Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867

Article excerpt

Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867. By PATRICIA C. CLICK. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xxiv, 302 pp. $49.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.

MOST famous for Sir Walter Ralegh's lost colony of the 1580s, Roanoke Island in eastern North Carolina was also the home of a freedmen's colony in the 1860s. Patricia Click's Time Full of Trial takes a narrow view of this experience, but it is also a richly rewarding one.

Captured by the Union in 1862, Roanoke Island was one of many sites in the occupied South that housed contrabands, or fleeing slaves. Northern benefactors erected schools and a saw mill there, and freedmen fished and farmed on the island. But the colony never flourished, lasting a mere five years before most of the freedmen retreated to postwar plantation life on the mainland.

Prominent in Click's narrative are Horace James, a visionary-turned-realist Union official important in developing the colony, and a host of northern missionaries and teachers who left a surprisingly rich collection of papers. These northerners sent back letters and reports documenting their progress as well as the many challenges facing the freedmen. As important as either James or the missionaries, however, were the military leaders ultimately in charge of the region, and they saw the camp in terms of military necessity rather than through the lens of evangelical Christianity and reform.

Click is a clear and forceful narrator, moving through this material in rough chronological fashion: from the establishment of the freedmen's colony to missionaries and their educational efforts to the role of the military and finally to the dissolution of the colony. She has exhaustively researched her subject, citing in her notes a host of primary documents from seemingly every extant source. Particularly impressive are the voices she is able to recover: missionaries and officials mainly, but through their letters and reports also those of some former slaves, which enrich her story immeasurably. Occasional images, documents, and maps pepper the book, adding flavor to the narrative.

Click leads the reader gracefully through the limbo of the Roanoke Island experience: balanced between freedom and slavery, between southern realities and northern ideals. …

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