This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
Edward Augustus Wild grew up in Massachusetts at a time when abolitionist fervor ran rampant within New England society. A doctor by profession and an adventurer by choice, Wild became a military officer out of a strong sense of personal honor, writing his wife Frances Ellen Wild that he did not enlist “to be elevated, but simply from a sense of duty.” At the outbreak of the war, Wild fulfilled the twin drives of duty and adventure by raising a company of volunteers and becoming a captain in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.
Known as a courageous, capable, and obstinate officer, Wild led soldiers through numerous battles, from the First Battle of Bull Run—the first major engagement of the war—through the Peninsular Campaign, seeing combat at Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Fair Oaks, where he was wounded. A law unto himself, Wild complained to his superiors about the inadequacies of a fellow officer, eventually leading Wild to leave the regiment. He took command of the 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a colonel in August 1862, and a month later led his men at the Battle of South Mountain, losing his left arm in the fight.
When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew called for the creation of an African American regiment, forming the 54th Massachusetts Infantry with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at its head. Inspired by the success of the 54th, Andrew pushed for the creation of an entire brigade of United State Colored Troops to be led by the newly promoted Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. With the help of Shaw, Wild selected white officers to head the group of black soldiers, and in April 1863 the “African Brigade” made its way to North Carolina to recruit local freedmen. While recruiting, Wild liberated hundreds of slaves from plantations and resettled them on Roanoke Island. They were then sent to South Carolina to assist in the capture of Charleston Harbor. The Brigade’s remarkable success in the Carolinas showcased the efficiency of United States Colored Troops to the nation, fulfilling a crucial goal of Wild and his men. They continued to strengthen the reputation of black troops in the eyes of the public. In 1864, the “African Brigade” repulsed the Confederate troops at Wilson’s Wharf in the first pitched battle between black troops and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Always a loose cannon, Wild was embroiled in controversy by the war’s end. When Richmond fell, Jefferson Davis had the last of the Confederacy’s gold evacuated to Georgia, in the hopes of shipping it overseas for safekeeping and to revive the dying Confederacy. While trying to recover the gold, Wild had the Chennault family of Georgia tortured, convinced they knew where the Confederate gold had been hidden. Wild never found the gold; modern scholarship concludes it was likely distributed to Confederate soldiers as payroll during its journey south.
Casstevens. Frances H. Edward A. Wild and the African Brigade in the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2003.
Kuenzi, Hans. “The Search for Lost Confederate Gold.” The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, 2008.