General Burnside’s Army and the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African American abolitionist and activist William H. Johnson decided to fight for the Union Army during the early days of the Civil War, even though the federal military declined to enlist black soldiers prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson, an ardent supporter of complete emancipation and a proponent of expanded civil rights for all African Americans, wrote a series of letters to a Boston newspaper describing some of the war’s key events from his own perspective near the front lines. In these letters, dating from 1861 and 1862, he gives details about the physical perils and idealistic drive of the conflict. Johnson’s dispatches presage formal federal support for the abolition of slavery by triumphantly heralding the freedom for African Americans that he believed the war would bring. His letters also mention the beginnings of what would be two of the most important wartime settlements of freedmen within Union-controlled Southern territory.

Summary Overview

African American abolitionist and activist William H. Johnson decided to fight for the Union Army during the early days of the Civil War, even though the federal military declined to enlist black soldiers prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson, an ardent supporter of complete emancipation and a proponent of expanded civil rights for all African Americans, wrote a series of letters to a Boston newspaper describing some of the war’s key events from his own perspective near the front lines. In these letters, dating from 1861 and 1862, he gives details about the physical perils and idealistic drive of the conflict. Johnson’s dispatches presage formal federal support for the abolition of slavery by triumphantly heralding the freedom for African Americans that he believed the war would bring. His letters also mention the beginnings of what would be two of the most important wartime settlements of freedmen within Union-controlled Southern territory.

Defining Moment

From the time of its founding, the United States endured political conflict over the controversial slavery question. Antislavery sentiment in a country that had fought and won a war for the causes of liberty and equality had already begun to display itself by the end of the eighteenth century, with Northern states beginning to enact emancipation laws as early as 1777 and issues relating to the institution forming one of the great debates of the Constitutional Convention a decade later. As the Southern economy grew ever more reliant on slave labor during the early nineteenth century, sectional conflict over the practice became more intense. Congress barred the transatlantic slave trade, and abolitionist sentiment in the North, originally a radical minority voice, began to gain broader support. When South Carolina seceded from the United States in late 1860, the main reason was said to be to protect its rights to self-government as a state. Yet it also acknowledged that the aspects of self-government that it held most dear were those relating to its right to permit slavery, a right it believed would be revoked with the ascension of a Republican administration under Abraham Lincoln the following spring.

Many African Americans felt a deep connection to the war, even when the stated intention of the US federal government was to restore union without requiring an end to the institution of slavery in the South. While at first the Civil War was essentially fought to return the country to the status quo of the late 1850s, many leaders in both the Union and the Confederacy doubted that such a return was truly possible. The African Americans who attempted to enlist in the Union Army when the war began likely agreed, and the fact that the Union Army originally rebuffed African Americans volunteers from its ranks did not shake that belief for all. Although not all African Americans in the North agreed that a restored United States would be one that offered true liberty, some of those who did, like William H. Johnson, were willing to undertake the fight for that cause, regardless of the obstacles they faced.

Author Biography

Born to free African American parents in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 4, 1833, William Henry Johnson became an activist for African American emancipation and civil rights while still in his teens. After receiving a basic education, he left Virginia for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he was twelve and spent a few years there learning the trade of barbering before moving to Albany, New York, in 1851. There, he quickly became involved with the Underground Railroad, an informal network of abolitionists and sympathizers who helped smuggle runaway slaves from the South to freedom in Canada. In the mid-1850s, Johnson returned to Philadelphia, where he continued his involvement with the Underground Railroad and worked to agitate abolitionist sentiment as a member of the Proscribed American Council. During this period, according to Johnson’s autobiography, he was a close friend of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and passed up the opportunity to participate in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, only because his first child was about to be born. Because of his involvement with the Underground Railroad, Johnson was forced to flee Philadelphia in 1859 to avoid arrest. He settled in Norwich, Connecticut, and was living there when the Civil War began.

