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African Americans in Union-Occupied Eastern North Carolina during the Civil War

By RaeLana Poteat

Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian 40:1 (fall 2000)


By mid-1862, less than a year after North Carolina left the Union, portions of the state were
again under Federal control. The Union army first regained a toehold in the state by recapturing
Hatteras Island in August 1861 and Roanoke Island in February 1862. It then launched a
campaign to gain control of areas on the mainland. On March 14, 1862, the army captured the
city of New Bern. By the end of the spring of 1862, Union troops occupied much of eastern
North Carolina north of the Cape Fear River.

North Carolina was thus a state divided between the control of two armies. Partial Union
occupation affected all the citizens of the state in one way or another, but it was particularly
important to African American slaves who lived near the areas of occupation. As news of the
Union army’s advance spread, slaves in nearby Confederate-held territory began running away to
cross army lines.

The slaves came into Union-occupied areas to gain their freedom. They also wanted to search for
family members whom they had been separated from during slavery, and to find ways to support
themselves and build new lives, free of slavery. They came for educational opportunities and
religious freedom. Many schools that taught both children and adults sprang up behind Union
lines. And African Americans quickly founded several new churches in occupied territory.
Before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, slaves who crossed
Union lines were technically not free. Federal officers, however, followed a policy of treating
African American refugees as “contraband of war.” This meant that slaves who came into army
camps or Union-occupied territory became known as “contrabands” and could live under the
army’s protection without fear of being returned to their enslavers.

In the early spring of 1862, a Union official estimated that there were about 10,000 contrabands
in occupied North Carolina. Of these, 7,500 were near New Bern; 1,000 were on Roanoke
Island; and 1,500 were in the areas of Washington, Hatteras, and Beaufort. Most of these
refugees came to the army with few possessions, needing food and shelter.
As the number of former slaves seeking refuge with the army continued to grow, Horace James,
the superintendent of Negro affairs in Federal-occupied North Carolina, began establishing
contraband camps where people who had left their homes could be temporarily housed. The
largest camp was the Trent River settlement, across the Trent River from New Bern. There were
also camps at Roanoke Island, Washington, and Beaufort.

The Union army employed many of the refugees in various occupations. After the Emancipation
Proclamation, the army also recruited contrabands, or freedmen, as they came to be known, from
occupied areas of the state. These men served in the North Carolina African American Union
regiments—the Thirty-fifth United States Colored Infantry, the Thirty-sixth United States
Colored Infantry, the Thirty-seventh United States Colored Infantry, and the Fourteenth United
States Colored Heavy Artillery. Freedmen who enlisted knew that they might be killed or
wounded in battle like other soldiers. But they also knew that if they were captured, they could
be returned to slavery or executed by Confederate forces.

Many male freedmen who did not join the Union army served the Federal forces in other ways.
A select few were army scouts who risked their lives by traveling into Confederate territory to
spy on troop movements and positions. Union official Vincent Colyer wrote of them, “Upwards
of fifty volunteers of the best and most courageous, were kept constantly employed on the
perilous but important duty of spies, scouts, and guides. In this work they were invaluable and
almost indispensable. They frequently went from thirty to three hundred miles within the enemy
lines; visiting his principal camps and most important posts, and bringing us back important and
reliable information. They visited within the rebel lines Kingston [now Kinston], Goldsboro,
Trenton, Onslow, Swansboro, Tarboro, and points on the Roanoke River: often on these errands
barely escaping with their lives. They were pursued on several occasions by blood-hounds, two
or three of them were taken prisoners; one of these was known to have been shot, and the fate of
the others was not ascertained.”

Many other freedmen worked for the army by building fortifications and bridges. Others
chopped wood, drove wagons, or loaded and unloaded cargo. Colyer reported that while he was
in charge of the freedmen, they built “three first-class earth-work forts” in New Bern, in
Washington, and on Roanoke Island. Freedmen also constructed a large railroad bridge across
the Trent River at New Bern, as well as several smaller bridges across creeks in the area. Many
women who came into occupied areas supported the army by working as cooks and laundresses.

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