In September 1938, William Henry Singleton left his home in New Haven, Conn., and joined 118 fellow veterans of the Civil War at the 72nd Grand Army of the Republic encampment in Des Moines, Iowa. Ninety-five years old, he could hardly see and suffered from heart trouble. Yet Singleton was determined to participate in the GAR reunion and especially in its parade on the afternoon of Sept. 7.
The thermometer had climbed to a sweltering 90 degrees by the time the GAR commander surveyed his aged troops. Despite the heat and their advanced age, 38 Union veterans decided to walk the entire 15 blocks. William Henry Singleton was one of them, and the march must have filled him with great pride.
Born in bondage in Eastern North Carolina, Singleton--like nearly 10,000 other slaves--had escaped to New Bern shortly after Union troops captured the city in March 1862. Long before President Lincoln allowed black soldiers into the Union army, Singleton organized a makeshift regiment of former slaves ready to fight for their freedom. In the summer of 1862, he accompanied Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside to his new headquarters in Virginia, meeting Lincoln and pressing the president to sanction black military service. It was not until May 1863, however, that Singleton's dream of fighting as a Union soldier was finally realized, when he enlisted in New Bern as a sergeant in the 35th United States Colored Troops.
Having proven himself willing to give his life for his country, Singleton believed that his country would, in turn, be morally obligated to grant him first-class citizenship. Seventy-five years later in Iowa, the elderly grandfather of eight sought to remind his fellow citizens of this unfulfilled promise to African-American veterans both of the Civil War and of World War I.
The Grand Army encampment, as it turned out, was the last time that Singleton would stand as a witness to his people's struggle for freedom. Only hours after the parade, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Perhaps there were some that day who knew of Singleton and his accomplishments. In 1922, 16 years before his death, Singleton recorded the events of his life in Recollections of My Slavery Days, a compelling account of a remarkable journey from slavery to freedom in the American South. At that time, he was a respected member of the Peekskill, N.Y., community, and his narrative appeared in serial form in a local weekly newspaper.
Later issued as a pamphlet, Recollections was never widely distributed and has remained in obscurity for several generations. The N.C. Division of Archives and History has recently republished Singleton's memoir, chronicling his experiences as a slave in antebellum North Carolina. Singleton highlights several escapes from his master, prompted by a determination to remain close to his family, and celebrates his wartime service before concluding with a brief sketch of his life as a free man.
Singleton's personal memories offer readers a rare, firsthand account of African American-resistance to slavery and participation in the Civil War. His is only one voice, a single brief vignette, but it speaks to a far broader historical experience, describing a moment that changed the lives of millions.
This version of Singleton's Recollections was abridged for The Independent by the book's editors, David Cecelski and Katherine Mellen Charron. Spelling and capitalization have not been altered.
I have lived through the greatest epoch in history, having been born August 10, 1835, at Newbern, North Carolina. That was not so many years, you see, after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the winning of the Revolutionary War. But in the country of the Declaration of Independence 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. Once I was whipped simply because it was thought I had opened a book.
But I lived to see the institution of slavery into which I was born and of which I was for many years a victim pass away. I wore the uniform of those men in Blue, who through four years of suffering wiped away with their blood the stain of slavery and purged the Republic of its sin. I met, too, that great man who led those men as their great Commander-in-Chief; he shook hands with me, yes, talked to me. I can still see his sad, tired worn face as he spoke to me that day. And in those days since I was whipped simply because it was thought I had opened a book, I have seen the books of the world opened to my race. And with the help and sympathy of God's good people I have seen them make a beginning in education. And in my old age when a nation across the seas sought to enslave the world as once my race was enslaved, I saw the boys of my race take their place in the armies of the Republic and help save freedom for the world.
Comparing my position now, living in a good home, with my wife, with friends, respected in my community, with the same rights that every other man has, those days of my boyhood seem like a dream. But folks who know my story like to hear me tell about those days, how we lived, what we thought about, how we were treated, what kind of people our masters were. So I recall them for my friends and for other folks, who, though they do not know me, might like to hear a true story that may seem as strange to them, however, as a fairy tale.
