Monday, June 3, 2013

The Lost Freedman's Island of Roanoke, North Carolina


As reported in the New York Times' Disunion section, on 7 February 7, 2012, in an article entitled, "Lost, Again," by Gregory P. Downs -- On Feb. 7, 1862, United States soldiers poured from surf boats onto Roanoke Island off of North Carolina’s eastern shore. Almost three hundred years earlier, Sir Walter Raleigh had dispatched colonists to that same island to establish a famously ill-fated settlement. With the Civil War, Roanoke would once again be home to a lost colony.

For months the Union Navy had been carving its way down the coast, taking control of islands off North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Those victories slowed but did not stop the Confederate’s access to supplies. In the vast Outer Banks of North Carolina, small boats could slip past the barrier islands and dart across the shallow sound behind them, bringing goods to Carolina towns like Newbern, Edenton and Elizabeth City, and, through backdoor canals, to Norfolk, Va. Roanoke, spanning about 10 miles in the center of the sound, controlled the inner waterways, the flow of Confederate supplies and, therefore, the river towns themselves.


Both the United States and the Confederacy understood the island’s importance. Under Henry G. Wise, a former Virginia governor, the Confederates had gathered about 3,000 troops there, sank ships nearby as barricades and girded themselves for attack. The United States’ combined operations, led by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commandeered ferry boats to carry a specially selected 13,000-man expeditionary force from Annapolis, Md. in early January. Beset by storms, seasickness and a perilous crossing through shallow channels, the fleet did not reach Roanoke Island until Feb. 6, nearly a month later.

Despite the United States’ overwhelming numerical superiority, the island could not be easily captured. Its eastern side was too shallow to approach, the western too well-guarded by Confederate batteries. A runaway slave, a teenager named Tom, provided United States officers with a plan. South of the Confederate forts, he told them, was a farm with a protected harbor. They could land there with relative ease, then make their way up the island.

General Burnside

Covered by an intense bombardment of the Confederate forts, more than 10,000 soldiers landed on the beach on Feb. 7. During a “wearisome and disagreeable” night, the soldiers camped and pondered the next day’s battle.

The next morning, Union soldiers marched into a thicket of trouble. About a thousand Confederate soldiers manned a battery of three guns “completely covering and commanding the road,” one officer recalled. To either side lay seemingly impenetrable swamps. The solution arrived in the form of a different type of combined assault, as soldiers once again took to water to tramp through the morass on either side. A soldier described it as an “hour of almost superhuman effort, cutting bushes with our swords, and wading to our middle in bogs and water.” When they emerged, the pinned Confederates surrendered the island and nearly 2,500 prisoners of war. Only 60 soldiers died in the fighting, 37 from the United States, 23 from the Confederacy. Confident in their victory, Union soldiers tramped around the ruins of Sir Walter Raleigh’s old fort, pondering the famous Lost Colony; so many took souvenirs that the Army had to post guards to protect it.

The Burnside expedition landing on the southern end of Roanoke Island.
The Burnside expedition landing on the southern end of Roanoke Island. Library of Congress

With the capture of the island, the United States controlled much of the coast. Along with the United States’ victory the following week at Fort Donelson, Tenn., Roanoke helped revive Northern morale. Soon a series of Carolina cities fell, most notably New Bern, and expeditionary forces up the Carolina rivers cut railroad crossings and, by year’s end, began drawing slaves from plantations for service in the Union Army.

The victory at Roanoke also shook up the Confederate government. Under sharp criticism for not better supplying the island’s defenders, Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin resigned. Blaming limited supplies, not Benjamin’s actions, for the defeat, Confederate President Jefferson Davis soon appointed Benjamin secretary of state.

But the victories along the coast did not deliver the outcome the United States hoped for. Politicians were confident that success there would inspire an uprising among patriotic white Southerners. Instead, however, the myth of white Southern loyalism faded into mist, at least along the Carolina coast. Most white residents took oaths and went about their fishing, neither fighting the nation nor aiding it.



Instead, as Patricia Click demonstrates in her book “Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867,” the island soon became home to a new sort of patriot and a new type of colony: an enormous settlement of freedpeople. At first, the island’s slave population actually decreased, as many of the 200 slaves on the island chose to return to their families across the sound. But even as Burnside promised white residents of the island that he would not “destroy your freedom, demolish your property, liberate your slaves” or “injure your women,” the Union began to take in runaway slaves from Confederate-controlled areas and settle them there. A “party of fifteen or twenty of these loyal blacks, men, women and children, arrived on a ‘Dingy,’ ” one officer said later. Slaves arrived from the mainland in larger and larger numbers, 100 within the first month, and 250 by early April, spurred by rumors that they would soon be free.

