The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony - History

UNC Press



Within weeks of North Carolina’s secession from the Union, the Confederacy had established a military presence on Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island derived its military significance by virtue of its location near the opening of two major sounds. By the winter of 1861-1862 there were three sand forts on the west side of the island, and small batteries on the east side and in the center of the island.

Even with the fortifications, Confederate defenses were, however, rather weak. Henry A. Wise, the general in charge of holding the island, complained to his superiors that troop strength fell short of what would be needed for an adequate defense, but the troops were needed elsewhere. Union troops under General Ambrose E. Burnside easily captured the island on February 8, 1862. After the battle, the Union went on to occupy a number of coastal North Carolina towns. Meanwhile, Roanoke Island remained a Union stronghold, garrisoned by Union troops until after the war.

As had been the case in parts of South Carolina and Virginia, once slaves in or near the occupied areas of North Carolina heard that the Union army had established a foothold, they streamed across Union lines with hopes of obtaining freedom. Within weeks of the establishment of official occupation, large numbers of slaves organized themselves into refugee camps at or near Union headquarters in the occupied areas. Following the lead of General Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe, General Burnside concluded that the former slaves should be considered “contraband” of war and granted them the status of freedmen. He ordered the officers in charge of the local occupations to provide charitable support and to put the able-bodied men to work, especially in the construction of fortifications and docks.

During the first few months of the Union occupation of Roanoke Island, over 250 former slaves settled in a camp close to Union headquarters. By the end of the year, the number had grown to 1,000. Most of the former slaves had escaped to the island from the North Carolina mainland; many were strangers to each other. Nevertheless, they set about to establish a thriving community, including their own school and several churches. As word of the camp spread, more and more former slaves fled to the island. Refugees crowded into some of the old Confederate barracks on the north end of the island in an area that became known as Camp Foster, and sanitation problems appeared likely. Seeking to exert control over the Roanoke Island camp, as well as the other contraband camps in North Carolina, in April 1863 Major General John G. Foster, Commander of the 18th Army Corps, appointed the Reverend Horace James, an evangelical Congregationalist minister and abolitionist from Worcester, Massachusetts, to be “Superintendent of all the Blacks” in the Department of North Carolina. Later that spring, Foster ordered James to help establish an organized colony of former slaves on Roanoke Island. Anticipating that a number of the black men would be recruited into the Union army, the military saw the need to provide a safe sanctuary for the families of the black soldiers. Thus, the contraband camp became an officially recognized colony.

Although his headquarters were in New Bern, Horace James felt a special fondness for Roanoke Island. From its inception, he and some of the other military authorities associated with the colony viewed it as more than a temporary shelter for the former slaves. On numerous occasions James wrote of the need to regenerate the South-to eradicate the sin of slavery and replace it with a free labor system. James, in fact, clearly intended the Roanoke Island colony to be a permanent settlement, a model that would be emulated throughout the South. As he underscored in a letter that he wrote for distribution in the North in the summer of 1863 soliciting support for the work on Roanoke Island, James enthusiastically embraced the colonization as an opportunity to create what he termed a “New Social Order.”

In the summer of 1863, James and his assistants laid out what amounted to a New England-style village stretching from Weir’s Point to Pork Point on the north end of the island. Freedpeople were given lots upon which they built their own homes. James thought that small plots of land and domestic manufacturing, along with shad fisheries and a sawmill, would be the keys to the colony’s self-sufficiency and independence.

Work in the colony presented Northern missionary teachers from the American Missionary Association and the New York branch of the National Freedman’s Relief Association with a grand opportunity to put into practice ideas about abolition and evangelicalism that had been simmering in New England for almost forty years. Although six teachers, including Horace James’s cousin Elizabeth James, constituted the heart of the teaching corps on the island, at least twenty-seven missionary teachers, most from New England, worked on the island during the period from 1862 to 1867. Most were evangelical Protestants, with strong abolitionist beliefs and a fervent missionary spirit. Many described their efforts in letters to the offices of the missionary associations and to friends.

The Northern missionaries attempted to infuse the colony with a combination of evangelical fervor and traditional republican values. They firmly believed that education would prepare the freedpeople for citizenship. The Northern press eagerly reported on the struggles and accomplishments in the colony, whose population hovered around 3,500 by the end of the war. The colony was a trial run for some significant ideas-free universal public education, small freeholding, wage labor-that could have drastically altered society and culture in late nineteenth-century North Carolina and the South in general. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867 traces the rise and fall of this significant attempt to create a “New Social Order” in the South.

Copyright © 2001 Patricia C. Click
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