How Andrew Johnson Doomed the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony

Amid flailing efforts to secure land for former slaves, the new president ruthlessly prioritized Confederate resettlement over the advancement of freed people.

President Andrew Johnson

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Library of Congress.

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Adapted from Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867 by Patricia C. Click. Published by North Carolina University Press.

After Confederate forces on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, fell to the Union in 1862, and upon the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, all of the enslaved people living on the North Carolinian island and classified as “contraband” by the Union Army gained their freedom. Vincent Colyer, an agent of the New York Christian Commission who had accompanied the Union troops to Roanoke Island, witnessed the flowering of a community of former slaves there. Within a short period of time after the Battle of Roanoke Island, the scattered refugees had coalesced into a small settlement. Colyer recounted that the first thing they did together was to build a place for worship. Despite the primitive conditions, the services impressed Colyer. “Many of their colored preachers exhort with great earnestness and power,” he reported, which was all the more remarkable given that North Carolina law had prohibited black men from preaching since 1831. At about the same time, Martha Culling, a former slave, opened the community’s first school in a small building near Union headquarters.

The refugees first cooperative efforts suggest two things: that they valued religion and education and that they planned to establish a durable community on the land where they were so recently kept in bondage. In the latter endeavor, the former slaves faced numerous difficulties.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, local chaplain Horace James was appointed to “lay out and assign” the unoccupied Roanoke Island lands to freedmen, “giving them full possession of the same until annulled by the Government or by due process of United States law.” James’ initial efforts to obtain titles to land on Roanoke Island occurred when Gen. Benjamin F. Butler appointed him superintendent of negro affairs for North Carolina. In February 1864, Butler instructed James to determine how much it would cost to purchase farms for the freed people on Roanoke Island, cautioning that it was “somewhat necessary that immediate action be taken in this matter in order to prevent collision between the whites and the blacks.” “I think there will be no objection on the part of the white inhabitants to selling out,” James optimistically reported.

But much to his chagrin, James soon discovered that his prediction about the ease of purchasing real estate on the island was wrong. The white natives adamantly refused to sell their property. On March 3, 1864, James reported his findings to Butler. He noted that there were about 80 white families—approximately 400 white people—on the island, and that “though not wealthy they are attached to their homes and to the birth and burial places of their fathers,” prizing it more than they had before the war. James concluded that since the islanders would not willingly sell their property, the government would have to make the sale “compulsory or a military necessity.” In March Butler enclosed James’s report in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, urging the secretary to make “some permanent provision upon Roanoke Island for the Negroes.” Butler also warned Stanton of future problems if the government did not act quickly. Several days later, Stanton replied to Butler, noting that the plan would receive his “earnest consideration.”

With no response by June, James once again solicited Butler’s help in holding onto property on the island. He noted that “the interests of the colony (and of the country) at Roanoke Island” prompted him to write. In particular, he feared “that the growing importance of the island as a place of trade … and a station on a line of travel through these sounds” would attract attention that might be “detrimental to the colored inhabitants of the island, and to the U.S. Government as well.” In particular, he worried that “men of means and speculators in real estate” and the “old secession-tainted owners” were showing great interest in gaining control of island property, whose worth had increased substantially by virtue of the colonists’ efforts.

Although Butler agreed that James’ fears were valid, there is no evidence that he ever convinced Stanton to involve the War Department in any sort of scheme to purchase Roanoke Island property. Still, Horace James persevered. In early 1865, James presented his strongest case for retaining land for the island’s freed people in his annual report for 1864. Through a lengthy discussion of the colony’s accomplishments, James intimated that the colony deserved to be permanent. Employing classic Republican rhetoric, James emphasized that the freed people had transformed undeveloped island land into a productive community. In particular, he noted that the colonists had already erected 591 houses, worth on average 37 times the old value of real estate on the island. A conservative estimate of the total property improvements, he concluded, exceeded $44,000, “a sum large enough to have purchased the whole island three years ago, with all the improvements of two hundred years, under the rule and culture of its white inhabitants.” James argued that it should be “an element of our glory as a nation, that we can crush out a slaveholding rebellion with one hand and sustain a liberated people with the other.” The freed people, he asserted, deserved the land, at least for their lifetimes.

In April 1865 James wrote President Andrew Johnson requesting a short meeting to discuss matters relating to the Freedmen’s Bureau—a federal agency created by Congress in 1865 to assist and provide provisions for freed people—in North Carolina. He hoped that the president would send a clear message to Southerners, encouraging them to “deal justly with the black man; make him free; give him the ballot; lay him off a farm, and give him clear title to as many acres as he can till … ”

In late May, James learned that the president had granted him an interview. The meeting with the president suffered, however, from remarkable ill timing. On May 29, 1865, between James’ request for an interview and the meeting itself, Johnson issued an Amnesty Proclamation that illustrated that the president shared few of James’ concerns about the freedmen’s future. The Amnesty Proclamation allowed the “restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves,” to rebels who swore an oath of allegiance to the United States government and who could prove property ownership. In a single act, the president struck significant blows to the basis of the nascent Freedmen’s Bureau’s leasing activity, as well as its funding. The Amnesty Proclamation had the potential to eliminate most of the property that the Freedmen’s Bureau had to rent or sell to freedmen.

While in Washington, James also met with Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner Oliver O. Howard. At their meeting, Howard and James agreed that the Freedmen’s Bureau’s goals in North Carolina should include universal education, a system of free labor, and permanent land ownership for the freedmen. But later that summer, Howard had no more luck than James in convincing President

Johnson of the necessity of adopting the latter goal. When, for example, Howard suggested that Johnson should require Southern landowners to provide “a small homestead” for each of their former slaves, Howard noted that the president “was amused and gave no heed to this recommendation.” As would soon become apparent, the president was more interested in returning lands to former owners than in providing reparations to the former slaves.

