RALEIGH — A historical marker in New Bern will honor the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers, a unit of former slaves noted for their bravery while fighting for the Union during the Civil War.
The highway marker was scheduled to be unveiled Saturday on the grounds of the historic New Bern Academy, where the unit had a farewell ceremony in July 1863, said Mike Hill of the N.C. Office of Archives and History. Less than a year later, the unit was renamed the 35th U.S. Colored Troops, according to a news release from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees the highway marker program with the state Transportation Department.
“It commemorates those brave, newly freed ex-slaves who joined the Army to help save the union,” said Bernard George, a local organizer of the event and a U.S. Colored Troops re-enactor who believes his great-great-grandfather was one of those soldiers. And while most of history tells us that President Lincoln freed the slaves, the untold story is that “to a large degree, they freed themselves,” he said.
In addition, they faced discrimination from the white Union officers – black soldiers were not allowed to be officers, he said.
The bare-bones description, typical for the state’s highway markers, reads: “State’s first regiment of black Union soldiers rallied here on July 24, 1863. In 1864, designated 35th U.S. Colored Troops.”
A few months before the 1st held its farewell ceremony, on March 14, 1862, New Bern had fallen to Union troops. After they trained, the soldiers of the 1st joined other troops to form Gen. Edward Wild’s “African brigade,” according to a state news release. The Colored Ladies Association presented the regiment with a silk flag before it was ordered to Charleston, S.C. The flag is long lost, but Michael Southern of Archives and History created a reproduction based on descriptions of the original to be used in Saturday’s ceremony, Hill said.
After the 1st was renamed to the 35th in February 1864, it was deployed to Florida, where its soldiers fought in the Battle of Olustee.
“No regiment went into action more gallantly or did better execution,” one report quoted in the state news release said.
Although the Union lost the battle, the actions of the 35th contributed to changing attitudes about the capabilities of black soldiers, which likely began even earlier with the battle at Fort Wagner, S.C., in July 1863, portrayed in the movie “Glory.”
“It realized the promise offered by deployment of black troops,” Hill said.
New Bern also is home to 96-year-old Luke Martin, whose father fought with the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers. He’s hard of hearing and can’t talk on the phone, but still works as a funeral attendant for a mortuary, said his daughter, Fannie Martin-Williams. He didn’t know his father, who died when he was young, Martin-Williams said, although the family still has the Civil War rifle and sword that her grandfather carried.
Martin-Williams said her father has work but would try to attend the ceremony. She also said that while the marker is a nice tribute to the black soldiers, it’s a little late, especially in a city such as New Bern that prides itself on its history.
“It’s 150 years too late, but it’s fine,” Martin-Williams said.
This is the second highway marker in North Carolina to honor the U.S. Colored Troops. In 2011, a marker was dedicated in Wilmington to mark the participation of the troops in the battle to capture Fort Fisher in January and February of 1865.