N.C. Highway Marker Dedication April 1 Salutes African American Defenders of Washington


The Union Army equipped about 100 African American men to help defend Washington during a siege of the town in April 1863. This was not the first attempt to arm blacks, but reflected a shift in U.S. policy towards recruiting blacks into the military. A N.C. Highway Historical Marker will be dedicated April 1, 2 p.m., at the Washington Civic Center, 110 Gladden Street, Washington, in recognition of their service.

The dedication program will include remarks from historian David Cecelski, N.C. African American Heritage Commission Director Michelle Lanier, Wanda Hunt McLean, president of the Northeast N.C. Underground Railroad Foundation and Leesa Jones, of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.

The men were enlisted prior to formation in New Bern of the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers in July 1863, following President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the first Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. No African Americans had been recruited prior to that date. But some Union commanders already used escaped slaves for various forms of military labor and others employed formerly enslaved and free blacks as spies and scouts for the Union.

Immediate manpower needs often caused the commanders to use African Americans since thousands had made their way to Union lines seeking freedom. Abolitionists saw recruitment of the men as a way to show the government and Northerners that emancipation was worthy of support, while also allowing African Americans to strike a blow against slavery and aid in defeating the Confederacy. Union commanders also saw enlistment of escapees as a way to prevent them being used by slaveowners to help the Confederates. 

A systematic effort to recruit African Americans in North Carolina began following the siege of Washington. Col. Edward A. Wild was selected to oversee the task and promoted to brigadier general.  Wild arrived in New Bern in May and began recruiting for what became the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers (later designated the 35th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops). Two more infantry regiments and an artillery regiment eventually would follow. 

For additional information on the dedication and the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program, please call (919) 807-7290. The Highway Marker Program is within the Office of Archives and History and administered by the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The program is collaboration between the N.C. Departments of Natural and Cultural Resources and Transportation.

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