Freedom Comes to Roanoke Island

To the Reader, Parent, and Teacher

This booklet is intended for young readers in grades four through six. Some words and terms which may not be familiar are underlined in the story and explained in the section called Some Neat Stuff

Reproduction of the booklet by educators is permitted and encouraged. Credit should be given to the National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

About Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Fort Raleigh is located on the north end of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, on US Hwy 64. It incorporates part of the Civil War battlefield and prison camp and there is a memorial exhibit to the Freedmens Colony. The park is open every day except Christmas and all National Park Service activities are free. Groups are welcome. For information about the summer program schedule, group reservations, or the Junior Ranger Program, call (252) 473-5772.


Freedom Comes to Roanoke Island

Over four hundred years ago a group of families from the country of England built the first permanent town on the shores of the New World of America. This settlement, called Jamestown, was named after James I, the King of England. It was in the area of the New World called Virginia.

Jamestown was not the first town, or colony, that English people had built in Virginia but it was the first one that actually worked. Twenty years before, a colony had been started about one hundred miles south of Jamestown, on Roanoke Island, but the people there disappeared, never to be seen again.

Jamestown had hardly begun when a Dutch trading ship delivered the first cargo of Africans. These people were not free settlers looking for a new and better life in Virginia like the English people. No, they were slaves, stolen from their own land and families. They were brought to America chained in the dark, dirty lower decks of ships. It was the first of many ships that would bring thousands and thousands of innocent people to be slaves in America.

Slavery in the United States lasted more than 240 years. Africans were made to work like animals and sometimes were treated worse than animals. They were often beaten and frequently didn't have enough to eat. Children were taken from their parents and sold. It was a terrible time.

Finally a war was fought and the slaves at last were freed. It was an awful war and more than 600,000 people were killed. The lives of many more were ruined. The war has many names: the War of the Rebellion, the War for Southern Independence, the War Between the States, the Civil War. They all mean the same thing: Americans killing Americans.


Why Did We Fight a War?

For many years after the American Revolution the people of the United States did not really think of themselves as Americans. They were Virginians or New Yorkers or Georgians or Pennsylvanians. They didn't have a sense of togetherness as a nation. Their loyalties were to individual states rather than to the United States as a whole. That wasn't true of everybody, of course, but it was enough to cause a lot of trouble!

The way of life in the Northern States and the Southern States was very different. The people of the North made their living in factories, businesses, and on small family farms. It was a manufacturing and industrial area, with little need or interest in slaves.

The South was mostly a farming area, with huge plantations growing great crops of rice, cotton, tobacco and other products. These products were then traded to the Northern States or to Europe for products made in factories, which the South didn't have. Many Southerners believed that they needed slaves to work on their plantations. Plantation owners became very angry when other people talked about freedom for the slaves.

Some people, especially in the North, were against slavery from the very beginning. It would be easy to say that slavery caused the terrible Civil War but that would not be entirely true. A better word is sectionalism, of which slavery was a big part. Sectionalism seems like a hard word but it's really very simple to understand. My neighborhood, or "section," has a better way of doing things than the neighborhood across town and we insist on having things our way! That's sectionalism.

The people of the South did not want the people of the North telling them how to live their lives and they were willing to fight about it. Slavery was not the only difference between the North and South but it was a very big difference and slavery was the spark that started the fire.

Several Southern states became so angry with the North that they decided to separate from the United States and start their own country. They called it the Confederate States of America. The North did not believe that the Southern states had a right to separate. Northern leaders, especially President Abraham Lincoln, were determined that the United States should remain one Union and not be split up. Both sides began to prepare for war.

It began in April 1861, when Confederate ships bombed and then captured Fort Sumter, a Union post near Charleston, South Carolina. When the war was over almost exactly four years later, slavery had been ended and the United States was saved, but the way of life in the South was changed forever. Millions of former slaves, uneducated and confused, were left to make their own way as best they could.


War Comes to the Outer Banks

The battles for the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Roanoke Island came early in the war and are not very famous today, but they were important to the final success of the North and the end of slavery. The campaign began when a Union Army general named Benjamin Butler joined with Navy Commodore (a kind of admiral) Silas Stringham to capture two small Confederate forts on Hatteras Island. Hatteras Island, off the coast of North Carolina, is famous today for its lighthouse, but during the Civil War, the forts on the island helped to protect the state of North Carolina.

The little forts on Hatteras Island were made mostly of sand. They were important because they guarded the short water highway, Hatteras Inlet, that connects the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, a large salty lake between the Outer Banks and the mainland of North Carolina . Look at a map! Confederate ships had been using the Sound and the little water highway to carry Southern products like cotton and tobacco, out into the ocean and then to Europe.