Now although I was born black and a slave, I was not all black. My mother was a colored woman but my father was the brother of my master. My master's estate was one of the largest in Craven County, North Carolina, and he had more slaves than any other planter thereabouts. The first thing I remember is playing on the plantation with my little brothers and with the other slave children. While the men and women slaves were in the cotton, corn and potato fields working during the day, we children were taken care of by an old slave lady at a central house. She had grown too old to work and so acted as a kind of nurse for the slave children during the day. I was about four years old at that time. I had two brothers younger than I and one two years older. Nights we went home with our mother. The slaves lived in a row of houses a ways from the main house where our master lived.
One day when I was about four years old a strange man came to this central house where all of us children were and asked me if I liked candy. I told him yes. So he gave me a striped stick of candy. Then he asked me if I liked him. I said, yes, sir, because he had given me the candy. There was a colored woman with him and he asked me then how I would like to go and live with him. Of course I did not know him nor the woman, but without saying any more the man took me away with him and gave me to the strange woman who took me to Atlanta, Georgia, and delivered me to a white woman who had bought me. That night when my mother came to get me and my brothers I was not there. I had been sold off the plantation away from my mother and brothers with as little formality as they would have sold a calf or a mule.
Such breaking up of families and parting of children was quite common in slavery days and was one of the things that caused much bitterness among the slaves and much suffering, because the slaves were as fond of their children as the white folks. But nothing could be done about it, for the law said we were only things and so we had no more rights under the law than animals.
So began an epic battle of wills between the young slave and his first master, John H. Nelson. Determined to be reunited with his mother, Singleton, at "about seven years old," eventually fled from Atlanta all the way back to Nelson's plantation, which was located on the Neuse River, north of Beaufort. "It was the only home I knew," he wrote. "It was where my mother was." To hide from police patrols, young Singleton hid and slept in a cellar under his mother's house for three years before he was caught and sold away again.
They sold me that time to the overseer on the plantation, John Peed. But he did not buy me to keep me on the plantation, he bought me to send me to Jones County, North Carolina, to his folks. He paid $500 for me. But when he sent me to my mother's house to get my clothes to take with me I ran to the woods. They tried to find me, but they could not. Nights I came back to my mother's house and to the cellar and very early in the morning before the sun was up I would go to the woods and watch the men go to their work. I would stay in the woods all day and then come back at night. Of course I could not have done this if the colored people had not been friendly to me.
Finally my mother got notice that if I would come back and give myself up they would put me to work on the planation, helping the boys feed the horses and things of that kind, that Mr. Peed did not own me any more for they had given him his money back when I ran away. So I gave myself up, but very soon the folks up at the big house began to find fault about my being on the place, so my master sold me the third time. He virtually gave me away, for he received only $50 for me and sold me to a poor white woman of the neighborhood. She was very good to me. She had a little farm and was what might be called one of the "poor whites." The plantation owners considered any one who did not own a good deal of property and slaves poor. She was named Mrs. Wheeler. But she got tired of me for some reason and sold me to a party who was to come for me. But before they could come to take me away I ran away.
I went to the city of Newbern and hired out as a bell boy at the Moore Hotel. Of course they did not know that I was a runaway slave and they did not know my name, either, for I would not tell them. They called me the "Don't know" boy. But they gave me three dollars a week and my food. I was then about ten years old. I stayed at the Moore House three years. I left because some of the other colored boys about there had found out who I was and said they were going to give me away.
So I went back to the plantation again to my mother's house. She told me that they had promised not to sell me any more if I would give myself up and go on the plantation and go to work. And she wanted me to do that, because she was very tired of my foolishness, as she called it, in running away and going about the country. So I did give myself up. I went to the big house and saw my master and told him I had come home to stay now.
He was a tall, raw-boned, black-faced man, quite old then, too old to go to war when the war came. He said, "All right, go out to the barn and go to work and it will be all right. Go out and help the men take care of the horses and stay home." And I did. I learned to plow and to do all kinds of work about the plantation and in the cotton and corn fields. I was not given any chance to learn a trade, though. And of course I was given no opportunity to learn to read. There was no school for the slaves to attend.
