Catching up on Disunion

This past week Disunion in the New York Times published two pieces of interest to Civil War Emancipation.

The first, by Gregory P. Downs, discusses the colony established for escaped slaves on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Like the Lost Colony of Elizabethan times, it was jinxed from the start. The Civil War Colony was made possible by the seizure of Roanoke Island by an expeditionary force under Gen. Ambrose Burnside on February 7, 1862. Burnside’s success in taking Roanoke was greatly assisted by intelligence from a slave. According to Downs:

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.

Federal forces turned Roanoke Island into a refuge for North Carolina slaves that fled into Union-controlled territory. Downs writes:

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.

Yet Roanoke proved a poor place for a slave refuge. As Downs indicates:

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, oftenoften, 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.

Yet, according to Gregory P. Downs, the problem was not just the Roanoke Island’s poor soil and federal authorities that overloaded it with escaped slaves. The federal commissioner for the island, Horace James, was an ideologue determined to prove that the Roanoke Colony could be self-supporting, even if the freed people suffered and died in the process. African-American refugees on Roanoke often went hungry and lacked other necessities such as clothing and shoes. They survived pitifully on what crops they could grow, the rations Commissioner James deigned to provide, and the charity obtained from missionaries that worked on the island and from other more distant benefactors. When the war ended, James cut off the federal rations entirely and the colony dissolved when President Andrew Johnson pardoned ex-Confederates and restored their prewar property to them.


The second essay of note in last week’s Disunion, by William G. Thomas, discusses the slaves who worked for southern railroads both before and during the Civil War. Thomas reminds readers that slavery although still predominantly an agricultural institution in the mid-nineteenth century South was not exclusively so. Slaves were increasingly used for a variety of non-agricultural uses, including laboring on railroads.

Unsurprisingly, during the Civil War these railroads became highways to freedom both for the slaves that worked on them and other African Americans. Thomas writes:

In April 1862, with Union forces outside Fredericksburg, Va., Ballton and a small group of men escaped their camp and struck out for the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. They followed it north toward Fredericksburg, at one point meeting the road master who had hired them. Claiming to be on the job, they made their way along the railroad and then through to the Union lines, where they encountered the Sixth Wisconsin, a unit later made famous for its toughness on the battlefield.

Ballton wasn’t the only slave to utilize the lines cut by railroads to escape. The R. F. & P. and the Virginia Central Railroad connected some of the wealthiest slaveholding counties in Virginia. Nearly 80,000 enslaved people lived in the surrounding counties, almost a fifth of Virginia’s total slave population. This north-south axis, running from Richmond to Washington, became an avenue of freedom: tens of thousands of blacks used the railroad to guide them north to Union lines.

In August 1862, when the Union forces retreated back up the line toward Washington, black families went with them. Col. W.W. Wright, the engineer and superintendent of the United States Military Railroads, witnessed the evacuation: “The contrabands fairly swarmed about the Fredericksburg and Falmouth stations, and there was a continuous black line of men, women and children moving north along the [rail] road, carrying all their worldly goods on their heads. Every train running to Aquia was crowded with them.” According to Wright, well over 10,000 contrabands walked or rode on the tracks north toward freedom in one week.

So as Gregory P. Downs and William G. Thomas respectively show, there are many different stories of freedom for slaves in the Civil War. On a personal note, I will soon be contributing to Disunion in the New York Times. I have had a piece on the 1st Louisiana Native Guards accepted for Disunion that will appear as early as this week. The date is not yet certain, but I’ll be sure to post on it in Civil War Emancipation when my piece appears. Cool, eh?

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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3 Responses to Catching up on Disunion

  1. Brad says:

    i look forward to your article!


  2. Holloway says:

    I just came across your work in the New York Times. Fantatsic information you provided there. I have known for quite awhile that black soldiers did not do much fighting (if any) for the South, but I never knew Louisiana had an actual regiment of black soldiers. I shouldn’t be surprised. The French and Spanish way of dealing with slaves in their society (in the colonies) , while still brutal, was more relaxed than the Anglo method. It is also no surprise that they were not armed by the state during the Civil War.

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