north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



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      Federal occupation of Roanoke Island began in February 1862 after a successful campaign by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside to gain a strategic foothold on the North Carolina coast. Runaway slaves from nearby plantations and farms, dubbed “contrabands” by Federal forces, began pouring into Federal lines in search of freedom. The runaways added to the number of slaves already present on the island who had been sent early in the war to construct the Confederate forts there.

      Federal commanders decided to put them to work. In exchange for rations, clothing, and an expected wage of eight dollars per month, the freedmen took on jobs as laborers serving in a variety of capacities. Many worked on construction projects, building three forts, docks, bridges, ships, and hospital furnishings, and the like. Around fifty men served as spies, scouts, and guides, traveling from thirty to 300 miles behind enemy lines to acquire intelligence or pilot Federal soldiers.

      In May 1863, Federal authorities tasked Chaplain Horace James with establishing an official colony for the freedmen. Federal officials laid out the community in a grid pattern, much like a city, with longer avenues running parallel to the shore and shorter streets intersecting those at right angles. The lots measured nearly an acre in size, upon which the freedmen constructed crude log houses for shelter and established gardens for food. Their first public building was a church. In June, well before the U.S. Congress approved the formation of black regiments, Gen. Edward A. Wild began recruiting male refugees for North Carolina’s first company of colored volunteers. Missionary teachers began arriving in the fall to establish schools for refugee children.

      The colony’s expanding population resulted in supply shortages and overcrowding. By September 1863, the laborers had gone over a year without pay, and the refugees were in desperate need of clothing. Food too became sporadic as privateering Federal soldiers sold rations intended for the freedmen to local citizens while other soldiers stole from the freed families’ gardens. By 1865, rations had been cut so drastically that only half of the 3,000 refugees received food.

      Initially intended to be a permanent colony for freed families, the island lost most of its inhabitants to the mainland by the summer of 1867. Those who remained behind most likely resided on the island before the occupation, choosing to continue “fishing, fowling, and small-scale farming.” They formed the foundation of a black community whose descendants inhabit the island to this day.

Patricia Click, Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-67 (2001)
Vincent Colyer, Brief Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People in the U.S. Army in NC in the Spring of 1862 (1864)
Ira Berlin and others, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (1982-1998)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

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