I would not have wanted to go to school any way for my only experience with a book was not a pleasant one. One day my master's son, who was just my age, had a bag coming home from school and he gave me the bag to carry. The bag had books in it. I slung the bag over my shoulder but did not take any of the books out. But Edward said I took one of his books out of the bag and opened it. When his father heard that, he said he would teach me better things than to do that, and he whipped me very severely. I cried and told him that I did not take the book out, and then he whipped me all the harder for disputing his word. He whipped me with a harness strap. That was not the first time my master whipped me, however. Whipping with him was a very common thing.
It was shortly after this that I learned my master was not only my master but my uncle and that his brother was my father. I learned this from my aunt. She heard about my master whipping me and she said, "It is a great note for him to whip you for that, because you are his own nephew." That surprised me very much. I had heard the men about the plantation before speak about my being half white, but I did not know why.
My aunt also told me that once my master and his brother had had a quarrel about it up at the big house. But by that time I had settled down on the place and so there was no more said about it. Except once my master's daughter, who very much resembled her mother for her good disposition, referring to the fact said there oughtn't to be so much trouble about it anyway, because we were one family and the time would come when the black people would be free. This made her father very angry.
She had heard those things, I think, from her mother. She was a good Christian woman and she believed the Bible did not teach that it was right to own slaves. Shortly before her death an incident occurred which made a very great impression upon all of us for more reasons than one. She was very sick and one day she called Frank, the carpenter, and who as the head slave had charge of the others, and told him to bring into her room all the slaves he could find on the plantation. They were shelling corn at the time, getting it ready to ship to the market, and he brought in as many as he could get together, I suppose, in a short time. I was not one of them, but I was later told by the others what happened.
She said to them, "Be good and do your work and the time will come when you will all be free. The North is not satisfied with slavery." My master's brother was present and heard this and after that we were treated very much worse than before. Whenever they saw a group of us standing together they would come up and make us disperse for fear we were going to raise against them.
Shortly after that our mistress died and on the day of the funeral all of us slaves on the plantation, between seventy-five and a hundred, men, women and children, followed her body to the cemetery, about five miles away, where she was buried.
I do not remember just the year our mistress died and told us that we would some time be free, but I think it was about 1858. At any rate, it was not long before we began to hear talk of a war. Our masters were afraid that there would be a war. They kept talking against the North. They told us that the white people in the North were nothing but shop slaves. That the white girls were slaves who did the house work for the Northern people and that the Northern people were not considered as high class people as the Southern people. It was about this time, too, that we first heard of a man named Lincoln.
The slaves on our plantation had been told that they were going to be free, and they were looking for what their mistress had said to come true. Then Colonel Nelson, who owned an adjoining plantation, set all his slaves free by his will when he died and they were all sent to Liberia. There were about seventy-five of them. And we were anxious to be free too.
In the early days of the Civil War, a Union armada led by General Ambrose Burnside captured the Outer Banks and all the state's major ports except for Wilmington. Thousands of slaves, including Singleton, escaped from the plantation districts of Eastern North Carolina to freedom along this narrow corridor of Union-held coastline.
In New Bern, the former slaves nourished an extraordinary renaissance of African-American culture and politics. Many of those slaves organized churches, schools and self-help associations while the war raged around them. Others became scouts, spies and guides for the Union army. Eager to fight for his own liberty, Singleton became a servant to a soldier in the First North Carolina cavalry "because I wanted to learn how to drill." Singleton escaped the regiment and became the servant of Lt. Col. Robert Leggett in the Union army, stationed in New Bern, before organizing his own African-American regiment.
I was taken to General Burnside's headquarters and asked the best way to reach the rebels at Wives (Wise) Forks, before you could get into Kinston. I laid the route out for them the best I knew how, but said that if I were going to command the expedition I would given them a flank movement by the way of the Trent River, which was five miles farther from Wives (Wise) Forks than the Neuse River. But they did not accept my proposition and attacked directly, with a result that they were repulsed.
