“Boundless”: New Sculpture in North Carolina Honors Black Soldiers Who Helped Win the Civil War
On the grounds of a museum in North Carolina is the site of a fierce battle in the closing months of the Civil War, where 1,600 black Union Army soldiers staged a frontal assault on entrenchments protecting Confederation’s last open seaport, a critical link in the supply line that kept the war alive.
Until recently, there was no marker to honor the valor of the Black troops who suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Forks Road and paved the way for the fall of Fort Fisher in Wilmington and the end of war two months later.
But now, as the nation continues to fight systemic racism and the movement to suppress Confederate iconography gains momentum, these Black Union soldiers and the crucial battle they fought is being recognized.
To honor the United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers who fought in the Battle of Forks Road – 80% of whom had already been enslaved – artist Stephen Hayes created “Boundless,” a sculpture that has been unveiled last month due to what is now the Cameron Art Museum, where the battle was fought for several days in February 1865.
Without the discovery of the site in 1980 and the investigation that followed, the critical role black soldiers played in the assault that helped end the Civil War might have been forgotten in history. But now their bravery is commemorated in Hayes’ work.
“It is unfortunate that the contributions of the ‘Troops of Color’ who have courageously served a country that has devalued them regularly go unnoticed in American history,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who works in partnering with communities across the South and beyond to dismantle white supremacy and advance human rights. âThese truths of black heroism are conveniently excluded from American history books. But Mr. Hayes’ âBoundlessâ sculpture corrects that. While his article focuses on the Battle of Forks Road in Wilmington, it also tells tales of untold black regiments who led the Union’s advances during the Civil War, realizing that their survival was unlikely.
Hayes, assistant professor of art, art history, and visual studies at Duke University, spent two years creating the life-size bronze sculpture, made in part from casts of black men whose ancestors are linked to the site of the battle and its history. Hayes told the SPLC that he hopes the sculpture will help people understand the bravery of the Black Union soldiers and the connection between black history and the future of Wilmington.
âIt’s not a sculpture to be worn or beaten,â said Hayes, 38. âIt’s a message of pride, a feeling of honor that I hope prompts people to think about the past, present and future.
Heather Wilson, deputy director of the museum, commissioned Hayes to create the 2,500-pound sculpture.
âWe knew from the start that we wanted this work representing the USCT to be figurative,â Wilson said. âThe work of Stephen, who navigates the agency’s narrative and black bodies in America, has captured our imaginations. We reached out to Stephen in early 2019 after reviewing his work and speaking with other museums in the state. It has been an honor to work with Stephen and to watch him grow over the past two years.
Two years of preparation
Hayes began his studies at North Carolina Central University, where he planned to study mechanical engineering. But after failing a math class, he was introduced to graphic design by a friend and ended up taking a ceramics class. He excelled in the medium and went on to obtain a residency at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University before earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Savannah College of Art and Design.
From there, Hayes met with immediate success. His thesis exhibition âCash Cropâ has toured the country for nearly a decade and shines a light on the transport of Africans as goods.
To begin “Boundless”, Hayes came into contact with the descendants and reenactors of those who fought in the Battle of Forks Road. He used their faces to create molds from which he cast the faces of the 11 men lined up, carrying backpacks and guns as they marched into battle.
âI thought about this limitless flow that people are still fighting today,â Hayes said of the name of the sculpture. âAll of my work deals with capitalism, consumerism, brainwashing, and ideas about how the black body is viewed today. There is an endless number of battles that we black people have been through and continue to experience, and this battle continues. “
Wilson said that art such as Hayes’ work can affect the way we think about each other and our respective stories.
âPublic art reflects what we value as a community; it reflects who we are as a people and it can impact our individual and collective identity, âWilson said. “Stephen Hayes’ sculpture proclaims that the history of the USCT is important, is appreciated and is not forgotten.”
‘Keep on fighting’
The Battle of Forks Road, part of Wilmington’s larger Battle, was largely forgotten until 1980, when local history buff and veteran Robert E. Treadwell discovered relics at the site of the battle and invited a friend, Civil War historian Chris Fonvielle, to help explore the area.
The America Comes Alive website provides this account: âTreadwell and Fonvielle investigated the field, and Dr. Fonvielle searched through files, maps and manuscripts to piece together what happened. Dr. Fonvielle soon saw that what they were looking at were the remains of a fierce battle that no one ever talked about. Considering the location of the battle, he proceeded to call it by the name of his route: the route of the Battle of Forks. As he studied what must have happened, he saw that the Confederates were so well established that they wanted to hold out. But the Union – embodied by some 1,600 American soldiers of color – matched Confederate courage and stubbornly fought to win.
After this discovery, a subdivision was planned for the site. But a local movement arose to preserve it, and the owner of the land, Bruce Barclay Cameron, later donated it for the construction of the Cameron Art Museum in memory of his wife, with the stipulation that the earthworks on the site of the battle are preserved and the history of the battle interpreted.
Fonvielle later wrote a book on the battle, Glory to Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road.
Hayes said Wilmington’s fall meant everything to him.
âI wouldn’t be where I am today if things had turned the other way,â he said. âBut even though we won, we are still fighting today, we are fighting for our freedoms. [The sculpture] hopefully put everything in perspective for the next generation.
Change the narrative
Before its unveiling, Hayes didn’t know what to expect.
âEveryone will have a different point of view,â he said. âEveryone has a certain story that they want to highlight. We’ve swept up certain types of history and ultimately I want to see what conversations the sculpture will bring. People will have their own thoughts, but I don’t know what it will bring. “
The participation in the unveiling of the sculpture was more than what Hayes had expected.
Previously, it only existed as a preliminary drawing but has been turned into a work of art that says a lot about the experience of black people.
âWe are delighted with the extraordinary response from our community to the unveiling of ‘Boundless’,â Wilson said. âThe attendance and attendance exceeded our expectations. ‘Without Borders’â¯is vitally important to who we are and where we are going.
Hayes said the response from the crowd of over 1,500 during opening weekend made him elated and proud. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on November 13, when the sculpture was unveiled, United States Colored Troops Remembrance Day.
“I always dream of new pieces to create, and I hope my work changes the narrative.”
Top photo: The “Boundless” sculpture was unveiled on November 13, 2021 on the grounds of what is now the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Alan Cradick)