groan under millions 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 “The 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,” Gould wrote. “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 passerby 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, the Norfolk County seat.

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.”

The statue, commissioned under the leadership of Brian Keaney, a fourth-generation Dedhamite, was sculpted by Bolivan-born Pablo Eduardo, who studied period clothing to render the image historically accurate. Sitting atop a granite plinth on a ridge above Mother Brook, the statue includes Gould’s toolbox at his feet. Draped over his chair is the coat he wore as commander of the veterans post.

Gould IV, a past chairman of the National Labor Relations Board who led negotiations to settle the 1993 Major League Baseball strike, said his great-grandfather, were he alive today, would surely “want us to repair the inequality in our country, as he did with his work, with great care and honesty.”

Civil War, Dedham, slavery, William Benjamin Gould