Oliver O. Howard had spent his first few months on the job trying to clarify the vague areas of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s land policy. In June, Howard requested the opinion of the Attorney General James Speed with respect to his duties under Section 4 of the statute authorizing the Freedmen’s Bureau. The attorney general concluded that the commissioner’s authority over the lands was “an incident of his power in regard to the persons mentioned in the act.” In other words, Howard did not have, a priori, the authority to take charge of all abandoned lands; he had the right to control the abandoned lands only to the extent necessary to provide for the immediate needs of refugees and freed men.

The true test of Howard’s authority to control the use of abandoned lands came on July 28, 1865, in the form of his Circular No. 13, which aimed to provide property for the freed men. Howard ordered Freedmen’s Bureau officials to set aside all of the property that they controlled and divide it into lots for sale or rent to deserving freed men at low rates. Howard did not obtain the president’s approval before sending the circular to his assistants. In addition, he blatantly crossed Johnson by declaring that the provisions of the Amnesty Proclamation did not “extend to the surrender of abandoned or confiscated property” that had been set aside for the freed men.

But even some of the strongest advocates of freed men’s rights objected to the provisions of the circular. Freedman’s Bureau Treasury Director Col. Eliphalet Whittlesey believed the “rents at 6 percent” would not pay the cost of their collection, and he was also concerned about the freedmen’s lack of equipment. Writing to Horace James on Aug. 16, 1865, Whittlesey noted that if the Freedmen’s Bureau followed the plan outlined in the circular, most of the

freed men lessees would have “nothing to work with, and we shall have no means to help them.” Whittlesey indicated that he would use all of his “influence against such foolish proceedings,” unless someone could convince him of the value of the plan.

Ironically, James had not seemed concerned about the freed men’s lack of operating capital when he attempted to have the government grant the Roanoke Island freed men the property that they had improved there. In fact, James always assumed that the men and women would be employed not on their own farms but in some sort of domestic manufacturing; they would not depend on their small plots for their livelihood. He envisioned a society in which free labor and freeholding would be intimately intertwined. To accomplish this he wanted to encourage Northern businessmen to come to the South and invest in some of the property. James thought that the “secret of practical reconstruction” was for Northern men who were well-versed in free labor to lease or buy Southern lands and hire freed men laborers. “Let Northern capital and Northern men go in and possess the land,” he wrote in the appendix to his 1864 annual report. James believed that Northern emigrants would transform the South by encouraging the adoption of middle-class republican values. In August 1865 James wrote a letter to the Congregationalist urging Northerners to come South “to purchase lands, open stores, start manufactories, or newspapers, or schools, or churches” for the betterment of the country.

James knew that if the policies outlined in Howard’s Circular No. 13 were followed, the Freedmen’s Bureau would have very little land left to rent out or sell. And while he believed that the “rabid and leading secessionists” should have to pay for their disloyalty, James also knew that every piece of restored property meant less rental revenue for the Freedmen’s Bureau’s coffers. In communication with Whittlesey’s assistant Lt. Fred H. Beecher in September, James implored him not to ‘‘restore all the property so soon, as to stop our own income, for we shall sorely need some money to keep our machine running.’’

Increasingly, James recognized the enormity of the difficulties confronting the approximately 3,500 freed people crowded into the Roanoke Island colony. The Freedman’s Bureau began reducing rations to the island, and knowing that there were few wage-paying jobs on the island for the men and women, James ultimately agreed that reductions were necessary to convince the colonists to return to the mainland and find employment. Soon, losing patience with freed men who were complaining about the reductions of rations

on the island, James lost his zeal to maintain the Roanoke colony in the face of the overwhelming odds against it.

James did continue to defend the colony and colonists from its critics. Writing to the Congregationalist in early September, he emphasized that reports of “negro atrocities” on the island were exaggerated. “Great jealousy and terrible bitterness against the negroes exists among the white population of Roanoke Island.” In James’ estimation, the old white settlers refused to see the truth: that the colony had been “an inestimable blessing to the island.” It had “multiplied the value of real estate thirty-seven times during a single year” and had blessed the island with education, “which the whites might share equally with [t]he blacks, if they were not so afraid of the ‘Yanks.’ ”

But despite the colony’s accomplishments, the chances that the freed men families would become freeholders on Roanoke Island were decreasing rapidly as a consequence of Freedmen’s Bureau policies. Not surprisingly, Johnson also strongly objected to Circular No. 13, and in September 1865, under strong pressure from the president, Howard rescinded the circular and clarified his policy with respect to the restoration of cultivated lands. Its replacement, Circular No. 15, which in final form was drawn up at the White House, looked forward to the eventual restoration of all abandoned lands.

By the fall of 1865, it was clear that the president’s goal of speedy restoration took precedence over a policy that could have radically altered landholding patterns in the South. Looking back, it is easy to see that President Johnson’s policy of amnesty and rapid restoration of lands to former owners sealed the colony’s fate. The light industries and domestic manufacturing that were supposed to make the colony self-sufficient had never materialized. A succession of poor shad seasons yielded less than had been invested in nets, and hopes for scuppernong wine production were never met. Without jobs or some alternate support, the colonists could not afford to rent lands or maintain themselves on the island, and conditions in the colony rapidly deteriorated for freed people. Even though Horace James complained about returning land to former slave owners, he realized that land restoration was now the only thing that could compel the colonists to return to the mainland and find jobs to support themselves. Thus, in his capacity as an officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau, he helped initiate a process that his successors carried out to ultimately undermine the colony that he had worked so hard to establish.