north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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In April 1863, Colonel Edward A. Wild of the 34th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to recruit a four-regiment African American infantry brigade in eastern North Carolina, to which would be added the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry. Each regiment would be organized sequentially, meaning that organization could not begin on the second regiment until the first regiment’s organization was complete. The brigade, dubbed “Wild’s African Brigade,” was never completely organized, as Wild, the 55th Massachusetts, and the 1st Regiment North Carolina Colored Volunteers were sent to South Carolina in July. The 2nd Regiment North Carolina Colored Volunteers began its organization in North Carolina about that time, but was sent to Virginia in August, along with members of the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers and the 55th Massachusetts who had been left behind due to illness, where it completed its organization. The 3rd Regiment North Carolina Volunteers, which was next to begin its organization, was also transferred to Virginia in August. The fourth proposed infantry regiment was never organized, although an artillery regiment was organized in North Carolina in 1864, and another African American infantry regiment was organized at Goldsboro in the final days of the war.

In November 1863, Wild was transferred to command all African American units within the District of Norfolk and Portsmouth of the Federal Department of Virginia and North Carolina, leaving the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers and the 55th Massachusetts behind in South Carolina. Shortly after his arrival he began planning a major expedition into North Carolina. His goals were to break up Confederate guerrilla activity in the northeastern section of the state, particularly in the areas adjoining the Dismal Swamp Canal, an important transportation link between the Union-held sections of eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia; to free enslaved persons in the area; and to recruit more African-American soldiers. Many of the North Carolina soldiers under Wild’s command came from the area to be targeted and hoped to free their loved ones. It was the largest military operation conducted by African American troops in North Carolina up to that time.

The expedition set out on December 5, consisting of two columns. The first column, under Wild’s direct command, marched from Portsmouth, Virginia along the Dismal Swamp Canal, and consisted of 700 men from the 1st Regiment United States Colored Troops, a unit organized in Washington, D.C., and 400 men from the 2nd Regiment North Carolina Colored Volunteers. The second column, which departed from Norfolk, marched towards South Mills. It consisted of 530 men from the 5th Regiment United States Colored Troops (formerly the 127th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry), and a mixed detachment of 100 men from the 1st N.C. Volunteers and the 55th Massachusetts, from the group left behind in the summer, who had not yet been transferred to South Carolina to rejoin their regiments. Wild’s column was supposed to be supplied by steamer but the boats were misdirected so his troops foraged off of the civilians. At South Mills, the columns united and were temporarily joined by two cavalry companies from the 5th and 11th Regiments Pennsylvania Cavalry and a section of the 7th New York Battery. The expedition reached Elizabeth City on December 11, and soon afterwards was joined by the supply steamers. During the days the followed, the Federals skirmished with guerrillas and executed one accused guerrilla, Daniel Bright. The 2nd N.C. Colored Volunteers meanwhile marched to Shiloh in Camden County, where they successfully clashed with Confederate regulars before rejoining Wild. The Union troops continued their operations against guerrillas in the region before the expedition began preparations to return to Virginia on December 21. The expedition returned to its camps in Virginia by December 25.

Due to the involvement of African American troops, Wild’s raid attracted more attention than similar raids conducted by white soldiers. Supporters of the use of African American soldiers in the Union cause lauded the expedition, while critics of the idea attempted to depict Wild’s men as poorly disciplined. The Confederates were predictably scandalized. As to the results of the raid: Wild’s forces destroyed four guerrilla camps, and captured arms, ammunition and equipment. Ten homes in the vicinity of the guerrilla camps were destroyed, as well as two distilleries. Four civilian hostages, including three women, were taken in order to insure the safe treatment of captured members of the expedition. Approximately 2,500 enslaved persons were freed by the expedition and moved northward. Recruiting efforts were not very successful, however, as Wild reported that the majority of able-bodied enslaved men in the area had either already escaped or had been moved further south by their owners. Interestingly, Wild uncovered evidence of a widespread contraband trade between the Federal-occupied sections of the coast. Federal casualties were slight. The expedition provided valuable intelligence regarding Confederate military strength in the area, the operations and organization of guerrilla bands, and the morale of the local populace, including information about Unionist support in the area as well as growing war-weariness among the pro-Confederate members of the public.

REFERENCES:
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, 1963.
James K. Bryan II. The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster, 2012.
Frances H. Casstevens, Edward A. Wild and the African Brigade in the Civil War, 2003.
Philip Gerard “The Civil War: General Wild’s Raid,” Our State Magazine, June 2014.
Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation, 2007.
Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc., 12 volumes, 1861-1868, Vol. 8.
Barton A. Myers, Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865, 2009.
Richard M. Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era, 2008.
United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 4 series in 70 volumes in 127 parts with index volume, 1881-1902, Series I: Vol. 29, Parts I and II.
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