One of the phenomena of slavery in the Americas was maroonage. Maroons were escaped slaves that rather than trying to make it to the North hid out in the South’s wild places. They survived by hunting and gathering, keeping clandestine gardens, pinching provisions from storehouses, and with the help of plantation slaves who at considerable risk shared with them their meager resources. It was a tenuous existence at best, especially as slaveholders periodically invaded the maroons’ wilderness sanctuaries, seeking to reclaim their human property. But it was preferable to a return to bondage and a some slaves stayed in the wild for years.
Maroons were scarcer in the United States than in Brazil, with its large teeming jungles, and Caribbean islands like Jamaica, with its rugged mountains. Nonetheless, even in the long-settled states of the East, there were scattered but sometimes sizeable areas that remained wilderness, because white agriculturalists deemed them too swampy, the soil too poor for cultivation, or both. One of those places was not far from New Bern, North Carolina, a forested wetland on the coast big enough for slaves to lose their pursuers. Today, it remains largely wild, part of Croatan National Forest.
As discussed in the February 13 edition of Civil War Emancipation, troops under Gen. Ambrose Burnside invaded Roanoke Island on February 7, 1862, in support of the Union naval blockade of the Confederacy. After consolidating his initial landing, on March 14, 1862, Burnside captured and occupied New Bern, the nearest town of consequence. New Bern would remain under Union occupation for the rest of the war.
When Burnside arrived in coastal North Carolina, he had issued a declaration to its white residents, promising non-interference with slavery. In part, it read:
The mission of our joint expedition is not to invade any of your rights, but to assert the authority of the United States, and thus to close with you the desolating war brought upon your State by comparatively a few bad men in your midst. . . . They impose upon your credulity by telling you of wicked and even diabolical intentions on our part – of our desire to destroy your freedom, demolish your property, liberate your slaves, injure your women, and such like enormities – all of which, we assure you is not only ridiculous but utterly and wilfully false.
Not only did white Southerners in coastal North Carolina refuse to believe Ambrose Burnside, but so did their slaves. As at Port Royal, South Carolina, the previous November, many North Carolina planters in the path of Union forces in February and March 1862 fled for the interior leaving their slaves behind. The slaves greeted Burnside’s army as liberators, manifestly not what the general had intended. Gen. Burnside reported from New Bern on March 21:
I appointed General Foster military governor of the city and its vicinity and he has established a most perfect system of guard and police. Nine-tenths of the depredations on the 14th after the enemy and citizens fled from the town were committed by the negroes before our troops reached the city. They seemed to be wild with excitement and delight. They are now a source of very great anxiety to us. The city is being overrun with fugitives from the surrounding towns and plantations. Two have reported themselves who have been in the swamps for five years. It would be utterly impossible if we were so disposed to keep them outside of our lines, as they find their way to us through woods and swamps from every side. By my next dispatch I hope to report to you a definite policy in reference to this matter, and in the meantime shall be glad to receive any instructions upon the subject which you may be disposed to give.
So among the slaves liberated around New Bern in March 1862 were two maroons that emerged to greet their reluctant liberators. While they preferred the swamp to slavery, when freedom came they readily rejoined civilization. For these maroons, the arrival of Burnside’s army must have been particularly joyous as it was a double liberation, both from slavery and their wilderness exile. No doubt, other maroons too would be able to come home as free people in the months and years that followed as Union forces penetrated further into the South.