Guest Post: William Gould Led Slaves On Daring Escape From Wilmington

Craftsman. Naval Veteran. Patriot. Author. Father. Grandfather. Leader. A man who escaped his enslavement. William B. Gould, born November 18, 1837 in Wilmington, North Carolina, was all of these things and more.

William B. Gould was the son of the enslaved Elizabeth Moore and Alexander Gould, a free white man living in Granville, North Carolina. According to North Carolina law, children took on the legal status of their mother, so Gould too was enslaved by Nicholas Nixon, a peanut planter in Porter’s Neck. Like many enslaved men in Wilmington, Gould learned a craft, plastering, that would allow him to be let out to make money for his enslavers. Gould worked plastering buildings in Wilmington, none more famous than the Bellamy Mansion. Unlike many enslaved people, Gould could both read and write. He used those skills to write his name into the plaster during construction work at Bellamy Mansion, and bricks with his name were uncovered there in the 1990s.

Desiring and deserving freedom from the horrible conditions of enslavement, Gould made a daring escape from slavery in 1862. On September 21, a rainy and humid night, Gould and seven other men, betting that the Yellow Fever outbreak in Wilmington would make it a safer time to escape, carefully made their way down Orange Street to the Cape Fear River. When the eight men reached the docks, they found a small sailboat, jumped into it, and rowed 28 miles downstream to the Atlantic Ocean.

Initially, they did not raise the sail for fear of being seen, but as they approached Union ships, they raised the sail, and were rescued by the USS Cambridge. According to his diary, on October 3, 1862, Gould remembers “taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Government of Uncle Samuel.”  From that moment, “Gould served first on the USS Cambridge as a low-ranking crewman before transferring in 1863 to the USS Niagara, a steam frigate that pursued Confederate warships in European waters. He saw combat, survived ferocious gales on the high seas, and wrote proudly of the Navy he served” (MacQuarrie, Brian Boston Globe, 11-21-20).

Did You Know?

In total, 22 enslaved people would find their way to freedom from the Orange Street Landing. It is now a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site, and in 2010, a kiosk on Orange Street Landing was built to commemorate its history. Watch this video to learn more.

Gould would keep a diary of his time in the Navy. This diary would go on to be an extremely valuable piece of history, as only 3 such diaries are known to exist, with Gould’s being the only one written by a formerly enslaved person. In his diary, Gould not only records his military experiences, but writes on topics such as the evil of slavery. He ponders:

“And ask you was [it] for any act of friendship that those benighted Affricans were torn from their loved homes on the free plains of Affrica’s shores and transferred to the Wilderness of America. Was it an act of friendship that those Dutch traders exposed those Negros for sale. Was it an act of friendship that caused the F.F.V.’s to buy those misfortunate ones and make them the Hewers of the Wood and the Drawers of Water to clear thair Land, to Build thair City’s and feed thair Mouths? And from the doings of that eventful day spring all of the evils of slavery in this country.”

The diary would remain unknown until it was accidentally discovered in 1958. It would eventually be published as Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor in 2003 by his great grandson, William B. Gould IV, a Stanford legal scholar.

While Gould would briefly return to Wilmington after the Civil War, he settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Cornelia Read, a free woman from Wilmington. They had eight children; all six sons served in the military. In 1917, a picture of all of the Gould men wearing their uniforms would appear in Crisis, a magazine published by the NAACP. Gould and family would become leaders and community pillars in Dedham. He built a flourishing contractor and plastering business and was one of the founding members of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepard in Oakdale Square. He was the commander of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the country’s leading veteran’s organization, and in 1918 he spoke at the town’s Memorial Day. Gould died on May 25, 1923, at the age of 85.

In September 2021, the town of Dedham renamed a 1.3-acre plot of grass, William B. Gould Park ( It also commissioned a statue in his honor, with plans to unveil it in 2023, on the 100th anniversary of his death (

Learn more about Gould and his escape:

Cape Fear Unearthed: A Most Daring Escape (podcast)

Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. William Gould IV.

“Overlooked No More: William B. Gould, Escaped Slave and Civil War Diarist.” New York Times, Risen, Clay. 6-17-2022.

%d bloggers like this: