On September 21, 1862, 22 fugitive slaves boarded three small sailing boats from the docks on Orange Street in downtown Wilmington and rowed 28 nautical miles to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The escape was one of the largest ever in the Cape Fear region.
One of the escaped slaves that night was William B. Gould, a 24-year old plasterer who worked on the Bellamy Mansion. What is known of the daring escape is based on Gould’s diary.
The slaves’ goal was to reach the Union blockading ships and thus gain freedom. At one point, they had to pass directly beneath Fort Caswell, a Confederate stronghold heavily armed to keep Union naval forces out of Wilmington harbor. Escapees aboard all three ships ultimately were picked up by Union ships. Gould went on to serve aboard two ships in the U.S. Navy. His diary—the only known diary of a black soldier during the Civil War who was a former slave—provides a unique insight into the Maritime Underground Railroad and the day-to-day life of a former slave fighting to secure freedom for himself.
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