William Henry Singleton
William Henry Singleton (August 10, 1843 – September 7, 1938) was an American slave from North Carolina who became a Union soldier during the American Civil War. As a freedman, he moved to New England, where he became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion Church) in Portland, Maine. He wrote and published his autobiography in 1922, an account of his rise from slavery. One of the later slave narratives to be published, it was also issued in a new edition in 1999 by the state of North Carolina.
During the American Civil War, Singleton escaped to Union forces and gained his freedom. In the summer of 1863, he recruited and helped lead the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers, which became part of the 35th United States Colored Troops. After being wounded in the Battle of Olustee, Florida, in February 1864, he was assigned to garrison duty in South Carolina, which was occupied by Union troops.
Following the war and his honorable discharge, in 1866 Singleton moved to Connecticut, where he worked and taught himself to read and write. He joined the AME Zion Church, an independent black denomination founded in New York City. He became a missionary and minister in the church, called to serve in Portland, Maine. Later he lived and worked in Peekskill, New York. Always proud of his military service, at the age of 95 Singleton marched in a parade of Civil War veterans in Des Moines, Iowa, shortly before his death.
Early life and education
In his memoir, Singleton said he was born into slavery on August 10, 1835 in Craven County, North Carolina, near New Bern. (Historians have estimated his birth as 1843.) His mother Lettis Singleton was a slave, and his father was the younger brother of his white master John Singleton. The senior Singleton had one of the largest plantations and the most slaves of any planter in the county. (Singleton, descended from English colonists in Virginia, acquired his wealth by marrying the widow Mrs. Nelson.) The memoir noted that all the slaves were referred to by the Singleton surname.(Singleton, pp. 1–2)
As Singleton later wrote in his memoir, "[M]y presence on the plantation was continually reminding them of something they wanted to forget." It caused a quarrel between the brothers. (Singleton, pp. 1–2). Because John Singleton was embarrassed by his mixed-race slave nephew, he sold the boy at age four to a trader, who took him to a widow in Atlanta, Georgia. She had a "slave farm," where she trained slaves for domestic service and sold them at a profit. Determined to rejoin his mother, at the age of seven William ran away and made his way back to New Bern. His mother hid him for three years; he would hide under the floorboards to escape notice.
After the overseer Nelson discovered the boy, he sold William away from the plantation again. Singleton was held for a time by a Mrs. Wheeler, who he said was kindly. But, hearing that she intended to sell him, he escaped to New Bern and found work for a time as a bellhop at the Moore Hotel. Finally the boy returned to the Singleton plantation. His master (and paternal uncle) agreed to keep him and have him work in the fields. Singleton's determination and resourcefulness in order to rejoin his mother were characteristics he drew from all his life.
After the Civil War broke out, at age 26, Singleton gained permission to drill with the First North Carolina Cavalry, recruited by Samuel Hyman of Craven County, a West Point graduate. The company was stationed at New Bern until March 14, 1862. The Union generals Ambrose Burnside and John G. Foster captured New Bern and drove the Confederates back to Kinston.
With the First North Carolina Cavalry in disarray, Singleton escaped and fled to New Bern. He secured an audience with General Burnside’s secretary and volunteered as a guide and informant. The Union victory attracted many escaped slaves to the city, and the Army set up a contraband camp nearby to house them. Some were joined by their families, stretching resources. The Union Army quickly organized to start schools for children and adults, and put the adults to work. In New Bern, Singleton helped raise a regiment of 1000 freed slaves, as many men wanted to fight for the Union.
Ten thousand slaves reached the town following the Union occupation. The Union established the Trent River contraband camp to house them and their families. The Army appointed Horace James, a Congregational chaplain from Massachusetts, as the "Superintendent of Negro Affairs for the North Carolina District." He directed operations at the contraband camp, setting up classes for former slaves as well as organizing work details. He also managed development at the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island.
Singleton helped organized the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers. He served as the group's unofficial colonel. When it came time for action, the unit was assigned white officers, as were all the colored units. The US Army trained and armed the men and shipped the regiment to South Carolina, where they participated in the siege of Charleston.
When President Abraham Lincoln approved the use of blacks as armed troops for the Union Army, Singleton’s recruits in February 1864 were designated part of the 35th United States Colored Troops (USCT). This unit included freedmen who had escaped from Virginia. Singleton was promoted to sergeant.
