A one-armed Union general marched into eastern North Carolina in 1863 with his African Brigade, burning homes and freeing thousands of slaves.
The campaign stopped Confederate guerrilla resistance in the region.
This summer, the state plans to place a marker on Water Street in Elizabeth City, commemorating that first major campaign in North Carolina by U.S. Colored Troops.
Elizabeth City and Camden County were among the first areas where Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enforced, said Chris Meekins, an archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.
“Elizabeth City was a microcosm of the overall war,” said Meekins, who has written a book about Civil War actions in northeastern North Carolina.
Gen. Edward A. Wild, an avid abolitionist, led about 2,000 black soldiers as part of the U.S. Colored Troops in December 1863 with a mission to free slaves and quash Confederate guerrilla resistance. The force was known as Wild’s African Brigade. Wild had lost an arm in an earlier Civil War conflict.
Many of the soldiers under Wild’s command had been slaves in the region and were motivated to free their own family members, according to a history associated with the marker.
“It must have been overwhelming,” said Wanda McLean, an Elizabeth City historian who has researched the Underground Railroad efforts in the region.
There are no known accounts from former slaves at the time in the region, but local African Americans celebrated Emancipation Day in Elizabeth City for about 30 years afterward with a parade, Meekins said. They would read Lincoln’s proclamation on the courthouse steps.
“They really valued and understood what it was,” Meekins said.
The marker placed on a metal post gives a brief account:
“Wild’s Raid: First major campaign in N.C. conducted by the U.S. Colored Troops, Dec. 1863. Freed thousands of enslaved in the area.”
North Carolina has erected about 1,600 signs along roadsides statewide since 1935 to mark historic places, events and people.
In three weeks, Wild’s troops freed 2,500 slaves, burned a dozen homes of guerrillas, confiscated livestock and supplies from farms, took women as hostages and hanged a local fighter.
Wild’s raid came about a year before Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Wild was hated here as much as Sherman was later in Georgia, said Camden County historian Alex Leary.
“They really didn’t like him,” he said.
Resentment burned for generations, and accounts of the Yankee invasion still stir emotions. Locals have ancestors who fought with the guerrillas or owned farms raided at the time, Leary said.
Leary taught high school history and often speaks on the Civil War. He has a collection of artifacts, including weapons and uniforms, of the era. He knows the site of a guerrilla camp within a swamp in southern Camden County.
Wild’s black troops found the camp, scattered the guerrillas and confiscated guns and supplies left behind. They found a muster list with names of local fighters. After learning their identity, the troops burned many of their homes, Leary said.
Union troops had taken Elizabeth City in 1862 more than a year before Wild’s African Brigade came, but the forces eventually left for other missions. Elizabeth City was left without military or local leadership.
“The city was lawless,” Meekins said.
A reporter from the New York Times traveling with Wild described the city.
“Now most of the dwellings were deserted, the stores all closed, the streets overgrown with grass,” wrote the reporter known only as Tewksbury.
The U.S. Colored Troops and the guerillas never engaged in battle and no casualties were listed, Meekins said. Local soldiers fired a few shots before retreating into the swamps when confronted by the more numerous black troops.
A guerrilla from Pasquotank County named Daniel Bright was captured and sentenced to death.
“He was a man of about 30, a rough, stout fellow, was dressed in butternut homespun, and looked the very ideal of a guerrilla,” Tewksbury wrote.
Bright stood on top of an empty cider barrel with a noose around his neck when the soldiers removed the support. Bright was left there dangling as a warning, Tewksbury wrote.
When the campaign ended, dozens of local leaders signed petitions promising loyalty to the Union. Slaves would be free and guerrilla activity would stop.
“The war came to northeastern North Carolina, and it just didn’t leave,” Meekins said. “This thing had slogged on for years. After this raid, they were done.”
Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, firstname.lastname@example.org