An Enlightening Interview about One of the Unsung Black Regiments of the Civil War

This is a guest post by Nils Skudra, Civil War Historian and Graduate student at UNC. 

The 35th USCT Infantry: An Enlightening Interview about One of the Unsung Black Regiments of the Civil War

I recently had the opportunity to interview Marshall Williams, a member of the [Tryon Palace] 35th USCT Reenactment Group in New Bern, North Carolina. This unit represents the historic 35th USCT Infantry, one of the all-black Union regiments raised in North Carolina during the Civil War. In popular culture, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry is most commonly thought of when the topic of black Union soldiers is raised, and the epic 1989 film Glory is featured in middle and high school classrooms as part of the Civil War history curriculum. However, the black regiments raised in the Union-occupied zones of the South tend to receive less public attention, and therefore I felt that interviewing Mr. Williams would shed furnish an enlightening perspective on an unsung USCT unit that was mustered here in North Carolina.

In discussing the 35th USCT Reenactment Group, Mr. Williams elaborated upon some of the items that are typically featured at their living history events, including 1861 and 1863 Springfield rifled muskets and a .58 caliber bullet. Another item he discussed was the “Slave Bible,” which came out in 1807 and was used by slaveholders to exert control over their slaves. Mr. Williams said that this was a Protestant Bible with 232 chapters, primarily from the New Testament, which emphasized servitude and obedience to masters. While I had previously known that certain passages from Scripture were used to justify slavery, I was unaware that a Bible had been produced specifically for a slave audience, and therefore this information was a revelation to me.

The reenactment group was activated four years ago to “promote better learning and understanding about the involvement of African Americans in North Carolina’s Civil War,” Mr. Williams explained, and the regiment that they represent “has a rich history.” The historic 35th USCT Infantry was initially mustered on July 24th, 1863, as the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers until 1864 when they were reassigned as the 35th USCT, and they were official mustered at the New Bern Academy building. The regiment formed part of the African Brigade, an all-black unit led by Brigadier General Edward A. Wild, a white Northern abolitionist who was presented with a regimental flag by the New Bern Colored Women’s Relief Association. While black Union regiments were commanded by white officers, Mr. Williams revealed that three African Americans, Abraham Galloway, William Henry Singleton and Furney Bryant, were instrumental in recruiting slaves for the 35th. Singleton, who joined the regiment on May 27th, 1863, trained slaves in military tactics since he had previously been part of a Confederate outfit as a body servant, and Galloway and Bryant served as scouts and spies for the Union Army.

An intriguing piece of information that Mr. Williams shared with me revolved around the presence of free African Americans in New Bern who owned slaves during the antebellum period, a notable example being John Carruthers Stanly, a prominent black barber in New Bern who eventually rose to become one of the largest slaveholders in Craven County. “African American slaveholders,” he elaborated, “would buy their own family members back from white slaveholders – this is why you had free black men who owned slaves.” Furthermore, “when they became entrepreneurs, they bought more slaves.

Since the archetypal image associated with slavery in the U.S. is that of African American slaves owned by wealthy white plantation masters, this information was truly compelling since it shed light on a more complex dimension that most people are not familiar with. When I asked Mr. Williams about what became of slaves owned by free blacks upon the Union Army’s arrival, he replied that he believes they were given their freedom by their owners, or they became free upon emancipation.

Mr. Williams also elaborated upon the wartime growth of New Bern’s black community. After the fall of New Bern to Union troops in March 1862, enslaved people flocked to the city. “Once they were in Union lines,” he stated, “they were considered free.” This is an important point since there is a common misconception that the Civil War became a war for slave liberation after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and that the Proclamation did not free any slave, but Mr. Williams’ insights demonstrate that this liberation was taking place on the ground long before Abraham Lincoln signed the Proclamation.

Furthermore, Mr. Williams highlighted the role of black agency as a factor since enslaved people took their freedom by crossing the Trent River to Union lines, and they exercised this freedom by forming the James City community. “New Bern was a mecca for surrounding slaves,” he elaborated, “and under the leadership of Rev. Horace James who was appointed superintendent of Negro Affairs and later the Freedmen’s Bureau and helped establish the Trent River Settlement.” This settlement was later called James City in honor of Rev. James’ leadership and his efforts to establish black teachers and schools.