In 1864, the 35th USCT were sent to Florida as part of a campaign to be led by Brigadier General Truman Seymour. The 35th USCT participated in the Battle of Olustee on February 20, 1864. They were commanded by Lt. Colonel William Reed and Major Archibald Bogle. The Union forces gave way before a Confederate ambush, and the 35th USCT and 54th Massachusetts lost more than 200 men while helping defend the Union line of retreat. Seymour was severely criticized by the Northern press for his losses in the battle.
In April following this conflict and the Battle of Port Hudson, President Lincoln said,
"There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & eternity for doing so." - April 19, 1864 (Collected Works 7: 506-507)
Wounded at Olustee, Singleton was assigned to a 35th garrison in South Carolina. The state was occupied by Union troops through the remainder of the war. Others of the 35th USCT were assigned to Florida. He was honorably discharged on June 1, 1866.
Singleton moved to the North, as did many freedmen, where he settled in New Haven, Connecticut. He worked for six years as a coachman for Henry Trowbridge. After his death, Singleton was hired by his brother Tomas Trowbridge, and worked for him for 25 years.
Marriage and family
Singleton married Maria Wanton in New Haven, and they had a child together. After joining the AME Zion Church in the city, Singleton also worked to gain an education. He studied and saved to buy books, teaching himself to read and write. The AME Zion Church was an independent black denomination, the second in the United States; it was founded by free blacks in New York City in the early 19th century.
After Singleton's first wife Maria died in 1898, he moved to New York City. There he married Charlotte Hinman. They had children, and eventually eight grandchildren.
AME Zion Church and New York
During this period, Singleton also helped with prisoners at the city jail, where he began to do missionary work with the AME Zion Church. He became a deacon and an elder. After his wife Maria died in 1898, Singleton entered the itinerant ministry and devoted all his time to the church. For three years he traveled and evangelized in Portland, Maine.
He moved to New York City and, after several years, in 1906 to Peekskill, New York. He worked for various employers through World War I. Through all these years of freedom, Singleton voted; he took pride in his ability to take on the obligations of a citizen and free man.
Singleton wrote his autobiography, Recollections of My Slavery Days (1922), which was one of the later slave narratives to be published. It first was published in serial form in the Peekskill newspaper. He concluded his account with pride:
"Now I feel that I am a part of the country, that I have an interest in its welfare and a responsibility to it. Now I am treated as a man."
Always proud of his service, Singleton attended a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) reunion at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1937. In September 1938, he attended another GAR reunion in Des Moines, Iowa, where he marched 15 blocks in the heat with 118 other veterans. He died soon after of a heart attack, at the estimated age of 95. His memoir was republished in 1999 by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Accounts such as Singleton's have been critical for historians' understanding of the slavery years. In addition, during the 1930s and the Great Depression, staff of the Federal Writers' Project interviewed former slaves in the South to gather their histories. This significant work was published in 1941 as the Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. It includes more than 2300 accounts and 500 photos.
- Patrick E. Horn, "Summary" to William Henry Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed June 12, 2012.
- "The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony", provided by National Park Service, at North Carolina Digital History: LEARN NC, accessed 11 November 2010.
- "35th United States Colored Troops/First North Carolina Colored Volunteers", Battle of Olusteee Website, accessed June 12, 2012.
- "Brigadier General Truman Seymour (1824-1891)", Battle of Olustee Website, accessed June 12, 2012.
- "'Recollections of My Slavery Days': William Henry Singleton's newly published memoir won't let North Carolina's slave past be forgotten", Independent Weekly, 22 March 2000, includes 1937 photo of Singleton; accessed June 12, 2012.
- [Mobley, Joe A., "Foreword" to William Henry Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days'] edited by David Cecelski and Katherine Mellen Charron, Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1999
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, includes more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photos, Library of Congress, online text, accessed June 12, 2012.
- William H. Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days, Peekskill, NY: Highland Democrat, 1922, at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, full online text.
- Mobley, Joe A., "Foreword" to William Henry Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days, edited by David Cecelski and Katherine Mellen Charron, Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1999
- Laurel F. Vlock, Joel A. Levitch, Contraband of War: The Life of William Henry Singleton, Slave and Soldier in the Civil War, Funk & Wagnalls, 1970, young adult book
- "'Recollections of My Slavery Days': William Henry Singleton's newly published memoir won't let North Carolina's slave past be forgotten", Independent Weekly, 22 March 2000, includes 1937 photo of Singleton
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, includes online text of 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photos, Library of Congress
- Sgt Singleton, Find a Grave