African Brigade in New Bern laid foundation for slaves to fight in Civil War

NEW BERN, N.C. (WNCT) — On May 17, 1863, 13 Union officers and a civilian recruiter arrived in historic New Bern to form the nation’s first official military unit made up completely of slaves.

They would end up laying the foundation for other slaves to literally fight for their freedom.

It was called the African Brigade.

“This unit, the first North Carolina Volunteers, stepped forward and proved to the world, just as the Massachusetts 54 and the 166 other African American regiments (did) who fought in the Civil War,” said Bernard George, a member of the 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers Reenactment Group.

It was considered a “daunting and social experiment.”

“There were doubts there that slaves could be men and could fight of valor and put others before self,” George said.

It was also meant to settle the unanswered question of the time: Could a slave be trained to intelligently and heroically to fight as well as his white counterparts?

The answer was a resounding “yes,” delivered during the Civil War by the volunteers who would later be known as the 35th United States Colored Troops.

“Many times, instead of training them as soldiers, we were used as slaves to build fortification forts, to do casual duty, to dig ditches, gather firewood, bury the dead,” said George.

But that changed.

“When given the chance, we proved over and over again that we would fight as well or better than other units,” George said.

More than 180,000 African-Americans fought in the Civil War for the Union army.

The city of New Bern served as a recruiting headquarters, enlisting more than 5,000 soldiers in the United States Colored Troops.

The soldiers rallied in downtown New Bern just two months after their unit was formed in 1863.

“Slowly, we changed the attitude and perceptions of many Americans who felt African-Americans were not men, and were less than human and that they could not fight,” said George.

The unit was commanded by Colonel James Beecher, the brother of famed abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“James Beecher was appointed because he and his family were staunch abolitionists,” George said.

Once commander, Beecher appointed Major John V. Degrasse, an internationally trained black medical officer.

“Major Degrasse was the first African American to be admitted to a state medical society in 1854,” said George.

Degrasse left an impact on him.

“Dr. John V. Surly Degrasse, he was one of my heroes,” George said. “In fact, I wear his uniform.”

These days, wearing Degrasse’s uniform, Bernard George reenacts what life was like for the major and other members of the North Carolina volunteers.

For him, it’s personal.

“I’ve been reenacting for about 12 to 14 years,” George said. “My grandfather told me when I was a young lad that his grandfather fought in the Civil War. I didn’t believe him because that wasn’t in the history books.”

After doing research of his own, george would later find out his grandfather was telling him the truth.

Now, he’s spreading that truth to any and everyone who wants to hear about it.

“Those stories need to be told,” George said. “The stories of our ancestors, our great grandfathers and great grandmothers whose bore the sting of slavery. The humiliation of slavery. The trial of slavery, and brought us through as a people to a new day.”

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