In the Service of Uncle Samuel
When the Civil War diary turned up, a family discovered its true legacy.
Visual Art Services/Steve Gladfelter
By Linda Weber
On a rainy September night in 1862, a year after the Civil War began, eight slaves climbed aboard a boat in Wilmington, N.C., and began floating down the Cape Fear River. They drifted all night, past the heavily armed Confederate stronghold of Fort Caswell, and reached the Atlantic before dawn. By 10 a.m., the USS Cambridge, a Union ship blockading the coast, spotted the runaways and picked them up. A few days later, they joined the Union Navy, serving until the end of the war.
One of those slaves was 24-year-old William Benjamin Gould. Nearly a century and a half later, Law School professor emeritus William B. Gould IV presents his ancestor’s extraordinary story in Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor (Stanford University Press, 2002).
The tale unfolds in the escaped slave’s own words, drawn from the journal he kept during his three years in service. It documents both the tedium of everyday shipboard life (“Fine day. Painted the main Deck. Rattled down Rigging. Make preperation [sic] for painting outside.”) and the excitement of crossing the Atlantic to attack Confederate vessels supplied by British and French sympathizers and pursuing them along the Spanish coast. His great-grandson annotates the excerpts with entries from ships’ logs and other sources and contributes several chapters detailing the late Gould’s life and legacy. The book includes photographs of memorabilia as well as historical illustrations and family pictures.
After leaving the Navy, Gould married Cornelia Reid, a former slave from North Carolina. They moved to Dedham, Mass., outside Boston, and raised eight children. He worked as a mason and was prominent in the local veterans’ organization. He also contributed articles to The Anglo-African, a New York newspaper, and actively supported the rights of black Americans.
The faded, fragile diary came to light in 1958, when Professor Gould’s father found it among an uncle’s effects. The author says his father had an “unspoken expectation” that Gould would one day publish the diary, although at that time neither knew their forebear had been a slave. “I only discovered that in 1989, when I began to look into archival materials in Washington, D.C.”
Gould began work on Contraband in the early ’70s while a visiting professor at Harvard. “I was able to get out to Dedham to look at the records of the Church of the Good Shepherd, the Episcopal church my great-grandfather helped found,” he says. Later, at Stanford, he met historian John Hope Franklin, who reviewed the diary, urged him to pursue his research and “helped energize me to move into the next phase.” At the National Archives, Gould looked at muster rolls and ships’ logs. He delved into state records in North Carolina to trace his great-grandfather’s slaveholder. Over the last decade, he hired research assistants at Stanford.
But Gould never solved one puzzle: how, as a slave, his grandfather became literate. He can only speculate that his ancestor was schooled either at a nearby Methodist church, as documentation shows other slaves to have been, or at the slaveholder’s own Episcopal church.
Growing up, Gould knew little about the first William B. Gould, but his own career choice echoed his namesake’s concern with the rights of blacks. As a high school senior, he grew interested in law after the 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) declared segregation unconstitutional. “That, and the fact that I saw lawyers playing a major role in the political process, made me think that law was the profession I wanted to be in,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, Gould went to Cornell law school. There, he studied labor law and came to realize that “the betterment of employment conditions for all people was really part of the civil rights struggle.”
Gould worked a few years at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and in private practice in New York, but found himself drawn to academia. He joined the law faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1968 and continued to work on cases that interested him, including a successful class-action discrimination suit against Detroit Edison.
He has been at Stanford since 1972, except for a 4 1/2-year leave of absence when President Clinton tapped him to return and chair the NLRB. The nomination sparked a vicious political battle. Gould’s previous writings marked him as a workers’ advocate, and corporate lobbyists labeled his ideas “radical,” referring to his books as “manifestos.” He was eventually confirmed, albeit with a record number of nays, and later wrote about his tenure in Labored Relations: Law, Politics and the NLRB—A Memoir (MIT Press, 2000).
For Gould, the foray into politics, however bruising, was “worth going through” for the changes he was able to bring about. Under him, the board set up a “super-panel” system for processing cases that could be resolved without written analysis, established “speed teams” to reduce time spent on cases where the board was simply adopting recommended decisions, and made other changes to increase efficiency and timeliness. He says his faith in the value of government service is unshaken—“I think it’s the highest calling there can be.”
Gould’s great-grandfather, who wrote with obvious pride about his service to “Uncle Samuel” and produced six sons—all of whom served in the Navy—would have approved. In fact, Gould writes in the epilogue of Contraband that the process of learning about his ancestor has shown him how much his own upbringing reflected the patriarch’s values. His father, who often sang Civil War and World War I songs to him, carried on the military tradition for 14 years in the Naval Reserve. Though he finally resigned because of its color bar, the importance of military service in the cause of freedom was a “constant refrain at the dinner table,” Gould says. Another family legacy is the Episcopalian faith, whose liturgy and language are “in my bones,” he writes.
Gould sees a direct link between his great-grandfather and father in their commitment to the principles of equality. “This is why my father took so much interest in my employment discrimination suits in the ’70s,” he says. In dedicating Contraband to his father, Gould calls him “the greatest man that I ever knew.” In his next writing project, he will once more weave family reminiscences into an historical account.
“I’ve long wanted to write a book on baseball and the way in which the game and the business have changed since I was a child,” he says. A lifelong fan, Gould developed a course in sports law at Stanford. In addition, he arbitrated baseball salary disputes in 1992 and 1993, and under his direction, the NLRB intervened to help settle the baseball strike of 1994. The book will also relive Gould’s trips to the ballpark with his dad. “We often talked about the number of black players in the major leagues, and he would say that the big reason the Red Sox—that was my team—were so unsuccessful was because they were the last team to hire blacks.”
Linda Weber is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco.
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