William B. Gould, IV. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor.
In 1862, William B. Gould, age 24, a skilled plasterer and mason, escaped slavery with seven of his fellows by rowing twenty-eight nautical miles down the Cape Fear River from Wilmington, North Carolina, to the U.S.S. Cambridge, part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, and being taken aboard as a contraband sailor. Gould kept a diary of his three years aboard the Cambridge, chasing blockade runners along the Atlantic Coast, and later the Niagara, off Europe pursuing vessels built or refitted there for the Confederacy. In 1958, his grandson, William B. Gould, III, discovered the diary when clearing out a family home in Dedham, Massachusetts. In this superbly edited book, Gould's great-grandson, William B. Gould, IV, professor of law at Stanford University and chairman of the National Labor Relations Board in the Clinton administration, sets the diary in the contexts of Civil War, naval, and family history.
Gould's diary is a rare find--an important addition to the handful of first-person accounts of Civil War service by African Americans and, to my knowledge, the only published diary of any sort by a recently self-liberated slave. The authors of the other two sailors' diaries the editor has found, of which only one is published (Paul E. Sluby, Sr., and Stanton L. Wormley, eds., Diary of Charles B. Fisher [Washington, DC: Columbia Harmony Society, 1983]), were apparently free before the war, as were almost all the black soldiers who sent letters from the front to the editors of Northern newspapers (see Edwin S. Redkey's A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 18611865 [New York: Cambridge UP, 1992]); those who sent regular dispatches and thus offer a sustained perspective were professional reporters. William B. Gould's writing bridges these two Civil War genres. The diary shows WBG, as the editor calls him, to have been an avid reader and supporter of the New York Anglo-African, in which he would have read the letters of George E. Stephens, who reported for the Anglo from the 54th Massachusetts regiment (see Donald Yacovone, ed., A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens [Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1997]), among others, and the editor argues convincingly from textual evidence that the author of the diary is also the author of three pseudonymous letters to the Anglo included in the volume.
Literature scholars will inevitably read the diary in the context of the only familiar genre of personal writing by fugitive slaves, the slave narrative. But what is most striking about this comparison is the contrast. The diarist defines himself by the present, not the past, and addressing himself, rather than a skeptical audience, has no need to prove his humanity or veracity. WBG says nothing of his prior condition (which the editor determines from the ship's log, which names his owner), how he learned to read and write (the editor guesses that he was schooled at either a Methodist or an Episcopal church in Wilmington), how he escaped, how freedom feels, or what he hopes from the future. He understands his work to be a record of naval service.
The diary begins five days after he was taken aboard the Cambridge, as though it were any other day at sea ("At Beaufort, N. C. We coald ship all night and until ten Oclock ..."); stops whenever he is ashore, whether hospitalized for six months with measles or on shore leave for a couple of days or weeks; and concludes on the day of his discharge: "So end my serveace in the Navy of the United States of America." It reports the ship's position and the weather; the taking on of stores, repairing of leaks, and making of hats; collisions, desertions, courts martial, religious services, a minstrel show, visitors, occasional chases and gun battles, and long periods of waiting for weather and orders. The only hints that the writer's perspective may be informed by slave experience is the barrier to returning home suggested, for example, when the Cambridge passes what the editor informs us is his owner's plantation and he takes "a good look at the place that I left in" 1862 and the strength of his passion for "the holiest of all causes Liberty and Union."
The man who emerges from the diary's cryptic and understated record of actions and reactions is socially and politically active, at home in the world, confident of his citizenship. He carries on an extensive correspondence with friends and relatives and visits many of them in New York, Boston, and Nantucket, where he meets the woman who would become his wife (whose freedom, the editor learned, had been purchased with the help of Henry Highland Garnet). He attends concerts, lectures, and political meetings, and hears Henry Ward Beecher preach; organizes shipboard subscription drives for the Anglo and keeps in touch with its editor; comments on political developments that he thinks advance or retard the cause of "Right and Equality"; and denounces mistreatment of black sailors when he sees it. He speaks affectionately of "Uncle Samuel" and sardonically of "would be King Jeff" and longs, from Europe, for "the shores of the Etates Unis." When he condemns the colonization movement he speaks on behalf of all Americans: "We were born under the Flag of the Union and we never will know no other. My sentement is the sentement of the people of the States."
William B. Gould, IV's prodigious and well organized research fills in both the personal and public stories sketched in the diary. Extensive annotations set WBG's shipboard observations against the ship's log, contemporary newspaper accounts, and the writings of later historians. In three introductory essays, Gould traces WBG's family history and subsequent life as a respected tradesman, GAR leader, and founder of a family in Dedham, Massachusetts, and situates his experience in the political progress of the Civil War, in which the enlistment of contrabands helped redirect the goal from the preservation of the Union to the eradication of slavery; the development of the modern navy, which the Civil War necessitated; and the shifting history of the military's reception of blacks. The volume also includes illustrations, tables of WBG's correspondents, brief biographies of persons mentioned, and a helpful index.
In a preface, an epilogue, and three speeches he himself gave while researching the book, William B. Gould, W, reflects on the impact of his great-grandfather's values in his own life. He brings to his reading of the diary's significance the perspective not only of an admiring descendant of the author but of a fellow combatant in the struggle for civil rights. He identifies the National Labor Relations Act, which provides for the right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining, as a "direct descendant of the great changes wrought by the War of the Rebellion" and speaks of taking "comfort ... and energy" from his great-grandfather's example as he strove to defend the principles of the Act from conservative attack. Gould calls the diary "eloquent and methodical." The same could be said of his own editorial framework, which integrates family and national history over four generations. Diary of a Contraband brings to light an important historical document and opens a window on one remarkable ordinary man's experience of a moment of our national self-definition.
Susan L. Blake