Once the ships got to Europe, they sold the cotton and tobacco and used the money to buy guns and bullets for the Confederate army. The Union did not want the Confederates to have these supplies, so they closed up the highway by capturing the forts.

It might not have seemed like any big deal at the time, but armies can't fight without guns and bullets. Remember, the South did not have many factories for making things like guns. Much of the stuff needed by the South had to come from somewhere else. Some of the most important battles of the Civil War were fought to keep the South from getting the equipment it needed. In the end, it worked and the little battle on Hatteras Island was the first step.

The next step was to capture Roanoke Island, about 40 miles north of Hatteras. Much like the Hatteras forts, Roanoke Island protected another Confederate water highway, called Oregon Inlet. If the Union could capture Roanoke Island it would be able to close off almost the whole coast of North Carolina. Confederate trading ships could no longer get the cotton and tobacco out to Europe and they couldn't get the guns and bullets back in. Think of it this way: if there is no gas for your car, the car won't run. The Union was trying to close as many gas stations as they could!

The Confederates knew how important Roanoke Island was and they knew what the Union wanted to do. Army leaders begged the Confederate government to send more soldiers and cannons to defend the island. But, the Southern government was more worried about defending their capital city, Richmond, Virginia. They were afraid to take soldiers away from Richmond and send them to North Carolina. Richmond was not too far away from the Union capital at Washington, D.C., and large numbers of Union troops were in the neighborhood. Richmond seemed to be in great danger. Very little help could be sent to North Carolina. Very few soldiers were left to defend Roanoke Island. Those who did go didn't know much about how to fight and they didn't have enough equipment to fight with.

The Southerners did everything they could to prepare for the battle. They built three small forts, made of sand, packed seaweed and logs, on one side of the island. A position with two cannons was placed on the other side, and a long mound of dirt was piled up in the middle of the island. This mound, called an earthwork, was built right across the only dry road through a swamp. Cannons were placed behind it, aimed down the road that the Union soldiers would have to use to get through the swamp. The earthwork didn't look very strong but the Southerners believed that it could do the job because the Union soldiers surely couldn't go through the dark, slimy swamp and get around it!

General Burnside and the Union Army and Navy attacked Roanoke Island on February 7, 1862. He had 15,000 soldiers and more than 100 ships. The Confederates had 1500 soldiers and only seven ships. You can imagine what happened!

The Confederates fought bravely for as long as they could, but the little sand forts were battered by the cannons of the Union Navy; the earthwork in the swamp was soon surrounded by Union soldiers. They had managed to get through the swamp after all. It took just a few hours. The Battle of Roanoke Island was over. The losses of Hatteras and Roanoke were terrible blows for the South, but it was just the beginning. For the rest of the war, the Union Army and Navy did the same thing to other water highways and ports. One by one, all of the highways were closed, making it impossible for the Confederates to get the supplies, food, and equipment that they needed.


The First Light of Freedom

If the loss of Roanoke Island was a terrible thing for the Confederates, it was the beginning of a wonderful thing for another group of people.

Slaves in America had been waiting and praying for freedom and safety for more than 200 years. To those slaves, the blue-coated Northern soldiers meant freedom and safety. As the blue-coats captured Southern land, escaped slaves followed the soldiers. Once the North captured Roanoke Island, it became home to thousands of freed slaves.

The Union leaders on Roanoke Island didn't quite know what to do with all of these people. There were no houses for them, no food, and not enough work. Many were children and old people who could not take care of themselves. The Union Army was there to fight a war, not to take care of helpless refugees.

Not all of the former slaves were helpless, of course. Hundreds of the men were sent to work with the Union Army as it continued to fight the war on the mainland of North Carolina. They built roads and camps, and repaired railroads that were damaged in the fighting. Later in the war, the Union government allowed black men to join the Army as soldiers and thousands hurried off to help fight for their own freedom. In fact, freed men from the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island helped form one of the first Black Army units. One of these men, named Richard Etheridge, later became famous as the leader of the United States Lifesaving Service on the Outer Banks.

The women, children, and older people were left on Roanoke Island to take care of themselves, although the Union did issue some food and clothes. More and more former slaves came and caring for them became a big problem. The refugees needed more help than the blue-coats could give them, but it took a year to find an answer to the problem.


