Letter from Black Soldiers of North Carolina to the Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Roanoke Island, North Carolina, became a haven for freed slaves following the Union Army's occupation in 1862. The Freedmen's Colony was established in May 1863, and by 1865, it housed nearly four thousand former slaves. Though the goal of the settlement was to become a self-sufficient community, many of the working-age men joined the army, and their families relied increasingly on paid work and food from the government, as well as pay that the soldiers were able to send home. William Benson and others brought news to the men serving in the army that their families were being mistreated and not given their proper pay and rations on Roanoke Island. Richard Etheridge wrote a letter, signed also by Benson, detailing the failure of the island's leadership to provide for the freed slaves living there. This letter details the hardships suffered by former slaves on Roanoke Island, particularly those with family members serving in the military.

Summary Overview

Roanoke Island, North Carolina, became a haven for freed slaves following the Union Army's occupation in 1862. The Freedmen's Colony was established in May 1863, and by 1865, it housed nearly four thousand former slaves. Though the goal of the settlement was to become a self-sufficient community, many of the working-age men joined the army, and their families relied increasingly on paid work and food from the government, as well as pay that the soldiers were able to send home. William Benson and others brought news to the men serving in the army that their families were being mistreated and not given their proper pay and rations on Roanoke Island. Richard Etheridge wrote a letter, signed also by Benson, detailing the failure of the island's leadership to provide for the freed slaves living there. This letter details the hardships suffered by former slaves on Roanoke Island, particularly those with family members serving in the military.

Defining Moment

On May 22, 1863, the US Department of War issued General Order Number 143, which established the Bureau of Colored Troops. This order opened the Union Army to African American soldiers. Nearly 180,000 free blacks and former slaves served in the Union Army, and they were known as United States Colored Troops. They made up nearly one-tenth of the soldiers in the army by the end of the war. Many of the young men who had fled slavery for the relative safety of the Roanoke Freedmen's Colony enlisted in the “colored” regiments as a way to prove their fitness for freedom and provide for their families.

The Roanoke Freedmen's Colony was established in 1863, after the Union Army occupied the island and freed all the slaves living there. Former slaves from across the South quickly streamed onto Roanoke Island, and the government responded by seizing land and building settlements that were intended to transition to a self-sufficient colony. The government officials in charge of the colony were instructed to provide paid work for the residents until they were able to support themselves. Many former slaves were employed as cooks, cleaners, and laborers for the Union Army. Those who were able to join the army were promised rations for their families. A church was set up in the colony, along with schools and a sawmill.

The Roanoke Freedmen's Colony was supposed to be an example of successful transition from enslaved life to freedom for the many thousands of African Americans freed as a consequence of the war, and whose future was precarious and widely debated. It was one thing to free the slaves, but quite another to find a place for them within the Union. Problems, many of which are outlined in this letter, surfaced quickly at Roanoke. Men and women were not paid for their work, and their food rations were cut. Soldiers stationed on the island were able to steal from the inhabitants with impunity. At the end of the Civil War, the land seized to build the Freedmen's Colony was returned to its original owners. Within two years, the colony was disbanded, and its residents were transported off the island.

This letter illustrates a moment near the end of the Civil War when the Union Army was heavily reliant on African American troops, but was unable or unwilling to fulfill the promises made to their families and other former slaves on Roanoke Island. As slaves were freed throughout the South, the question of how they should be treated, what benefits they should receive, and how these benefits should be distributed continued to vex both the military and civilian government, and corruption and theft were rampant.

Author Biography

Richard Etheridge (spelled “Etheredge” in the letter) and William Benson both served in the Thirty-sixth US Colored Regiment, organized in February 1864 and stationed primarily in Virginia and North Carolina. Little is known about Benson, other than his enlistment in 1863 in the Thirty-seventh US Colored Regiment. He joined the Thirty-sixth after deserting the Thirty-seventh in August 1864.

