Expository Essay on Roanoke Island Freedmens Colony

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Carnegie Mellon University
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Roanoke Island created a historic trial during the Civil War. After the Union forces in 1862 occupied the Island, it was changed to an African-American haven where families throughout the region find refuge. Their presence in the region strengthened the Union Army towards the establishment of the Freedmen's colony, on the northern part of Roanoke Island. This colony, just like others formed by the Union army presented the African-Americans their initial taste of independence and freedom. Nevertheless, like other sites, the party was short-lived, and it soon faded from the historical documents. In 1862, the Northern forces under the leadership of Major General Burnside invaded the southern barricades on Roanoke Island, acquiring access to North Carolinas strategic waterways, giving them an upper hand. The union army was faced with the difficult question of how to utilize the slaves who were sent to assist the Confederate to create fortification on Roanoke Island. The slaves were labeled as "contraband of war," and for this reason, they were allowed to start a new life on the island. Other slaves from the interior, thereafter made their way to the island and helped the Union troops in rehabilitating the forts on Roanoke, Hatteras, the New Bern, and other strategic locations in North Carolina. During the period, there were numerous letters written by Horace James, freedmen, and the missionary tutors. These letters highlighted the conditions of the freedmen and the colony vividly.

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During the Civil War, the safe haven which was created in North Carolina spread faster throughout the state and became fascinating to numerous enslaved people who migrated to Roanoke Island. These enslaved African Americans risked punishments, separation, and their personal lives to experience the personal freedom which was abundant on Roanoke Island. The Bureau of Refugees and Freedmen took the initiative to train and offer education to the former slaves who settled on the island so that they could participate in their free and sovereign communities. Until 1867, the island was home to more than 3,500 enslaved people, being the first community of its kind in Northern Carolina. At its peak, the colony offered the residents with maximum freedom and opportunity that they previously did not have. The residents for the first time could access farmland, schools to obtain higher education, and essential skills towards the development of trade and skills to earn. The colony had a rich heritage and essential relationships with the local community. In other words, this formed an essential step towards the journey of achieving equality and freedom which, exists to date. It is for this reason that those who remained on the island after its closure in 1867 called the Island "the first light of freedom."

During the initial month after the Union-occupied Roanoke, more than 300 slaves settled close to the Union headquarters, and at the end of the first year, the number increased to more than 1,000 people. A significant number of slaves later escaped to the Island from North Carolina, and for this reason, many did not know each other. However, they established a community that included their own school together with several churches which were distributed across the Island. As the idea of the camp which offered refuge spread, more slaves migrated to the island and this led to overcrowding an event that led to sanitation problems at the camp. Seeking to control the sanitation issue at the camp as well as other camps that were now prevalent in North Carolina, General John Foster who was a commander of the 18th army corps assigned Horace James to be the superintendent of the blacks. Later that year, General John Foster ordered James to initiate plans and establish an organized colony of slaves within the island. Since there was a possibility of many black soldiers into the Union army, the military decided to assist their families hence the emergence of contraband camps. Horace James as evident in his letters had a special affection for Roanoke Island. From the beginning, he associated with military officials to ensure the safety and well-being of the slaves who moved to Roanoke Island. At one time he wrote on the need to regenerate the south to shun slavery and substitute it with the free labor system which would be beneficial for all. Reverend James from the beginning intended the Island to be a permanent settlement, a concept that would be imitated by the Southerners. He clinched to the idea of colonization as a prospect in creating what he called the "New Social Order."

The establishment of the camps at the colony offered job opportunities to the missionaries as well. The Northern missionary teachers from the American Missionary Association (AMA) were given a chance to put into practice the different ideas related to the abolition and evangelicalism that had been boiling slowly around New England for a period of forty years. Even though only six teachers, including Reverend James, formed the heart of the teaching fraternity, there were additional twenty-seven other missionaries' majority from New England who worked within the colony between 1862 until 1867. Most of the missionaries were evangelical Protestants who had strong abolitionist values, ethics, and also avid missionary spirit. Other than the missionary spirit, there was a need for experience as disciplinarians, personal traits that were not attached to the use of alcohol or tobacco and cultured. These values, beliefs, and spirits were expressed in letters that were addressed to the AMA offices and other missionary friends across the globe.

The northern missionaries also had their strategy towards ensuring that the gospel reached the slaves within the Colony. The first infused the slaves with a combination of both evangelical enthusiasm and traditional Republican values. They believed that education would prepare them for citizenship. In the process, the Northern press was eagerly broadcasting on the struggles and achievements within the colony, whose population increased to more than 3,500 by the end of the war. The northerners used the colony as a trial for some of their ideas which revolved around universal public education, wage labor, and freeholding. These were aspects of the society that drastically changed the society and culture during the nineteenth century hence the idea behind the new social order which was covered in the letters from Roanoke Island.


In a nutshell, Roanoke Island created a historic experiment during the Civil War, and some letters were written to highlight the conditions of the freedmen and the colony. However, it is fundamental to note that Reverend Horace James played an important role in ensuring the settlement of the slaves at Roanoke Island who was appointed as the superintendent of the blacks.


"The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony - Documents." 2018.

Barrett, John G. The Civil War in North Carolina. UNC Press Books, 1995.

Bowser, Arvilla Tillett, and Lindsey Bowser. Roanoke Island: The Forgotten Colony. Maxmilian Press Publishers, 2002.

Carpenter, Jeannine Lynn. "The Lost Community of the Outer Banks: African American Speech on Roanoke Island." (2004).

Click, Patricia C. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2003.

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