Monument to the Hatteras Island’s Hotel De Afrique, a freedom colony in North Carolina; Image was taken during the dedication of the monument in July 2013.
Image Source: Blog for OuterBanksVacations.com.
The role of African American soldiers in the American Civil War has received a goodly amount of attention in the past several decades. The 1989 movie Glory, about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, and the recent four-year Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, cast a spotlight on black soldiery that was practically a forgotten memory when I grew up in the 1950s-1970s.
The experience and role of African American civilians during the war has, unfortunately, garnered much less attention. But in North Carolina, at least, they are getting the attention they deserve. Two monuments in the state commemorate “freedom” communities that were created after the Union occupation of several portions of the Carolina coast. It is wonderful to see this remembrance of our history in public spaces.
This post focuses on the monument at Hatteras Island, NC, which commemorates the interestingly (dubiously?) named “Hotel De Afrique” freedom colony.
Early in the war, military operations by its navy and army enabled the Union to seize ground in areas with sizable populations of slaves along the Atlantic coast. In May 1861, in Hampton, Virginia, General Benjamin Butler implemented the so-called “contraband” policy, under which the Union government offered asylum to thousands of runaway slaves in southeastern Virginia. The formerly enslaved men and women formed communities which some called contraband camps; others referred to them as “freedom colonies” or “freedom villages.” (Some people – such as Frederick Douglass – objected to calling these men and women “contraband”; it was a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.) Butler’s contraband policy was soon authorized by the Union government, and other freedom refuges sprung up throughout the South, filled with escaped/self-liberated slaves.
In North Carolina, Hatteras Island was an early site of freedom. As noted by Drew Pullen, writing at the web site Emerging Civil War,
The capture of the Confederate forts located at Hatteras Inlet on August 29, 1861, provided the first Union victory of the Civil War. Almost immediately fugitive slaves began arriving on Hatteras Island in search of freedom. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of War Cameron, dated September 18, 1861, General John Wool inquired, “tell me what I am to do with the negro slaves that are almost arriving daily at this post [Hatteras]…” Union occupancy and control of the island provided for the beginning of the creation of a haven or colonies for fugitive slaves seeking that freedom. Hotel De’ Afrique goes down in history as the first of such encampments in North Carolina.
Drawing from the February 15, 1862 issue issue of Harper’s Weekly. This image is displayed on the front face of the monument which is noted above.
Image Source: From the website Under Both Flags: Civil War in the Albemarle North Carolina, courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center
The site at Hatteras featured a large building that become known as the “Hotel De Afrique.” A New York Times article dated January 29, 1862, and titled “Burnside’s Expedition,” reported that
(Union) Capt. Clark has erected a very commodious wooden house on the beach, for the use of the fugitives who have recently arrived from Roanoke Island. It is christened “Hotel d’Afrique.” These contrabands are very happy in their new quarters… They evidently left Roanoke Island not only for then health, but also with a view of improving their condition in life. Their masters and the secession troops at the Island tried to stuff them with the old story that the Yankees sold all the young and able negroes to Cuba, to pay the expenses of the war, while they cut the hamstrings of the old men, and cut off their right arms, and then turned them loose. Of course, they professed to believe these stories, but they knew they were falsehoods. They had seen and conversed with Northern men who have been accustomed to visit the island to buy shad, and they ”knew they were friendly.”
Franklin Tillett, the old man who last arrived, came down from Roanoke Island in a boat, bringing with him fifteen of his household, old and young, among whom were six women and several children… They were very happy when informed, in answer to questions, whether they would be sent back, that Massa Wilson (i.e., US Senator Henry Wilson), from good old Massachusetts, had introduced a bill into Congress forbidding, under severe penalties, any officer from returning them to bondage. “Den, God bless Massa Wilson for dat, they exclaimed.
They have an original way of keeping accounts with Uncle Sam. Their account-book is a number of sticks on which they cut a notch for every day they work, and they will, by and by, expect wages such as are paid the colored folks at other places. They are very expert boatmen, and are useful in pulling about the Inlet and working along the shore.
Although the “commodious wooden house on the beach” was called a ‘hotel,’ the site was not, to use modern language, “an establishment providing accommodations, meals, and other services for travelers and tourists.” It was a something of a labor camp, after all; their work supported the Union military stationed at nearby Union army forts (Forts Clark and Hatteras). The area was often referred to simply (and unromantically) as “Negro Camp,” where the ‘hotel’ building served as a central location for the other buildings – a set of a dozen barracks – that housed the freedmen. It was certainly not a place of comfortable living.
Indeed, the camp was reportedly the scene of an atrocity. In March 1862, member’s of the Union’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, many in a drunken fit, attacked the freedmen. Beset by soldiers with bayonets and knives, some camp residents were badly hurt, including one person who died, and another who lost a finger. (See Captain James Wren’s Civil War Diary: From New Bern to Fredericksburg, edited by John Michael Priest.) The guilty soldiers were never tried or convicted, a fact which underscored how fickle and troubled freedom could be for the residents of the colony.
The site was disbanded in 1865, when the Civil War came to a close. The buildings at the site no longer exist, due to storms and other natural activity.
To commemorate its history, a monument to the Hotel De Afrique community was dedicated in July 2013. The black stone monument, less than two miles from the original camp, is located near the entrance to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras. it is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which “coordinates preservation and education efforts nationwide, and works to integrate local historical sites, museums, and interpretive programs associated with the Underground Railroad.”