New-York May 25th 1863.
Hon Rob Dale Owen Agreeably to your request, I give you a brief report of the freed blacks in the department of North Carolina during the time they were under my charge. I received my appointment a few days after the taking of Newbern
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My first order from Genl Burnside under this appointment, was to employ as many negro men as I could get up to the number of five thousand to offer them eight dollers a month. one ration of clothes. They were to work on the building of forts. This order remained standing on my book,s up to the day I left the Departement with General, July 6th without our ever being able to fill it Up to the time I left there were not over twenty five hundred able bodied men within our lines, so that it will be readily understood why the negroes were mover [never] a burden on our hands.
The truth was we never could get enough of them, and although for a little while there were a few more at Roanoke Island then were wanted there–after the cost [fort?] was completed.
They were brough to Newbern as it was known.
There were all in the department 10.000. of them 2500 were men 2500 women and Children.
They were at the following places.
At Newbern and vicinity 7.500 At Roanoke Island and posts adjacent 1.000. At Washington, Hatteras, Carolina and Beaufort 1.500.
In the four months that I had charge of them. the men built three first class earth work forts; Fort Totten at Newbern. a large work. Fort Burnside on the upper end of Roanok [Il–] & [Fort?] at Washington N.C. These three forts were our chief reliance for defence against the rebels. in case of an attack. have since been sucesfully used for that purpuse by our forces under Major Genl Foster.
The negroes loaded and discharged cargoes. for about three hunderd vessels. served regularly as crews on about forty steamers. and acted as permanent gangs of laborers in all the Quatermasters. Commissary and Ordnance offices of the department.
A number of the men were good carpenters. blacksmiths coopers &c. and did effective work in their [. . .] at bridge building ship joining &c The large railroad bridge across the Trent was built chiefly by them. as was also the bridge across Bateholors & other creeks. & the docks at Roanoke Island & elsewhere Upwards of fifty volunteers of the best & most courageous were kept constantly employed on the perilous. but most important duty of spies. scouts and guides. In the work they were invaluable and almost indispensable. They frequently went from thirty to three hundred miles within the enemy's lines; visiting his principle camps and most important posts and bringing us back important reliable information.
They visited Kingston Goldsboro. Trenton Onslow Swansboro, Tarboro of points on the Roanoke river; after these errands barely escaping with their lives. They were pursued on several occasions by blood hounds two or three of them were taken prisoners; one of these was shot; the fate of the others not known. The pay they received for this work was small but satisfactory. They seemed to think their lives were well spent, if necessary in giving rest, security, and success, to the Union troops, whom they regarded as their deliverers. They usually knelt in solemn prayer before they left, & on their return, from that hazardous duty.
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The women and children supported themselves with but little aid from the government by washing, ironing. cooking, making pies, cakes &c. for the troops The few women that were employed by the government in the hospitals received 4$ a month, clothes and one ration.
Those in the neighborhood of Newbern were ordered to report at my office as soon as they arrived within our lines. They obtained quarters in the out-houses, kitcheons and poorer classes of dwellings, deserted by the citizens on the taking of Newbern. They attended our free schools & churches regularly and with great earnestness. They were peaceable, orderly, cleanly, & industrious. There was seldom a quarrel known among them. They consider it a duty to work for the U.S. government & though they could in many cases have made more money at other conditions; there was a public opinion among them that tabooed any one that refuses to work for the Government. The churches & schools established for their benefit, with no cost to the government, were of great value in building up this public opinion among them.
As I have previously related, that the men frequently led foraging parties, to places where supplies necessary for the department were obtained. In this way boat-loads of prime and oak wood for the hospitals. Government officers. a steam boat load of cotton bales for the protection of the gunboats and with forage for the same, number of horses and mules for the Quarter Master Department. Small sheep were obtained at no other cost than the small wages of the men. Without doubt property far exceeding in value all that was ever paid to the blacks, was thus obtained for the Government. Under my appointment as Superintendent of the Poor, from Major Genl. Burnside. I had to attend to the suffering poor whites as well as blacks. There were 18.00 men, women, & children of the poor whites. who felt compelled to call for provisions at my office.
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On an avarage in most articles of sixteen times as much, was called for by the poor whites, as was wanted by the poor blacks.
Work was offered to both. to the whites 12.$ month
" " " " " " " Blacks $8. "
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Excerpts from Vincent Colyer to Hon. Rob. Dale Owen, 25 May 1863, filed with O-328 1863, Letters Received, series 12, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.
Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 123–26, and in Free at Last, pp. 175–78.