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William Benjamin Gould’s diary traces road to freedom

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/3/2012, 7:44 a.m.
Civil War veteran William B. Gould and his sons: (L to R) Lawrence, James, William Jr., Herbert, Ernest, and Frederick. Dedham Historical Society

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   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.