As dark descended on the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina on 21st September 1862, 24-year-old William B. Gould jumped aboard an empty boat with seven others and headed for the Atlantic Ocean, all eight of those men having just escaped slavery. The next morning they were picked up by USS Cambridge, an undermanned steamer tasked with blocking Confederate warships, and within days they were members of the crew. Gould went on to serve in the U.S. Navy for twenty years on various vessels; he died in 1923, aged 85. In 1958 his grandson and great-grandson found the diary he had kept during those first few years, one of just three such accounts written by former slaves during the Civil War, and it was finally published in 2002. This entry came in February of 1865, whilst Gould was aboard USS Niagara in Galicia awaiting a confrontation with an ironclad “ram” named CSS Stonewall—a battle which thankfully failed to materialise.
The Diary Entry
THURS. FEB. 23RD
At Corruña. Verry fine day. Port Watch scrub’d Hammocks. Many Visiters came on board. At 122 Oclock we fired a Salute of 15 Gu[ns] and again at 2 Oclock. We were [vis]ited again by the Governer. On departure we saluteed him. [The “Sacra]mento” is lying close to u[s].
A general fight tis certain the [Ram] is here and if she comes out we will have A fight. The Ram carr[ies] one 300 lb. Armstrong Gun an[d] the Forecastle and two 70 ib. Wh[it]worth Guns in two stationary Turrets (one in each). She is plateed with 42 in. of Iron and have al[so] a Prow extending from her bow (below the watter) 22 feet. She have two separately acting engines so that she can go ahead with one and back with the other and is called fast. She have at present A crew of about 75 men and 14 Offercers. She is Commanded by A Man named Page, A native of Norfolk VA. He formerly was in our Navy. He says that h[e] is prepared for any single ship in the United States Navy. She was built at Bordaux France for the Danish Government as it is said but the Danes makeing peace d[id] not want her when the Rebs [came] in and baught her. _______ion that she was built expressly for the Rebs and by Designs furnish’d by them. We are expecting to fight but who will be the victors remains to be seen. Several visitors came on board, Citizens and soldiers and several cadets from A Milatary school that is situated here. Several of our Officers went asshore. The Citty is small and looks verry Ancient. We can see several very ancient looking Churches and two verry fine lighthouses. There are six Forts in sight commanding the Citty and the entrance to the Bay wich is A verry fine one. The place is noteed for the many Battles faught in this vi[cin]ity during the Peninsular War and also the death place of the [En]glish General Sir Thomas Moor[e] and also the first place that We[lling]ton was distinguished. Well figh[t] is to be and victory I pray will be ours.] We are looking very anxiously [for] the Rampages appearance bu[t it] comes not yet.
In 2002, after decades of preparation, Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor was finally published by Stanford University Press, edited by William B. Gould IV, who is the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law at Stanford University and Gould’s great-grandson. I would also recommend reading Gould’s delayed obituary in the New York Times, which gives a great overview of his incredible life. Finally, I fell down a rabbit hole whilst looking into the “ram” mentioned in this entry (which went on to become a Japanese warship named Kōtetsu) and it was time well spent. More on that here.
Excerpted from Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. 2002. Page 224. Reprinted by kind permission of Professor William B. Gould IV.