Although Johnson’s race barred him from enlisting as a regular soldier in the war, his deep antislavery convictions drove him to join the Union Army as what was called an independent man. During the earliest days of the war, African Americans in the Union Army were confined to behind-the-lines support work, such as cooking, building camps, and performing other noncombat duties. Johnson seems to have disregarded these restrictions. When the mustering officer of the Second Connecticut Regiment refused to accept his services, Johnson ignored him and continued on to fight at the First Battle of Bull Run. Later, Johnson fought in General Ambrose Burnside’s army at Roanoke Island and New Bern, North Carolina. During his service in 1861 and 1862, he wrote dispatches from the front lines to a Boston newspaper, the Pine and Palm.

Johnson’s health prevented him from fighting in the war to its conclusion, but he continued to support the Union cause by recruiting African American soldiers back home in Albany, where he lived for the remainder of his life. After the war ended and African Americans attained citizenship and voting rights, Johnson did not stop working for African American advancement. He became a member of the New York State Equal Rights Committee and was active in local- and state-level New York politics, attending presidential nomination conventions and writing antidiscrimination laws. He died in 1918.

Document Analysis

Composed for publication in the Boston newspaper the Pine and Palm, established by journalist James Redpath in support of the Haitian Emigration Bureau, William H. Johnson’s letters present a frontline African American perspective on certain events of the Civil War during the war’s early years. Formally barred from service in the Union Army due to his race, Johnson nevertheless accompanied and fought alongside Union troops at several important battles, including parts of Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s campaign throughout the Outer Banks and eastern shore regions of North Carolina. Johnson first served, albeit unofficially, with the Second Connecticut Regiment at the war’s first true battle, at Bull Run in Virginia. Despite his somewhat undefined status as an independent man, he quickly proved to be an influential force in the regiment, encouraging them to stand up against a military leader who wished to return a group of escaped slaves to their owners. A longtime abolitionist and activist, Johnson’s personal convictions and intense dedication to these causes shine through in the excerpts from his Civil War letters reproduced here.

Johnson’s second letter, published in the Pine and Palm on November 23, 1861, recounts events connected to Burnside’s mustering of troops in Annapolis, Maryland, in preparation for the invasion of North Carolina. By this time, Johnson had parted ways with the Second Connecticut and attached himself to the more recently organized Eighth Connecticut. Again, his race prevented him from joining the regiment formally as a soldier, but his desire to support the Union cause and oppose slavery drove him to travel alongside the regiment to “the seat of war” without official standing. From this geographic point within Union borders, which afforded sufficient harbor space for a large armada and sufficient proximity to Confederate territory to readily reach military targets in the South, Burnside planned to launch a systematic attack on the North Carolina coast as a springboard for deeper incursions into the Confederacy. Johnson’s report that “our destination is said to be South Carolina” therefore only slightly misstates this plan.

In other details, Johnson provides an accurate picture of military affairs. Burnside gathered some thirteen thousand infantry soldiers in total, all from New England and Eastern Seaboard states and with experience or training in maritime maneuvers. Johnson also notes that Annapolis’s political landscape was still somewhat mixed, as the city was “not quite free from secesh yet.” Because Maryland was a border slave state, a significant minority of Marylanders did in fact support the Confederate cause. Several thousand Maryland residents crossed into the South to serve in the Confederate States Army against their home state, which remained loyal to the Union.

Johnson describes early African American support for Burnside’s efforts in Annapolis. He notes that a significant number of “proscribed Americans”–that is, African Americans–were, like him, attached to the Eighth Connecticut. These men decided to form a “defensive association” that they called the Self-Defenders of Connecticut, dedicated to military education and training in the hopes of protecting one another as they accompanied the Eighth into Confederate territory. The men that Johnson names were not formal soldiers in the Union Army but were likely support workers, personal aides, or simply independent fighters like Johnson himself. Despite their lack of formal standing, the members of the Self-Defenders of Connecticut had clear military goals: they wished “to do credit to their people, and honor to themselves,” believing that “the time [was] not far distant when the black man of this country [would] be summoned to show his hand in this struggle for liberty.” Johnson and his fellows believed that the Union Army would come to desire their contributions to the war–a quite reasonable expectation, given the US military’s history of enlisting black soldiers in earlier conflicts such as the American Revolution and the War of 1812–and they were eventually proven right. These early Civil War military men felt certain that their moment would come to support what they saw as a conflict fought largely for their own cause.

