Wilmington, N.C. — On Feb. 20, 1865, on the eve of the Civil War’s end, Union soldiers were sent to meet Confederate troops at Forks Road just south of Wilmington. They intended to take Wilmington.
Sixteen-hundred Union men with few supplies and no gunboat support faced off in the swamps against 8,500 Confederate troops. For two days, the soldiers fought brutally.
But late on Feb. 21, Union soldiers saw smoke billowing from Wilmington. Word spread that the Confederates were planning to abandon their stronghold. Union soldiers surged forward, fighting with more fervor than they had the day before.
Before dawn the next day, Confederate troops retreated. But the Union troops faced severe losses, as they did in many Civil War skirmishes.
Even though the Civil War ended six weeks later, what is now known as the Battle at Forks Road wasn’t a significant turning point. What distinguishes it is that it was fought mostly by Black Union soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, and its stories were hidden and unrecognized for more than a century.
Josiah Bennetone sat as still as he could.
He breathed slowly through his nose and kept his eyes closed, so he would not mess up the plaster gauze covering his face.
Bennetone, 37, is a descendant of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers. But for 27 years, he didn’t know the full history of his ancestors in Wilmington, where he grew up.
Ten years ago, Bennetone’s mother, Sonya Patrick, a leader of Black Lives Matter Wilmington, told him that four of his relatives had fought in USCT regiments — his great-great grandfather, Pvt. Henry Williams, great-great-great grandfather, Cpl. David Jackson and great-great-grand uncles, Cpl. Dennis Perkins and Cpl. James Perkins.
Now, 156 years after the Battle of Forks Road, Bennetone’s casting is part of the first physical memorial in Wilmington honoring USCT soldiers, which was unveiled Nov. 13 at the Cameron Art Museum.
The memorial, a sculpture titled “Boundless,” features 11 lifesize figures — a flagbearer, drummer and three rows of soldiers, their arms linked together.
Next month, the names of 1,820 USCT will be inscribed on the sculpture to honor all of the Black soldiers who fought in the Battle of Forks Road.
It was quiet as Bennetone sat for his casting, leaving him alone to think of the soldiers’ — and his ancestors’ — sacrifice and bravery.
“They weren’t free, but they were still fighting for freedom, which they didn’t have themselves,” he said. “It reminded me to always do something greater than yourself.”
The history of those troops and Bennetone’s ancestors was lost for more than a century — until a historian uncovered it in the 1980s.
On April 29, 1980 — 22 years before the Cameron Art Museum was relocated to the Battle of Forks Road historic site — Chris Fonvielle Jr. visited the site with the late Robert Treadwell, a World War II veteran.
At the time, Fonvielle was the curator of the Blockade Runners of the Confederacy Museum at Carolina Beach.Treadwell, a local history buff, didn’t know what had happened at the site. But years earlier, he’d discovered some artifacts in the area, including cannonball fragments.
Local historians and UNC-Wilmington professors told Fonvielle that there was no fighting there. But Fonvielle, now 68, couldn’t ignore the feeling he’d had during that first visit to the site.
“I knew that there was much more to this story,” he said.
In the years following, Fonvielle discovered lead and iron canister that had been shot from a cannon and fired minié balls, bullets used during the Civil War. He also found brass buttons and belt pieces from uniforms.
All of it was evidence that a battle had taken place — a battle that, because he’d uncovered it, Fonvielle named “The Battle of Fork Roads.”
In February 2020, he published a book, “Glory at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road,” revealing the details of a battle that had been forgotten for more than a century.
“After years of digging and researching, I concluded that the Battle of Forks Road was a relatively minor clash resulting in comparatively few casualties on both sides and with no significant impact on the way’s ultimate outcome,” Fonvielle wrote.
He’d also uncovered that the battle was fought primarily by soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops.
Though Fonvielle had worked for decades to help tell the story of the USCT in Wilmington, there was still work to be done — work that he, as a white historian, could not do.
“What I could never do was truly explain the African American experience,” he said. “I just can’t do it.”
When Fonvielle’s book was published, the United States was at the precipice of renewed attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and the discriminatory treatment of Black Americans. The previous month, journalist David Zucchino published his book, “Wilmington’s Lie,” about the rise of white supremacy and the coup of 1898 in Wilmington.
In June 2020, two monuments, one honoring Confederate politician George Davis and another memorializing two Confederate soldiers, were removed overnight in downtown Wilmington.
At the same time, North Carolina artist Stephen Hayes was working on the sculpture to memorialize USCT soldiers.
“For my artwork, I’m trying to change the narrative of what people or what the media says somebody who looks like me is,” Hayes said.
“Boundless” stands five miles from where the two Confederate monuments once stood.
For 13 years, Heather Wilson has kept one conversation on her mind.
Wilson, the deputy director of Cameron Art Museum, had spoken with a member of the North Carolina Arts Council about her biggest dream for the museum — to bridge the gap between its work and the Battle of Forks Road historic site.
The museum had become a steward of the site when it relocated to its current location in the early 2000s. And though Wilson and her colleagues knew the story of the battle from Fonvielle’s work, they were unsure of how to honor that history and where to find the resources to do so.
In 2019, the Cameron Art Museum was awarded a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to fund a physical art piece to install in honor of USCT soldiers on the land where they fought. The foundation supports public art that helps share untold stories of North Carolina people and events.
“Not many people knew this story,” Wilson said. “We think it’s hugely important and vital to our community.”
As Wilson and her colleagues sought out an artist to commission, the one name they kept hearing was Stephen Hayes, a professor at Duke University.
The opportunity matched the goal for much of Hayes’ artwork, which depicts the Black experience.
For “Boundless,” Hayes casted reenactors, veterans, community leaders and USCT descendants to incorporate their history and connect them to the sculpture.
“To get the descendants was more about connecting the past and also the present,” Hayes said. “I wanted to get the features of these men because they were the same features as their grandfathers had and also thinking about today and how that fight still pertains today.”
Hayes met 18 people for castings at the museum, all one day.
As he had conversations with them during the casting process, Hayes said some felt they were not worthy of being a part of the sculpture. But by the time they finished their casting, they felt grateful it was a chance to represent their ancestors in “Boundless.”
“At the end of the day, the next generation of their grandkids are going to come here, and they’re going to say ‘Oh, that was my granddaddy’ or ‘That was my great uncle,’” Hayes said. “And he was part of this monument which represents the colored troops that marched here through Wilmington.”
For Bennetone, the sculpture and his casting within it, is a chance to see the forgotten history of the USCT brought to life.
“We have something visual to actually keep that legacy and keep that remembrance alive,” he said. “It’s a powerful thing.”