In discussing the 35th USCT Infantry, Mr. Williams introduced many fascinating facts that made this regiment truly unique among black Union outfits. Although the standard practice in the Union Army was for black soldiers to be led by white officers, “General Wild,” he stated, “had free will to promote and get his own people for the regiment.” These individuals included free black officers, such as Lieutenant Colonel William Reed, a free mulatto, and John V. DeGrasse, a multiracial doctor who served as Assistant Surgeon for the regiment but was later discharged on two charges of drunkenness. While Mr. Williams noted that each company probably had a white sergeant to help with drilling the troops, the 35th had a black chaplain, John N. Mars, who even administered to a white Union regiment at one point. Since the Union Army was officially segregated, this was highly unprecedented, and it would definitely prove enlightening for students of Civil War history.

The 35th USCT served alongside the 36th and 37th USCT Regiments and a heavy artillery regiment. Together, these units comprised the African Brigade, which 5,000 African Americans joined during the war. Mr. Williams indicated that according to some reports, the 35th took part in the assault on Fort Wagner, but he believed this to be unlikely since the regiment was activated on July 24th, six days after the battle. “It’s possible,” he stated, “that some members of the 35th were picked up by the 54th Massachusetts on their way to Fort Wagner.”

In discussing the 35th’s combat record, Mr. Williams told me that they were involved in the Battle of Olustee on February 20th, 1864, the Civil War’s only major battle in Florida. During this battle, Lt. Col. Reed and Major Archibald Boyle were mortally wounded, while the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Beecher, was on leave at the time. On May 23rd, 1864, the 35th took part in a series of excursions and raids, including James Island, SC. Other engagements included a skirmish at King Creek on July 23rd, 1864; an expedition at Boyd’s Creek on November 25th, 1864; the Battle of Honey Hill, SC, on November 30th, 1864; and a variety of minor skirmishes or raids. William Henry Singleton, serving as a sergeant in the 35th, was wounded at Olustee but fortunately survived his wound, after which he was mustered out of service.

In discussing the wartime roles of Singleton and Galloway, Mr. Williams indicated that Singleton became a manservant to Union general Ambrose Burnside following the capture of New Bern, and in this capacity, he accompanied Burnside to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, for the general’s meeting with President Lincoln. According to Mr. Williams, Singleton met the president on this occasion, who told Singleton that “it wasn’t time for slaves to fight but there would be a time eventually.

With regard to Abraham Galloway, Mr. Williams affirmed his belief that Galloway was the equivalent of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X since he had the negotiation skills of the former and the confrontational style of the latter, as he always kept bodyguards with him. “He was tough – he was always scouting and didn’t mind challenging white authority,” Mr. Williams reflected. Furthermore, Galloway proved to be a valuable source of information since he was a native of Wilmington, NC, and “he made people feel welcome to join the army.” Galloway’s recruiting efforts were highly effective, as he helped to recruit 5,000 men in a short period of time.

Overall, the 35th USCT participated in different areas of the war, being deployed in the Carolinas, Virginia, Florida, Texas, and Maryland. Most of their skirmishes took place in South Carolina and Florida, and some of the 35th’s members became Buffalo Soldiers who were present in Galveston, Texas on Juneteenth, 1865, when emancipation was proclaimed in the region. Mr. Williams stated that he was very interested in finding written testimonies from the 35th, and in his research he found that Colonel Beecher’s wife taught many of the soldiers to read and write while in camp. Her efforts produced significant results: “They came in with an X and left with the ability to write their names.” Consequently, veterans of the 35th used their education in order to apply for pensions, some of which were granted, but Mr. Williams noted that “it was always a struggle” for them.

The information that Mr. Williams shared was profoundly enlightening, as it shed light on numerous aspects of the 35th’s experience that are not enshrined in popular memory. “A lot of people don’t know the true extent of the history about USCT troops in the Civil War,” he reflected. Having retired after nearly 42 years of Federal service – 4 years as a Marine and 37-plus years in civil service industrial engineering for A/C Systems at Fleet Readiness Center in East Cherry Point, NC – Mr. Williams devotes his energy to educating the public about the 35th U.S.C.T. Infantry, and I wholeheartedly support his efforts. By learning about this unsung regiment, we can acquire a deeper perspective into the complexity of the USCT troops’ experience and how it inspired them to advocate for their rights as American citizens.

To learn more about the 35th regiment of the United States Colored Troops, join us this Saturday at our virtual USCT Symposium