A New Colony for Roanoke

In May 1863, an Army chaplain from Massachusetts named Horace James was appointed to organize a colony for the people. About 600 acres of land on the island was given to the refugee families. Each family had enough land to build a house and have a garden for vegetables. There might even be room for a pig or a milk cow. A lumber mill was built and with the wood from the mill the former slaves built their own houses, a church, and several schools.

Just imagine how wonderful it must have been! For their whole lives these people had been forced to work for masters, sometimes beaten and chained, and always afraid. Many had been treated no better than dogs and they had nothing to call their own, not even their children. Now, on Roanoke Island, there were no chains and no masters and the work they did was for themselves.

Perhaps the best buildings of all were the schools. Made of rough boards, leaky in the rain and cold in winter, the schools were places of magic for former slaves.

Before the Civil War, slaves in the South were not taught to read and write. It was against the law! Reading made people think, and masters didn't want their human animals to be able to think. It was dangerous because it would make them want even more to be free. But now, on Roanoke Island, they would learn to read and write and begin to discover how to live as free people. It was a grand new world for them.

Teachers, most of them free Negroes and many of them women, were sent to the colony by missionary groups in New England. They taught children during the day and older people at night. Everybody wanted to learn to read because they knew how important it was.

Because the teachers were missionaries as well as educators, they used the Bible as a textbook. It worked well because many of the stories in the Bible were familiar to the freed people. The stories had been passed down from parents to children for two hundred years. The slaves had depended on the hope offered by the Bible to make their misery easier to bear. Now they were learning to read the stories for themselves. They called it "letting in the light."


Freedom Was Not Easy

Life in the Freedmen's Colony was better than anything the former slaves had ever known but it wasn't perfect. There were never enough tools for everybody and not enough land to grow real crops. The people could not produce all of their own food and still had to get extra food, called "rations," from the Army. More and more of the men went off to join the Army. More than 200,000 black men served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Not all of them came from Roanoke Island, of course! The former slaves must have felt good about fighting for their own freedom but it left women and children to do most of the building and farming. They tried hard but life wasn't easy and they began to depend more and more on help from the Army and the Union government.

The government had a problem with that. The war was coming to an end and the Army no longer had a great need for soldiers and other workers. The Freedmen's Colony had been established mainly to take care of the families of men working with the Army. Those men weren't so important anymore and the government lost interest in the Colony. Food rations for the people, and for the teachers, were reduced. There was more and more hardship in the Colony and people were going hungry. The men who had served the Army began to return but there was no work for them, no way to make money to buy food. Many of the people were being forced to leave their homes on Roanoke Island in search of work.

Did the Colony Fail?

Little by little, a few at a time, the people moved away. Finally, the land that had been given to them for homes and gardens was taken away and returned to its former owners. A few Freedmen managed to find work and stay on the island. Today, some of Roanoke Island's most outstanding citizens trace their heritage to the Freedmens Colony. The people who were forced to leave took their new skills and knowledge with them, and became founding citizens of other communities. All of them took along a powerful urge to remain free.

You could say that the Freedmen's Colony failed, but that wouldn't be true. It gave a little education and a lot of hope to people who had nothing. With that hope and education they made a beginning, and they would never be slaves again.


Some Neat Stuff

The story of this colony is told in the National Park Service publication The Roanoke Voyages.

Northern States and Southern States: During the Civil War, the states that remained in the Union were in the northern and western sections of the country. They were California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The Confederate States of the South were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Union is one word used to identify the Northern states and their army. They were also called Federals and Yankees. Southern soldiers were called Confederates, Rebels, and sometimes Johnnies.

The Outer Banks is the name given to a narrow stretch of barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. Roanoke Island is between the Outer Banks and the mainland.

Union army soldiers were dressed in blue uniforms and were sometimes called bluecoats or even bluebellies. Southern soldiers wore gray or light brown uniforms. The Civil War is also known as the War between the Blue and the Gray.

Issue just means to give something out, usually for free.

Most armies have soldiers who are members of religious groups, such as priests, rabbis, and ministers. These soldiers don't fight but take care of the religious needs of the other soldiers, much as a church pastor would. They are called chaplains.

A refugee is a person who has left a dangerous place to find safety in another place.

A lumber mill contains machinery that cuts tree logs into boards, which can then be used to build houses and other things.

Negro is not a bad word. It simply means black and it was an accepted way to refer to Black people until very recently. In the past few years, the word Negro has become offensive to some people and is not used very often.

Missionaries are people who teach religion to those who live far away from regular churches. Sometimes missionaries also provide health care and education as well.

Story and text by Ranger Deanna Potts.

Click the links below to go to:

For Kids | "Roanoke Voyages" | Worksheets

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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