The “calm trustful faith with which these poor people came over from the enemy, to our shores; the unbounded joy which they manifested when they found themselves within our lines, and Free; made an impression on” Vincent Colyer, soon to be their superintendent and later a notable painter of the American West. Many officers “gathered around the tent to hear them sing the hymn, ‘The precious Lamb, Christ Jesus, was crucified for me.’ ”


Over the next several years, the Union transformed Roanoke Island into a large “colony” for former slaves. By “giving them land, and implements,” said one of the white administrators, Union officials at the Roanoke colony hoped to lay “the foundations of new empire,” the basis for a “NEW SOCIAL ORDER IN THE SOUTH.” After marking out wide avenues in an “African village,” Horace James, the freedmen’s commissioner, apportioned acre plots to families for their own farming. With the help of Northern missionaries, freedpeople established schools to teach reading, writing, and sewing. “Light has been flashed for the first time into hundreds of benighted minds, with an effect as electric, as inspiring, as beautiful, as when the Divine Spirit moved upon the formless void, and said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” James wrote. In an appeal for Northern support, James asked, “Let us fight with our right hand, and civilize with our left.”

The colony faced enormous challenges. Unlike the Sea Islands off Georgia, Roanoke was not lush farmland. While one missionary called it “the Eden of North Carolina,” a Northern reporter described it as “a miserable place, being nothing but an inner sandbank, ornamented with stunted trees, scrubwood and tangled brushwood.” As 3,000 freedpeople poured into the island, especially after an 1864 Confederate counterattack on the river town of Plymouth, the people’s needs vastly outstripped the colony’s supplies. “From one to two hundred arrive every few days, and it is a matter of no small moment to know where to shelter them,” wrote one missionary (and Horace James’s cousin), Elizabeth James. “There are many who escape literally ‘with the skin of their teeth.’”


Many lived in groups of up to 10 people, cramped in brush and earth huts or under pine boughs. “Scenes of suffering are witnessed there which baffle description,” she wrote. “There are hundreds here ready to perish for lack of clothing, to-night.” In December, after the arrival of boatloads of former slaves, Elizabeth James reported, “I see sights, often, often, that make my heart ache, & which I have no power to relieve.” By the spring of 1864, two-thirds of the island residents lived on government rations. “Here are 3,000 bodies nearly naked, nine-tenths of them are women and children,” another missionary wrote.

As they confronted these conditions, United States officials struggled against practical and ideological limitations. Horace James, a staunchly antislavery Congregationalist minister, longed to prove that freedpeople were more self-reliant than “dependent” white Southerners; he denied rations both because he was stretched thin and because he wanted to convince the North that former slaves “ask nothing more than a decent chance to make themselves wholly independent of government aid.”


James’ vaunted independence, however, could look perilously like starvation. In desperation, freedpeople turned to Northern missionaries for help. When Elizabeth James received a shipment of shoes or clothes, “a crowd presses sometimes from before sunrise until nine at night, to buy, to beg, or to look on, & it exhausts my strength.” After an empty boat arrived, the missionary Sarah Freeman wrote that she could “not now even encourage the people to hope” for help from the North. “All I can do is to encourage them to hope in God.” That day, a mother of five burst into tears, saying “Honey, I is trusted and prayed since I was here to see you, and it seems like as God would never hear me, but dat my poor children must freeze this winter any way.” The missionary had no words to comfort her. Other missionaries gave up on human aid and prayed that “ ‘Elijah’s God’ will send us food.”

Outraged by James and other local officials, freedpeople appealed in increasingly complex ways to distant leaders. “No one knows the injustice practiced on the negro’s at Roanoke,” they wrote to Gen. Benjamin Butler, “our garden’s are plundere’d by the white soldiers, what we raise to support ourselves with is stolen from us, and if we say anything about it we are sent to the guard house…..it’s not uncommon thing to see women and children crying for something to eat.” In March 1865, a black school teacher named Richard Boyle gathered a group of petitions from “We Colored men of this Island” to President Lincoln, “the last resort and only help we have got, feeling that we are entirely friendless.” Without Lincoln’s help, they would be “Stamp down or trodden under feet by our Superintendent.”

Freedpeople celebrated Confederate surrender, but the end of the war worsened conditions on Roanoke Island. Horace James stopped giving rations to soldiers’ families, a move one missionary called “heart sickening.” In June 1865, several teachers petitioned to Washington for help. The “scores of women and children crying for bread, whose husbands, Sons and fathers are in the army today” should create an obligation on the government to “prevent suffering” for the “infirm and the helpless,” which “justice, humanity, and every principle of Christianity forbids.” Another missionary proclaimed that the scenes of “fearful” destitution in the winter of 1865 “so stir me at times, that I can only cry: ‘Lord, help! or we perish!’”

After the war the government returned the property to the prior white owners, despite freedpeople’s petitions to “remain upon the land.” In other colonies on the Sea Islands or near New Bern, freedpeople remained in the area as squatters or renters, but most of those on Roanoke crossed the sound to the coastal towns and plantations where they had lived before the war. Soon there were only a scattered few freedpeople left on the island. The “African Village” had become the newest Lost Colony of Roanoke.  (source: New York Times' Disunion)

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