By James Johnson
His name was William B. Gould. He was a soldier, a Shakespeare enthusiast, a world traveler, a hero and, until the age of 24, a slave. But the title that stuck, according to his great-grandson, was that of a “fighter.” In his years as a soldier, Gould partook in plenty of battles, but the fight he may be remembered most for didn’t take place on any battlefield, and it happened long before he put on his uniform. That fight took place on the Cape Fear River, on September 21, 1862, the day Gould took off his chains and made his great escape.
“People have no idea how much history they pass by every day in their cars, riding alongside that river,” said Captain Freddie Mims. “People rather play with their iPads than look at the world around them.”
Mims, like Gould, owes a great debt to the Cape Fear River. The 62-year-old fisherman has been giving tours of the river for nearly 30 years as owner of Cape Fear River Boat Cruises, wherein he regales passengers with stories like that of Gould’s, that helped cement the river as an important part of American history. Mims is licensed by the United States Coast Guard to captain a boat, and takes the job seriously.
On any day of the week, he takes groups of at least six or up to 16, on rides that last as short as two-hours or as long as an entire day. Prices range between $30 per person to $110 per person, depending on the length of the trip, with children 12 and under riding for free. The daylong trips take riders all the way from Campbellton Landing, at 1122 Person Street in Fayetteville, to the town of Wilmington, where riders board a van and drive back to Fayetteville.
“A lot of people are surprised the river goes that far,” Mims said.
“I have actually gone all the way to the ocean before…Fayetteville being a port city is the only reason Fayetteville is even here.”
The river’s access to the ocean is what made Gould’s escape possible. On that fateful night, Gould led the escape, joined by seven others: George Price, John Mitchell, Charles Giles, John Mackey and his brothers, Joseph Hall and Andrew. Under the cloak of darkness the eight men traveled with their boats sail furrowed, to avoid detection from the lookouts posted at the nine different forts they would have to pass. The eight men knew that if caught, the punishment could range from whipping, beating, branding, imprisonment or even lynching. And that was assuming they survived the water and the rain. Of all nights for it to rain…
“In the early days, it certainly was dangerous,” Mims said of crossing the river. “In the early days, the Cape Fear River was like the state highway. It was the fastest way to travel, so there were all sorts of boats on it, and they would run aground sometimes. In severe weather, you can just imagine the difficulty people had. But now we know when the storms are coming and where they are. I have pretty much taken any risk out of it. Plus, I’ve been educated and trained by the United States Coast Guard. People usually only get in trouble now if there is a guy involved named Budweiser.”
Those riding with Mims are welcome to bring whatever drinks or food they like. Though there will be bathrooms at the various stops along the way, none of Mims three boats contain bathrooms, so those who choose to drink, should take their time between gulps.
The Power of Stories
Mims says he has always worked to make the trips interesting by way of storytelling. When the business began, he had been giving tours to fellow fishers and would share fun facts about cat fishing in the river, but he found that people responded more to stories about the region’s history. Shortly after he switched the tour’s focus, he found groups like the Salvation Army, the Wounded Warriors Program and the Blind Center that took an interest in his educational boat rides.
“I am trying to educate people. I have always been a history buff and it amazes me how so many highly educated people, especially your college-aged people, don’t know anything about their history. ‘Vietnam, what?’ ‘The War of the South Pacific?’ (Gen. William) Sherman came through Fayetteville and burnt the bridge down when he came through. That’s an amazing feat, but kids today don’t know about it.”
Much of what is known about American history is because of storytellers like Mims, whose passion and respect for the people who lived and died in our own backyards, has helped spur the interest of others. Passion is an ingredient that can sometimes be forgotten when teaching history in a classroom, but not by people like Mims, and certainly not by the people who lived it, like Gould.
The reason we know that it rained on the night Gould and his companions made their escape; the reason we know that the eight men traveled 28 nautical miles in pitch darkness before making it into the Atlantic Ocean where they were discovered by the U.S.S. Cambridge of the Union blockade; the reason we know the name William B. Gould at all, is because Gould, like Mims, had one other notable title: storyteller.
Gould maintained one of only three diaries in existence, written during the Civil War, by a former slave. It is believed that Gould learned to read and write from the Episcopal church as a child, which was rare, as teaching a slave how to read and write was illegal at the time. Gould maintained a curiosity and passion about the world around him, teaching himself French and soaking up whatever literature he could find.
After gaining his freedom, Gould didn’t leave his nautical days behind him, choosing instead to immediately enlist in the U.S. Navy. A
fter the end of the war, Gould documented his visits to the northeastern United States, the Netherlands, Spain and many other countries. However, he chose to live the remainder of his life in the country he fought so hard to gain his freedom in, raising five sons who would follow in his footsteps, fighting in World War I and one son who fought in the Spanish-American War. Gould died in 1923, at the age of 85 in Dedham, Massachusetts. The day after his death, the town newspaper described him as a “faithful soldier” and an “always loyal citizen.”
According to Mims, people are often surprised by how quiet and undisturbed by the modern world the Cape Fear River remains. “They go from Person Street, to a paved parking lot, to what looks like the Amazon River,” Mims said. “Ten minutes after leaving the dock, you’d think there wasn’t another person anywhere in the world, except for maybe a few fishermen. Even though civilization is only a few hundred yards away, you don’t see it beyond the trees.”
For those overwhelmed by the stresses of the modern world, a peaceful trip down the Cape Fear River, with nothing but the sounds of nature and stories of days-gone-by, may sound like the perfect escape. For William B. Gould, it quite literally was. For more information on Cape Fear River Cruises, prices and schedules, call (910) 709-1758.