The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony - Preview

UNC Press




American Historical Review:

Patricia C. Click has performed an outstanding service in rescuing the Roanoke Island freedmen’s colony from historical oblivion.  Like its better-known sixteenth-century predecessor, this “lost” colony left few actual footprints.  Archaeological work has uncovered partial outlines of a military camp and shaken loose some artifacts, but little that occurred on the island during and immediately after the Civil War remains imprinted on public or private memory.  . .  .  Click’s exhaustive research amply compensates for this loss, and her account of the colony’s history will prove definitive.  Equally important, her decision to shape a narrative accessible to specialists and general public alike is fully vindicated.  A brief glance at the endnotes confirms that this well-written, informatively illustrated study entails no loss of research or analytical integrity.  It is a valuable contribution to Civil War and emancipation scholarship; its simultaneous appearance in paperback should further guarantee that the story of the Roanoke freedmen’s colony is restored to its rightful place in popular memory. (Reviewed by Martin Crawford, Keele University)



American Nineteenth Century History:

Roanoke Island is commonly known as the site of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated attempt to settle an English colony in America.  Few Americans are aware of a very different kind of colony established on Roanoke Island almost three hundred years later.  Patricia Click has recreated the story of the men and women who struggled to found and live in the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony.  Click presents the story of the Freedmen’s Colony in an accessible narrative history suitable for a wide audience of readers from those interested in the history of North Carolina to genealogical and Civil War enthusiasts to scholars of the period.  She integrates the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony into the larger scheme of the era by portraying the Colony as a microcosm of the experiences of blacks during the tumultuous years of war and emancipation, the relationships between white and black, freedmen and the emancipators, the government and northern evangelicals.  . .  .   Time Full of Trial, the first comprehensive history of the freedmen’s colony at Roanoke Island, is truly a piece of investigative research.   (Reviewed by Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Radford University)



Church History:

Time Full of Trial is a narrative history of a sanctuary for black refugees who were transported by the Union from the mainland to Roanoke Island, North Carolina, during the Civil War.  Northern missionaries who settled on the island to educate and supervise the black families provide the subject of the book, although military men, white islanders, and the refugees themselves come into focus at times.  The author’s sources include letters, petitions, periodicals, legal documents, military papers, and the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  A sermon occasionally surfaces, as does archaeological evidence concerning the black and the military presences on the island.  Of the missionaries, the book argues that they were well-intentioned men and women who cared for their charges and strove mightily to reconstruct them, but who also mingled into instruction lessons in seemingly Northern habits like thrift and temperance.  .  . .  The book is thus part of a reevaluation, which began several decades ago, of Northern missionaries of the Civil War and Reconstruction, who were caricatured and ridiculed in writings of at least the first half of the twentieth century.  A better narrative of the short life of the Roanoke asylum could hardly be imagined. .  .  .    Time Full of Trial is a superb study of an inspired social experiment and of an African American community in transition from slavery to freedom.   (Reviewed by John Saillant, Western Michigan University)



Civil War History:

Patricia C. Click begins her book by explaining why she based her work’s title on the words of Ella Roper, an American Missionary Association teacher who served the Roanoke Island freedmen’s colony.  Roper’s use of the word “trial,” Click explains, offers two meanings:  one, that the colony itself was a challenge for all who participated in developing and sustaining it; two, that the colony offered 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” (xviii).  The strength of this work is the author’s ability to blend together both meanings of “trial.”   (Reviewed by Robert C. Kenzer, University of Richmond)



The Historian:

            “Work hard, save your money, and pray,” northern evangelical missionaries admonished freedmen on Roanoke Island, North Carolina—located in Albemarle Sound between the mainland and the Outer Banks—during the early years of the Civil War (204).  The failure of this admonition to create a “New Social Order,” as Army chaplain and Superintendent of Freedmen Horace James called it, is the subject of Patricia C. Click’s deeply researched and gracefully written analysis of the transition of blacks from slavery to freedom. . . .  Horace James’s vision of creating a black “colony,” as opposed to maintaining a “contraband camp,” and the ability of Click to place the events on this twelve-mile long island in a broader conceptual framework sets Time Full of Trial apart.

