When Professor William Gould IV’s father told him to take a close look at his diary, he discovered a priceless family heirloom. Not only is it a treasured family keepsake, it’s to date the only personal account of a Black American contraband of the Civil War. “I can remember my father sitting in the living room reading the diary and saying to me, from time to time, ‘This is something you ought to take a very careful look at.’” The diary was rescued from his father’s attic in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1958.
Let’s stop for a moment and put this rare item in historical perspective. On a dark rainy and humid night in 1862 eight men stole quietly through the streets of downtown Wilmington, N.C. Keeping a careful eye out in fear of being detected, they reached the docks along the Cape Fear River and slipped aboard a small sailboat. Rather than hoisting the sails, they rowed the boat nearly 30 miles downstream to the Atlantic Ocean and made it just before daybreak.
William B. Gould, a skilled tradesman who labored in Wilmington as a plasterer, was among the eight fugitives, and possibly the only one who could read and write. Unbeknownst to them, a day later President Lincoln would sign a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that by Jan. 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the Confederacy would be free. Gould and his fellow runaways beat the president to the punch.
Weary from rowing their boat out to sea setting their sights on the Union blockade along the North Carolina coast, they reached an armed steamer Cambridge. Normally, when contrabands arrived seeking rescue on Union ships they turned back but the ship was short of crewmen and so the eight were welcomed to join the other shipmates. For the next two and half years, Gould served in the U.S. Navy, a rare occurrence and even more providential he began keeping a diary, with an emphasis on the often racist and indifferent treatment he received. He recalled incidents on the ship in which Black sailors were not allowed to eat from the mess pans because they did not want to use the same ones. There was a lapse in the diary when Gould contracted measles in 1863.
Recorded in the diary also, which was later printed without correction of the misspelled words and rough grammar, were the day-to-day boring routines that were occasionally disrupted by engagement with enemy ships. After the war, Gould settled in Dedham where he became a prosperous contractor, his diary tucked away somewhere in his attic.
Much of what we have learned about the book was disclosed by Gould’s grandson and great-grandson William B. Gould IV, of Stanford University and the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus. In 1958, while cleaning out the house they stumbled across the diary. Fascinated by the meticulous account in the diary, Gould IV spent more than a half century transcribing and annotating it, all the while becoming a distinguished legal scholar. Under the title of “Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor,” Gould published in 2002.
The diary may not have mentioned that the writer was born on Nov. 18, 1837, in Wilmington and that his father, Alexander Gould, was a white Englishman and his mother, Elizabeth Moore, was an enslaved Black woman. They were the property of a white peanut farmer, Nicholas Nixon. How Gould acquired his literary skills remains a mystery but they were probably gathered secretly since people in bondage were forbidden to read or to write. It is speculated that he was tutored by white missionaries. Such was the bare minimum of education he received while learning to become an expert in masonry. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Gould, like so many enslaved people, looked for every opportunity to escape.
That escape and his duty aboard the Cambridge has been accounted, but we should note that Gould, as expected, had limited opportunities for promotion, though he did arise to become a wardroom steward. He was on the other side of the Atlantic when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered and Gould was soon back in the states to accept his honorable discharge from the Navy. When at last he settled in Dedham it was with his wife, Cornelia Williams Read, who was formerly enslaved. They had eight children, six of whom served in the Army.
In Dedham, Gould was a prominent contractor and was an absolute perfectionist when it came to constructing an edifice, particularly churches. Once, noticing an imperfection in a building, he had it torn down and redone, which almost led him into bankruptcy. That decision only increased his standing and sense of integrity among the residents.
His reputation was unimpeachable and he served in several high positions in town, including commander of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a highly respected veterans’ organization.
He was often called on to address crowds during national holidays, as he did in 1918 at the town’s Decoration Day, today’s Memorial Day.
On May 25, 1923, Gould died at the age of 85. In 2021, Dedham renamed a 1.3-acre plot of grass the William B. Gould Park and commissioned a statue to be placed there in his honor in 2023, the 100th anniversary of his death.
Gould, center, with his six sons, who all followed in their father’s footsteps and served in the military.