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

 
 
 

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      According to William B. Gould’s death certificate, his mother was an enslaved person, Elizabeth Moore, and his father was an Englishman named Alexander Gould. William was owned by Nicholas Nixon, a prominent a peanut planter. During his youth, Gould gained skills in the building trade. Although teaching slaves to read had been outlawed in North Carolina in 1830, Gould also learned to read and write.

      Around 1860, Gould began to work as a plasterer and mason on the Bellamy Mansion, on which construction began in 1859. The building would serve as the home of the family of Dr. John D. Bellamy, a Wilmington physician and merchant. James F. Post of New Jersey was the lead architect on the project. Gould created elaborate plasterwork throughout the main level of the mansion. He signed his initials, WBG, into the back of two sections of decorative plaster, one of which is on display at the Bellamy Mansion Museum today. The Bellamy Mansion is the only construction project on which Gould is confirmed to have worked. Bellamy is known to have hired Gould out, so it is probable that he worked on other construction assignments as well.

      On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other enslaved men escaped from Wilmington via the Cape Fear River and headed for the Union-occupied zone of the North Carolina coast. Six days later they were picked up by the USS Cambridge and recorded as “eight contrabands from Wilmington.” Gould and his fellow escapees enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He began documenting his experiences on September 27, the day that he encountered the crewmen of the Cambridge. He kept the journal for three years; the last entry was dated September 29, 1865.

      His is one of only three known diaries written by African American sailors during the Civil War, and is the only one penned by a former slave. Gould’s diary was written in a spare style, as might be expected given the demanding routine of life aboard a naval vessel, which usually left little time for long reflective entries. Frequently entries include comments on the weather and various incidents of interest, sometimes serious and sometimes comic in nature, as well as brief descriptions of contacts with over Union naval vessels, encounters with the enemy, the pickup of other escaped slaves, references to letters from family of friends, notations to visitors of the ships, and, in the case of the European stint of the voyage, details of ports of call. Other entries briefly comment on the conduct of the war, such as Gould’s April 16, 1864, expression of frustration regarding the failure of the U.S. government to retaliate for the recent massacre of black and white U.S. soldiers by Confederate troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

      Gould’s great-grandson, Stanford University law professor William B. Gould IV, edited the diary for publication in 2002. The diary is of great interest to those researching the activities of the U.S. Navy and the African American experience in the war. William B. Gould is also believed to be the author, under the pen name of “Oley,” of several pieces published during the war in the Weekly Anglo-African, a New York journal.

      Gould’s wartime service fell into two main phases. In the first, he served aboard the Cambridge until the spring of 1863 as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In the second, which lasted until the end of the war, he served on the USS Niagara as part of the European Squadron. The Niagara cruised the English Channel and the European coastline in search of Confederate warships and blockade runners. During his time aboard the Niagara, Gould visited many European ports.

      After the war, Gould married Cornelia Read, a freedwoman from Wilmington. The couple settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he continued to work as a mason and plasterer. The couple had eight children. He joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the national Union veterans’ organization, in 1882. He would eventually hold nearly every key position within the Dedham African-American GAR post, including the rank of post commander. He died on May 25, 1923.
     

References:
Bellamy Mansion Museum website: https://www.bellamymansion.org/
Catherine W. Bishir, “Gould, William B.,” North Carolina Architects & Builders: A      Biographical Dictionary, North Carolina State University Libraries Database,
http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/people/P000320 .
Catherine W. Bishir. “Urban Slavery at Work: The Bellamy Mansion Compound, Wilmington, North Carolina,” Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the
Vernacular Architecture Forum
, 17:2 (Fall 2010): 13-32
William B. Gould, Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor, ed. by William B. Gould IV (2002)
William M. Reaves, comp., Strength Through Struggle: The Chronological and      Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North
Carolina, 1865-1950
(2002)
Ben Steelman. “Diary of a Slave,” Wilmington Star-News, October 27, 2002:
     http://www.starnewsonline.com/lifestyle/20021027/diary-of-a-slave
United States Naval War Records Office, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, two series in thirty volumes
(1894-1922), Series I: Vols. 2-3, 8
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