During the Civil War, the newly freed slaves in North Carolina fled to New Bern as the Union army began its occupation of Eastern Carolina, and many would go on to become Union soldiers and fight against the Confederacy. The First North Carolina Volunteers, which would later become the 35th United States Colored Troops, had its inception in New Bern where former slaves took up arms to fight with the Union Army against the institution of slavery. Union Colonel James C. Beecher helped recruit and train these men, and they would go on to fight in skirmishes and battles south of North Carolina. In 1864, the 35th USCT found themselves in the Battle of Olustee in the final Union attempt to seize Florida. Accounts indicate that the black soldiers of the 35th USCT fought bravely and skillfully, but the outcome of the battle would still be a horrific defeat for the Union with great casualties for both sides. Furthermore, the wounded black Union soldiers and their white commanders endured additional horrors of battle. When left on the battlefield after the retreat of their army, they encountered a Confederate army that committed atrocious acts against these men.
The subject of African American participation in the Union Army during the Civil War has not been as deeply and thoroughly studied as other topics pertaining to this time period in American history. Much of the work that has been done in this area fits into a larger question of “Who freed the slaves?” that looks to examine the main actors involved in this question. The earliest works on this subject were done by Union veterans, such as William Wells Brown and George Washington Williams. These 19th century works argued that African American soldiers fought bravely and celebrated “the role they played in guaranteeing the freedom of the slaves.” In 1979, historian Leon Litwack released a book that emphasized the importance of African American troops in ending slavery. (Fleche 2014, 299-309) More recently, historian Richard M. Reid, with his work Freedom For Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era, looked directly at the black military experience of the soldiers from North Carolina and argued that they were important actors in securing freedom for themselves. Perhaps one of the most important historians on this topic is Ira Berlin, who through many works such as Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation and “Who Freed the Slaves? Emancipation and its Meaning in American Life,” argued that though not the only actors involved, “slaves were the prime movers in the emancipation drama.” One way in which they had agency was through their participation in the Union army. (Berlin 1997, 120) This study will build on the work of Ira Berlin and other historians in emphasizing that African Americans played an active role in securing their freedom and proving their claim to citizenship through their service in the Union Army.
This study will use the 35th USCT to look at the transition from slave to soldier in New Bern, North Carolina, and the racial atrocities committed against black soldiers at the Battle of Olustee in order to explore the journey of a slave from hope and opportunity in New Bern to horror and discrimination in Florida – a journey that advanced their claims to citizenship. The men of the 35th USCT, from their enlistment in the First North Carolina Volunteers to their actions and experiences at the Battle of Olustee, experienced a tumultuous journey where the hope and excitement of freedom coupled with the pride and responsibility of putting on a Union uniform and fighting for an important cause would be interrupted with the reality of the racially hostile world of which they unfortunately were still a part. The former slave recruitment and enlistment in New Bern was an image of the potential their future could hold as free citizens, but their experiences at the Battle of Olustee was the dark foreshadowing of the future for the African American race as they concluded the Civil War and entered Reconstruction as freed people no longer slaves, but still faced immensely harsh conditions due solely to the prejudices held against them because of the color of their skin. These men faced Northern opposition to enlistment in the beginning of their journey to Southern racial violence against them at the Battle of Olustee, but despite this, the former slaves of the 35th USCT, through their service in the Union army, significantly advanced the cause of citizenship for their entire race.