William Henry Singleton, a formerly enslaved man, recalls fighting for the Union, 1922

William Henry Singleton, a formerly enslaved man, recalls fighting for the Union, 1922

William Henry Singleton was born to his enslaved mother, Lettice, and her master’s brother, William Singleton. At the age of four he was sold away from his mother, but ran back to her several times throughout his life. When the war broke out, he escaped to Union lines and volunteered for service. After being dismissed, he rallied one thousand black soldiers and received a promotion as a sergeant.  

Then I was taken to General Burnside’s headquarters and asked the best way to reach the rebels at Wives Forks, before you could get into Kinston. I laid the route out for them the best I knew how, but said that if I were going to command the expedition I would give them a flank movement by the way of the Trent river, which was five miles farther from Wives Forks than the Neuse river. But they did not accept my proposition and attacked directly, with the result that they were repulsed.

I took part in that attack as a guide and had a horse shot from under me. A few days later I told Colonel Leggett that I would not fight anymore unless I was prepared to defend myself. He said, “We never will take niggers in the army to fight. The war will be over before your people ever get in.” I replied, “The war will not be over until I have had a chance to spill my blood. If that is your feeling toward me, pay me what you owe me and I will take it and go.” He owed me five dollars and he paid me. I took that five dollars and hired the A. M. E. Zion church at Newbern and commenced to recruit a regiment of colored men. I secured the thousand men and they appointed me as their colonel and I drilled them with cornstalks for guns.

We had no way, of course, of getting guns and equipment. We drilled once a week. I supported myself by whatever I could get to do and my men did likewise. I spoke to General Burnside about getting my regiment into the federal service but he said he could do nothing about it. It was to General Burnside, however, and my later association with him, when I was with him for a time as his servant, that I owe what I now regard as one of the great experiences of my life. It was one day at the General’s headquarters. His adjutant pointed to a man who was talking to the general in an inner room and said, “Do you know that man in there?” I said, “No.” He said, “That is our President, Mr. Lincoln.” In a few minutes the conference in the inner room apparently ended and Mr. Lincoln and General Burnside came out. I do not know whether they had told President Lincoln about me before or not, but the General pointed to me and said, “This is the little fellow who got up a colored regiment.” President Lincoln shook hands with me and said, “It is a good thing. What do you want?” I said, “I have a thousand men. We want to help fight to free our race. We want to know if you will take us in the service?” He said, “You have got good pluck. But I can’t take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you.” So saying he passed on. The only recollection I have of him is that of a tall, dark complexioned, raw boned man, with a pleasant face. I looked at him as he passed on in company with General Burnside and I never saw him again.

On January 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which made me and all the rest of my race free. We could not be bought and sold any more or whipped or made to work without pay. We were not to be treated as things without souls any more, but as human beings. Of course I do not remember that I thought it all out in this way when I learned what President Lincoln had done. I am sure I did not. And the men in my regiment did not. I had gone back to Newbern then. The thing we expected was that we would be taken into the federal service at once. It was not until May 28, 1863, however, that the thing we had hoped for so long came to pass, when Colonel James C. Beecher, a brother of Henry Ward Beecher, that great champion of our race, came and took command of the regiment. I was appointed Sergeant of Company G, being the first colored man to be accepted into the federal service and the only colored man that furnished the government a thousand men in the Civil War. The regiment was at first called the First North Carolina Colored Regiment. It later became known as the 35th Regiment, United States Colored troops. Soon afterwards we were armed and equipped and shipped to South Carolina and stationed at Charleston Harbor. From that time until June, 1866, when we were mustered out at Charleston, South Carolina, I was in active service, ranking as First Sergeant, Company G, 35th U. S. Colored Infantry. J. C. White was the Captain of that company and Colonel James C. Beecher was the commander of the regiment. We saw active service in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. I was wounded in the right leg at the battle of Alusta, Florida. After the war ended we were stationed for a time in South Carolina doing guard duty and were finally mustered out of the service on June 1, 1866.

My honorable discharge from the service dated on that day, although it is worn and not very legible now, as you can see, is one of my most prized possessions. Some years ago a man from the government service in Washington made out for me in a detailed form a record of my war service. It is in much more complete form than I have set it down here, but I think such details are of more interest to one’s family than to the general public. My life since the war has been the ordinary life of the average man of my race. I have not so many accomplishments to boast of, but I have done the best I could to prove myself worthy of being a free man. 

William Henry Singleton, “Recollection of My Slavery Days,” Electronic Edition, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, (1922), revision 2000.

Available through Documenting the American South from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill