Object of the Month

The Diary of a Black Civil War Sailor

William Benjamin Gould diary, 15 April 1865

William Benjamin Gould diary, 15 April 1865

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"While we honor the living soldiers who have done so much we must not forget to whisper for fear of desturbeing the Glorious sleep of the ma[ny] who have fallen."

With these words, William Benjamin Gould, a former slave serving on board the U. S. Steam Frigate Niagara, describes hearing "the Glad Tidings that the Stars and Stripe[s] had been planted over the Capital of the D--nd Confedercy by the invincible Grant," in an entry in his diary for 15 April 1865. William B. Gould's diary is an extraordinary personal account, in his own words, of the Civil War service of an African American sailor.

About the Diary

On 27 September 1862, William B. Gould, a twenty-four-year-old former slave from Wilmington, North Carolina, began a diary of his service aboard the Cambridge, a Union gunboat then patrolling off the Confederate coast. Five days earlier, along with seven other slaves, Gould had escaped to freedom by rowing out to the Cambridge. During the next three years, Gould recorded his Civil War service in the U.S. Navy, first aboard the Cambridge, and later aboard the Niagara during the epic hunt through European waters for the Confederate cruisers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

William B. Gould's diary is a day-to-day account in his own words of the Civil War service of an African American sailor--a former slave who already had served for months in the United States Navy before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863.

In his diary, Gould reveals himself as a thoughtful, articulate observer, not only of his surroundings--his life at sea in the Civil War navy--but also the ports and countries that he visited in the course of his service, and of military and political affairs in the United States, especially as they touched the lives of African Americans. After hostilities had ended, while his ship was cruising off Southampton, England, he took note of a proposal that "intimates Colinization for the colard people of the United States...This move...must and shall be resisted. 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."

After the Civil War, Gould moved to Nantucket, where he married, and later settled in Dedham, where he raised eight children, including six sons who served in the Spanish-American War and the First World War. He died in Dedham in 1923.

The Gould diary comes "home" to Massachusetts

On Tuesday, 18 April 2006, in a ceremony held at the Massachusetts Historical Society's headquarters at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, William B. Gould IV, the great-grandson of the diarist, donated the diary of William B. Gould to the Historical Society. Many members of the Gould and Gerber families-descendents of William B. Gould-were in attendance. The diary will be on display at the MHS through the spring and summer of 2006. The diary also will be used in educational programs and seminars, and public exhibitions at the MHS and Boston-area universities and museums.

William B. Gould IV's gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society brings the diary of his great-grandfather "home" to Massachusetts. At the Historical Society, the William B. Gould diary will join more than 2,000 other diaries contained in 3,600 separate manuscript collections that cover the entire course of American history.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gould, William Benjamin. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor, edited by William B. Gould IV. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Reidy, Joseph P. "Black Men in Navy Blue during the Civil War." Prologue: Quarterly Journal of the National Archives and Records Administration (Fall 2001).

Valuska, David L. The African American in the Union Navy: 1861-1865. New York: Garland, 1993.

A digital version of the Gould diary is available at the Stanford Law School Library website.