RALEIGH — A little-known chapter of Civil War history is being recalled today as an Outer Banks site where dozens of slaves fled early in the war is included in the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
A monument will be dedicated today at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras to include the Hotel De Afrique in the network. The site is considered the first safe haven for runaway slaves in North Carolina. The underground railroad was the system of safe homes and routes used by slaves escaping north.
Following federal capture of Confederate forts Hatteras and Clark in August, 1861, about 100 slaves from eastern North Carolina made their way to the Outer Banks. There, in return for food and shelter, they helped Union troops load ships and build fortifications during the remaining years of the war.
The freed slaves stayed in as many as 12 wooden buildings, one of them called the Hotel De Afrique, which also referred, in general, to the encampment. A similar camp was built on the other side of the spit of land that makes up the Outer Banks.
Doug Stover, historian for the Outer Banks Group of the National Park Service, said it’s only been in recent months that the story of the Hotel De Afrique was rediscovered.
“We didn’t find a lot of information about Hatteras until we started the observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” he said.
During his research he came across log books as well as a Feb. 15, 1862, edition of Harper’s Weekly with illustrations of the encampment.
“In 1861, federal forces defeated the Confederate batteries and word spread very quickly and a large number of slaves escaped from the mainland,” he said, many coming over after mainland towns fell to the federals.
Early in the war, it was unclear what should be done with escaped slaves, which some officers were referring to as contraband.
Maj. Gen. John E. Wool wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron in September 1861 asking what he was to do with the slaves that were arriving almost daily at the post. Stover said Wool never got a reply and was left to deal with the issue himself.
It appears the freed slaves stayed on the Outer Banks through the war before they apparently headed north to a freedman’s colony near Manteo, Stover said. That settlement lasted about a dozen years after the war ended in 1865.
On the Internet: www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/faq.htm.