            . . .  this study represents a remarkable research effort, and offers a compelling story of the tragic consequences of emancipation for a small group of former slaves who entered freedom with such high hopes and aspirations.   (Reviewed by Loren Schweninger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro)



Journal of American History:

Reconstruction scholars and those interested in the growing debate over the federal government’s responsibility to the descendants of slaves will benefit from the poignant story of the Roanoke Island freedmen’s colony, told engagingly by Patricia C. Click.  Like many stories of Reconstruction, the tale of the Roanoke Colony is one of hope and possibility transformed into bitterness and despair. 

            Click convincingly argues that the Roanoke story, while not widely known and even lost in local black memory, is “one of national significance.”  She places Roanoke within the context of a range of experiments in free labor following emancipation while showing its unique features.  .  . .    By recovering the moving tale of the second “lost” Roanoke colony, Click has made an important contribution to an understanding of the postemancipation South.   (Reviewed by Janette Thomas Greenwood, Clark University)



Maryland Historical Magazine:

            One of the least studied aspects of the Civil War remains the experience of civilian refugees.  By a conservative estimate, roughly half a million former slaves left their antebellum homes during the war.  Most became dependent on the armed forces of the United States for protection and subsistence, offering their labor, their loyalty, and often their lives in exchange.  Patricia Click’s fine study of the refugee camp at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, offers valuable insight into this poorly understood subject, which, in the end involved a much broader cast of characters than military officials and freedpeople and a much richer narrative of events than the mere dispensation of alms. .  .  .   Time Full of Trial makes a signal contribution to understanding the experiences of African American refugees during the Civil War.   (Reviewed by Joseph P. Reidy, Howard University)



The North Carolina Historical Review:

At the Civil War’s end, approximately one hundred contraband camps existed in the Union-occupied regions of the South.  In these protected environments, displaced freedmen sought shelter, and the army found them to be an indispensable labor source.  The focus of Patricia Click’s study is North Carolina’s first camp, located on Roanoke Island.  Here she sheds light on a unique situation, because unlike most contraband camps, which were meant to be temporary, this site was officially designated a “colony” and was conceived as a permanent settlement.  After its victory in the Battle of Roanoke Island in early 1862, the Union army established a base here to protect the adjacent strategic waterways.  Freedmen streamed into the area, and Time Full of Trial examines the evolution of federal policy toward them.  . .  .   The book’s value is in elucidating the conflicting goals of social reformers and the military and how military exigencies and Presidential Reconstruction ultimately sealed the Roanoke freedmen’s fate.   (Reviewed by Bernard E. Powers Jr., College of Charleston)



The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography:

Most famous for Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of the 1580s, Roanoke Island in eastern North Carolina was also the home of a freedmen’s colony in the 1860s.  Patricia Click’s Time Full of Trial takes a narrow view of this experience, but it is also a richly rewarding one.  . .  .   Click is a clear and forceful narrator, moving through this material in rough chronological fashion:  from the establishment of the freedmen’s colony to missionaries and their educational efforts to the role of the military and finally to the dissolution of the colony.  She has exhaustively researched her subject, citing in her notes a host of primary documents from seemingly every extant source.  Particularly impressive are the voices she is able to recover: missionaries and officials mainly, but through their letters and reports also those of some former slaves, which enrich her story immeasurably.  Occasional images, documents, and maps pepper the book, adding flavor to the narrative.

Time Full of Trial will not transform the way we think of the Civil War, Reconstruction, or even the experience of African Americans in North Carolina in this era.  But it does provide a nicely textured description of the Roanoke experiment, and, through that, an exploration of the important nexus of war and peace, freedom and slavery, the northern utopian ideals of missionaries and southern distopian realities facing the freed slaves.  Patricia Click has made this small story of the Civil War into a book rewarding to students of the period and especially to anyone interested in the history of eastern North Carolina.   (Reviewed by Michael Ayers Trotti, Ithaca College)


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