The Battle of Roanoke Island

Johnson’s next few letters describe events taking place through early February 1862, particularly the movement toward and capture of Roanoke Island by Burnside’s forces. The fight there was a brief but intense one. Burnside’s ships bombarded the Confederate Fort Bartow–the “Fort No. 1” identified by Johnson in letter 6–on the western side of Roanoke Island, and within a few short hours, the powerful Union armada had sufficiently damaged the coastal fort to allow foot soldiers, including Johnson, to begin landing on the island. The land battle commenced the following morning, and by sunset, some 2,500 Confederates had surrendered. The island belonged to the Union troops. Although Johnson quite dramatically declared the fight “one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign” (qtd. in Redkey 16), the Battle of Roanoke Island was in fact very low in casualties compared to many other significant Civil War battles. Union statistics list 37 dead, 214 wounded, and 13 missing; Confederate reports state 23 dead, 58 wounded, and 62 missing. Among the surrendered Confederates were numerous civilians and other noncombatants. Union forces also seized a substantial military barracks, provisions, and thousands of arms.

Johnson continues his account by emphasizing the strategic importance of Roanoke Island, including a fair amount of exaggeration. Whether this is intentional for literary effect or due to simple ignorance of the true facts is unknown. Johnson claims that Roanoke Island was home to a Confederate force of 35,000, when in fact the number of Confederate troops at the time of Burnside’s arrival was closer to 1,400. Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Johnson asserts, gave a speech announcing his intention to retreat to Roanoke Island if the Confederate capital at Richmond were breached, due to the island’s strong defensive position. While Davis may have believed this, his interest in protecting the island fell fall short of the importance he placed on the Confederate capital, and he refused to reinforce the troops at Roanoke Island after the Confederate military took control of operations there, so as not to reduce the number of troops available for Richmond’s protection. Thus, the island could not have been considered among the most strategically significant in Confederate territory by its government.

Nevertheless, these disparities between Johnson’s statements and the facts do not lessen the actual strategic importance of Roanoke Island. Burnside selected the site as a target because it afforded a defensible base of operations from which the Union forces could stage attacks all along the North Carolina coast, and North Carolina military leaders also appreciated the value of the site; sources suggest that the only reason the island was not further reinforced was because the Confederacy took over military strategy from local authorities. The efficacy of Burnside’s position was quickly shown. Within just a few days of capturing Roanoke Island, Union forces used it as a base to defeat the remnants of North Carolina’s navy, nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet, which had fled the island for Elizabeth City. While Johnson may overstate some details in his account, his assessment of the value of Roanoke Island is indeed essentially correct.

Furthermore, the stakes of the battle at Roanoke Island were, according to Johnson, even higher than this: slaves who had been forced to build military installations informed the Union troops after their victory that the Confederate forces there “did not intend to give us any quarter, had their arms proved victorious.” The truthfulness of this statement is again debatable, depending on what Johnson means by “us.” Although Confederate policy toward African American soldiers and their white officers after the Union Army began enlisting them formally was indeed one of no quarter–black soldiers were officially supposed to be enslaved, but often they were simply killed on the spot–it is unlikely that the Confederate forces at Roanoke Island would have planned to massacre the entire Union force should the battle have gone the opposite way. Yet Johnson asserts that the Union victory was only natural. The Confederate cause, he states, “was that of the Devil,” and the Confederates were cowardly in battle. His implication is clear: the Union forces were on the side of right, for theirs was the cause of liberty, and their troops were therefore bold and committed. In these conditions, the hated Confederacy, as the representative of oppression and slavery, could not but fail.

