"I Was Born a Slave"
Most of the African American soldiers that joined the Union Army in North Carolina were previously enslaved in an institution that was rooted in the exploitation of black human beings for the use and profit of slaveholders. As John David Smith relays in Black Soldiers in Blue, “the vast majority of the North Carolina soldiers had been illiterate slaves, had worked as agricultural laborers” and “many had enlisted in the army after fleeing the control of their slave owners.” (Smith 2002, 395) Civil War Service Records from the 35th USCT reveal that a majority of the soldiers from that regiment were listed as farmers under their previous occupation. (The National Archives) As historian James K. Bryant explains, “the majority of the enlisted men had been slaves prior to the beginning of the war, therefore it seemed to have been agreed upon among the regiment’s recruiting officers to list their occupations as ‘Farmers’ rather than as ‘Slaves.’ This gave them some level of dignity.” (Bryant 2012, 134)
From the words of a former slave in North Carolina who became a soldier for the Union Army, William Henry Singleton, the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves meant that he and his race “could not be bought and sold any more or whipped or made to work without pay,” and they were “not to be treated as things without souls anymore, but as human beings.” In Recollections of My Slavery Days, Singleton reflected on his life in slavery in New Bern, North Carolina. The following experience of William Henry Singleton was one shared by many African Americans in the South during the time before the Civil War: “I was born a slave, for I was a black man. And because I was black it was believed I had no soul. I had no rights that anybody was bound to respect. For in the eyes of the law I was but a thing. I was bought and sold. I was whipped.” (Item 895) These words from a former slave reflect the cruelty of an institution that was grounded in the immense mistreatment of African Americans for the gains of slaveholders. Slavery became a foundation in Southern society as it was a significant factor in the economy and lifestyle for many Southerners. As a result, countless African Americans were treated as William Henry Singleton relayed above – not as human beings, but as “things.” Due to this reality of life under slavery, the transition into life as a free person and, subsequently for some, as a soldier would prove even more drastic and life-changing.
Evidence of the life in slavery many men of the 35th USCT experienced comes from the white perspective as well. Frances Perkins Beecher, wife of the Commander of the 35th USCT, James C. Beecher, wrote an article published after the Civil War about her time spent with her husband and his colored regiment. She recorded the following quote from her husband regarding his time spent as his men’s chaplain in addition to military leader: “I prayed with them. I had given no directions, but the men knelt down and bowed their heads. It affected me beyond measure, and I prayed for them in faith. When I spoke of their past lives, of their being bought and sold like brutes, of their wives and children not their own, of their sorrow and degradation, many wept like children.” (Item 985) Here, Commander Beecher reflected on what it meant to be enslaved to these men. The terms “sorrow” and “degradation” are extremely accurate in referring to the life of an enslaved man or woman. The institution of slavery was degrading because it sought to reduce these human beings to mere “brutes” that could be bought and sold away from their families in the blink of an eye. Their life in slavery was undeniably horrific as shown by this episode between Commander Beecher and his men, but incredible opportunities would soon open up for these men as the Civil War brought Union troops into eastern North Carolina that put freedom in the grasps of many enslaved men and women.