Etheridge was born a slave in 1842 on Pea Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He was taught by his master to read and write, and he joined the Thirty-sixth US Colored Regiment in 1863. The Thirty-sixth fought well in the September 1864 Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia, and two days later, Etheridge was promoted to sergeant. At the time that he wrote this letter, Etheridge was unmarried, but he had family on Roanoke Island. After the war, he was made the first black commander of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, not far from where he was born a slave.

Document Analysis

This letter illustrates the uncertainties faced by former slaves, both those who had joined the Union Army and those who were left behind. The status of freedmen was in flux. Slaves had been declared contraband of war–which reinforced their status as property–then freed, but without full citizenship and uncertain of their rights. Many joined the army not only to provide for their families, but also to prove their fitness for citizenship. The general chaos of war added to the difficulties encountered by freed slaves, as their welfare was dependant on the willingness of military commanders to enforce the very rights that many commanders did not believe they possessed. When unsympathetic and corrupt commanders were placed in leadership positions, such as in Roanoke, the settlers were easily exploited and abused, even those whose relatives were serving in the army.

Etheridge and Benson begin their letter with a restatement of their service to their country and their gratitude for the opportunity, “for which we thank God.” Despite this service, their families at Roanoke were suffering. The first charge leveled against the leadership at Roanoke is the violation of the promises made to these men when they enlisted, including that their families would receive rations, which had been cut in half. Furthermore, Etheridge and Benson charge that Holland Streeter, one of the assistant superintendants, was stealing supplies from the storehouses and selling them, while the residents of the colony go hungry “three or four days out of every ten.” Streeter's personal politics were relevant to the argument. He, like many others in the Union Army, did not believe in the abolition of slavery, and the soldiers identified him as a “Cooper head,” or Copperhead, a Northerner who supported slavery in the interest of ending the war. Horace James, Streeter's supervisor, and Colonel Lahaman (Theodore Lehman of the 103rd Pennsylvania), the commander of the entire island, were unwilling to rein in the flagrant abuse by Streeter and others like him. In the letter, Etheridge and Benson also implicate James for failing to pay former slaves, including sick and wounded soldiers, for their work. However, the petitioners request the removal of Streeter only, whose violations seem to have been particularly egregious.

The physical safety of the Roanoke Colony residents is also of grave concern to Etheridge and Benson. They charge that “our familys have no protection” and that soldiers have stolen their livestock and produce with impunity. If any of the residents defend themselves against the white soldiers, they are imprisoned. Without the protection of sympathetic and effective leadership, the former slaves of the Roanoke Colony were extremely vulnerable.

The letter also shows that there were many people on the island who were sympathetic to the plight of the African Americans and were willing to testify on their behalf. Chaplain Green was identified as assistant superintendant willing to testify against Streeter, and “there are plenty of white men here who can prove them [the facts] also.” If the government was unwilling to accept the accusations leveled by black soldiers against white men, there were white men prepared to make the same accusations.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this letter is the insecurity and vulnerability of former slaves during the Civil War, even the families of those serving in the Union Army. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people poured into army camps and refugee settlements, and how best to provide for them became the subject of heated debate. Roanoke Freedmen's Colony's initial goal was self-sufficiency for the freed African Americans. When most of its men of working age joined the army, their families were promised support, which was unevenly distributed and subject to the whims of corrupt officials. Many white soldiers, resentful that black soldiers received equal pay, felt that additional rations and subsidies to black families, even those who had no other means of support, were unfair. Even government officials debated if rations for freed slaves would make them “lazy” and less likely to work. Black soldiers often went unpaid for months and were thus unable to send wages home to their families; when the residents of the colony moved toward some measure of self-sufficiency, their gardens and livestock were unprotected from theft and their families were subject to violence. The soldiers of the Thirty-sixth US Colored Regiment sought protection for their families during an uncertain and turbulent time.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bryant, James K. The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.
  • “The Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island.” Fort Raleigh, North Carolina: National Historic Site. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
  • Weidman, Budge. “The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” National Archives. National Archives and Records Administration, 1997. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.
  • Wright, David. Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
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