Johnson saw the victory by Union forces as a significant one in the battle for freedom. He issued a rousing battle cry, stating that he and his fellow fighters “hope[d] to meet the enemy again, fight, conquer him, end the rebellion, and then come home to [their] Northern people, to freemen who look South with joyous hearts, and behold not a single Slave State–but only free territory.” This battle cry predated actual US federal policy to emancipate all slaves, however. Those refugees whose owners were fighting with the Confederacy were granted freedom as seized property in what was surely an economic and psychological blow to their masters. But at the time of Johnson’s letters, the Union still permitted slavery in its border slaves and had not yet announced plans to enact federal laws or constitutional amendments that would forever abolish slavery throughout the nation. Nevertheless, Johnson had confidence that “a just Administration w[ould] execute the monster” of slavery, allowing the abolition spread by the Union Army to fully flower. Johnson’s own commander, Burnside, refused to return a number of refugee slaves to a Southerner who came to him claiming to be a Unionist; Johnson’s delight in reporting this news shines through his letter.

The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony

Indeed, the author notes that refugee slaves were already flocking to Roanoke Island, seeking protection from the Union forces there. Together with the African Americans who remained on Roanoke Island after the departure of Confederate forces following their failed attempt at refuge in Elizabeth City, this group became some of the core members of what would become the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony. Others simply moved on to seek new lives in the North. Prior to the Civil War, the population of Roanoke Island, a landmass measuring just under eighteen square miles, had been a bit less than 600. Of these inhabitants, some of the island’s roughly 170 slaves had escaped before the arrival of Burnside’s men, with some of the refugees providing valuable military advice to the force’s commanders. Now that Roanoke Island was squarely under Union control, however, it became a safe haven for escaped slaves from areas still under Confederate control. Fugitive slaves came to the island of their own volition, and within a few months’ time, about 250 refugees had settled there, seeking Union protection. Burnside quickly realized that the number was likely to grow, and he established a policy for dealing with these civilian charges. As the fugitives arrived, Union military officials noted their names, their former masters’ names, and their places of origin. Under Union policy that had been put in place in 1861, the fugitives were considered contraband because they were the seized property of war. As such, they were granted the status of freedmen and promised not to be returned to their Confederate owners. Union military officials assigned the arriving freedmen at Roanoke Island–and, in time, in other Union-controlled parts of North Carolina–jobs building forts and performing other duties and provided them with basic material assistance.

As the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony grew, it took on the character of a true community rather than a simple military outpost. The freedmen quickly built churches, and as their numbers increased, they moved from the old Confederate barracks and camps into permanent homes and even constructed a school that provided universal free public education, a relative rarity in the era. By mid-1863, Burnside’s appointed official saw the colony as representing a new type of Southern society based on African American free labor and self-sufficiency. Fisheries and small manufacturing, along with agriculture, could support the population comfortably. The success of the freedmen’s colony at Roanoke Island could stand as a model for other African American communities that would develop throughout the South as the now legally freed slaves obtained practical liberty and set about building lives off the plantation system. The Union victory described by Johnson at Roanoke Island thus carried even greater possibilities for African American advancement than he had any way of realizing at the time of his writing in February 1862.

By the time of Johnson’s next dispatch, covering events in early March, he had traveled with Burnside’s forces to launch attacks from Roanoke Island against the North Carolina mainland. This had been Burnside’s primary aim in securing the island for the Union, and he wasted little time in executing this part of his strategy. His next main target was New Bern, and Johnson reports that within a few days of sailing from Roanoke Island, the Union forces had approached the city via the Neuse River. Beating back the Confederate front lines, the Union forces advanced onward. Johnson asserts that in the battle at New Bern, he fought directly with the Eighth Connecticut, stating that he would “take [his] post to defend the colors of [his] regiment” even at the risk of his own death. He was spared this fate, however; the Union forces quickly captured the city, and Johnson rejoiced in their success.