I took part in that attack as a guide and had a horse shot from under me. A few days later I told Colonel Leggett that I would not fight any more unless I was prepared to defend myself. He said, "We never will take niggers in the army to fight. The war will be over before your people ever get in." I replied, "The war will not be over until I have had a chance to spill my blood. If that is your feeling toward me, pay me what you owe me and I will take it and go." He owed me five dollars and he paid me.
I took that five dollars and hired the A.M.E. Zion church at Newbern and commenced to recruit a regiment of colored men. I secured the thousand men and they appointed me as their colonel and I drilled them with cornstalks for guns. We had no way, of course, of getting guns and equipment. We drilled once a week. I supported myself by whatever I could get to do and my men did likewise.
I spoke to General Burnside about getting my regiment into the federal service but he said he could do nothing about it. It was to General Burnside, however, and my later association with him, when I was with him for a time as his servant, that I owe what I now regard as one of the great experiences of my life. It was one day at the General's headquarters. His adjutant pointed to a man who was talking to the general in an inner room and said, "Do you know that man in there?" I said, "No." He said, "That is our President, Mr. Lincoln."
In a few minutes the conference in the inner room apparently ended and Mr. Lincoln and General Burnside came out. I do not know whether they had told President Lincoln about me before or not, but the General pointed to me and said, "This is the little fellow who got up a colored regiment." President Lincoln shook hands with me and said, "It is a good thing. What do you want?" I said, "I have a thousand men. We want to help fight to free our race. We want to know if you will take us in the service?"
He said, "You have got good pluck. But I can't take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you." So saying he passed on. The only recollection I have of him is that of a tall, dark complexioned, raw boned man, with a pleasant face. I looked at him as he passed on in company with General Burnside and I never saw him again.
On January 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which made me and all the rest of my race free. We could not be bought and sold any more or whipped or made to work without pay. We were not to be treated as things without souls any more, but as human beings. Of course I do not remember that I thought it all out in this way when I learned what President Lincoln had done. I am sure I did not. And the men in my regiment did not. I had gone back to Newbern then. The thing we expected was that we would be taken into the federal service at once.
It was not until May 28, 1863, however, that the thing we had hoped for so long came to pass, when Colonel James C. Beecher, a brother of Henry Ward Beecher, that great champion of our race, came and took command of the regiment. I was appointed Sergeant of Company G, being the first colored man to be accepted into the federal service and the only colored man that furnished the government a thousand men in the Civil War.
The regiment was at first called the First North Carolina Colored Regiment. It later became known as the 35th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. Soon afterwards we were armed and equipped and shipped to South Carolina and stationed at Charleston Harbor. From that time until June, 1866, when we were mustered out at Charleston, South Carolina, I was in active service, ranking as First Sergeant, 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. J.C. White was the Captain of that company and Colonel James C. Beecher was the commander of the regiment.
We saw active service in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. I was wounded in the right leg at the battle of Alusta (Olustee), Florida. After the war ended we were stationed for a time in South Carolina doing guard duty, and were finally mustered out of the Service on June 1, 1866.
My life since the war has been the ordinary life of the average man of my race. As a slave I was only property, something belonging to somebody else. I had nothing I could call my own. Now I am treated as a man. I am a part of society. And I am a citizen of this great country and have a part in directing its affairs.
When election day comes I go to the polls and vote, and my vote counts as much as the vote of the richest or best educated man in the land. Think of it! I, who was once bought and sold, and whipped simply because it was thought I had opened a book. And it is not only I who have this privilege, but millions of other men of my race.
Truly I can say with the psalmist, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage."
Like many black Union veterans, Singleton found it too dangerous to stay in the South after the war, so he migrated north to New Haven, Conn. He joined the city's African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, today known as Varick Memorial, where he finished learning to read and write. He settled down, married, became a father, worked as a coachman and took an interest in the ministry. After his first wife died, Singleton moved to Portland, Maine, where he served as an itinerant minister, and then relocated to Peekskill, N.Y., with his second wife. When she died in 1926, Singleton returned to New Haven, probably to be close to his daughter and his grandchildren. He was buried in New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery 12 years later.