Like Roanoke Island, New Bern soon exerted a draw for refugee slaves in North Carolina. Burnside established his military headquarters there, and although he lacked sufficient troops to expand his reach much further, the Union controlled the bulk of the North Carolina coast throughout the remainder of the war. Thousands of escaped slaves flocked to the region, working to support Union military activities; after the Union Army began formally allowing black soldiers into its ranks, some of these freedmen enjoyed an official status that Johnson would certainly have been glad to have secured for them. In this respect, Johnson was unquestionably right: the Union Army did directly affect greater liberty and equality among the African American population of New Bern and its environs.

Johnson’s career as a Union fighter did not last much past the capture of New Bern. By early June, he had developed what he describes as “rheumatism” (qtd. in Redkey 21), a nonspecific diagnosis applied to disorders of the joints. Rheumatism, although rarely fatal, was both quite common and potentially debilitating; short-term rheumatism often resulted from infections such as strep throat, but the causes of long-term rheumatism like that suffered by Johnson are less clear. Regardless of their cause, Johnson’s medical problems were deemed sufficient by army doctors to warrant his retirement from active service in the early summer of 1862. Ironically, Johnson’s return to Albany came just months before new US laws allowed for the employment of first escaped slaves and later all free blacks in the Union Army.

Essential Themes

Johnson’s letters reflect what he saw, even at this early stage of the conflict, as the true purpose of the Civil War: to attain liberty and equality for African Americans throughout the reunited United States. Although the formal cause of the Civil War was the Southern states’ rejection of federal authority to regulate their internal state affairs, the main state affairs under consideration were the ability to permit chattel slavery within their borders. Thus, Johnson, like so many others in both the Union and Confederacy, saw the conflict as one clearly fought over the institution of slavery. Indeed, the later events of the war and the following Reconstruction era support this contention. The Emancipation Proclamation gave the Union a moral imperative in securing liberty for the slaves remaining within the Confederacy’s borders. The three constitutional amendments popularly known the Reconstruction Amendments formally barred slavery, gave African Americans citizenship by right of birth in the United States, and guaranteed all men the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of enslavement. Later state laws somewhat limited these rights, but the immediate connection between the Civil War and the end of slavery cannot be denied.

In this sense, Johnson’s reports on the Union efforts in North Carolina display one of the enduring themes of the Civil War. As Johnson repeatedly suggests, a Union success in battle was a success for all African Americans who sought freedom. The glorification of that goal in Johnson’s letters is exactly the sentiment that the Emancipation Proclamation was intended to incite in the general populace upon its issuance several months later. Slavery, these actions argue, is evil, and thus the Confederacy represents a moral wrong. In contrast, the Union’s work to secure freedom places it squarely on the side of right.

However, the Union capture of Roanoke Island and the North Carolina coast was not by all measures truly successful in the long run. Hopes for a thriving permanent African American colony on Roanoke Island were disappointed not long after the war ended in 1865. As the military withdrew from direct control of the region, direct US federal interest in the colony dwindled, and white landowners on the island refused to sell their holdings to the black freedmen who had settled there. In August 1865, President Andrew Johnson restored landholdings to even those Southerners who fought for or directly supported the Confederacy. Before long, the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony was consigned to history, and the residents of the settlement were forced to begin their efforts to create a new life for themselves over again. This failure on the part of the federal government to support the colony echoed its unwillingness to abide by the military action of land redistribution in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida promised under General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. The Civil War had brought about the liberty so greatly desired by abolitionists such as William Johnson, but it failed to provide for the true economic, social, and political equality of the African American freedmen that it created in doing so.

Bibliography
  • “The Battle of Roanoke Island.” National Park Service. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
  • “The Battle of Roanoke Island.” North Carolina Civil War Experience. North Carolina Historic Sites, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. Web.
  • Click, Patricia C. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862–1867. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. Print.
  • Johnson, William H. Autobiography of Dr. William Henry Johnson, Respectfully Dedicated to His Adopted Home, the Capital City of the Empire State. Albany: Argus, 1900. Print.
  • Redkey, Edwin S., ed. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861–1865. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
  • Grant, Susan-Mary, and Brian Holden Reid. Themes of the American Civil War: The War between the States. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union. New York: Ballantine, 1991. Print.
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