Prior to the Civil War, the Outer Banks of North Carolina were sparsely inhabited, defined by the tumultuous weather that constantly loomed and brought the Atlantic Ocean often into the hearts of people’s homes. The lack of workable land severely limited agricultural opportunities in the area, and consequently slavery held little sway along the coastal regions. Yet the Outer Banks would play a disproportionately large role in the beginning years of the Civil War, despite its sparse population and the relatively (compared to places like Antietam, Shiloh, and Chancellorsville) small size of its military engagements. Within one hundred miles of Ft. Monroe, the catalyst for military emancipation under the command of Union general Benjamin Butler, military operations along the coast of Virginia bled into North Carolina’s Outer Banks and had lasting implications for its seemingly small population. Within this militarily and geographically dynamic area, Richard Etheridge would make a name for himself both as an advocate for civil rights and leader of the freedman’s population along the coast.
Born a slave on Roanoke Island, the site from which the Roanoke Colony infamously disappeared centuries earlier, in 1842, Richard Etheridge grew up in one of the few areas along the Outer Banks that could support slave-based agriculture. Benjamin Butler made the first Union push into the Outer Banks in the fall of 1861, achieving a rather haphazard and comical victory over Forts Clark and Hatteras just south of Roanoke Island. In the spring of 1862, with the Union war effort already faltering, Ambrose Burnside set off to increase Union holdings along the North Carolina coast. Abraham Lincoln mistakenly believed that the Outer Banks harbored Unionist sentiments, and as elsewhere, hoped to establish a pro-Union government in North Carolina.
Despite the disappointing discovery that "Bankers" (as they were referred to) were more of an “a-political” group than anything else, Burnside’s successful capture of Roanoke Island immediately upset racial dynamics along the coast. In establishing a Union fort on Roanoke Island, Burnside also established a prime location for recruiting black soldiers with the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Richard Etheridge enlisted there in September of 1863 and served through 1866. However, as was the case across the South, the freedman’s colony that took root on Roanoke Island under the watchful eye of the Union Army experienced severe deprivations at the hands of their would-be protectors. Unwilling to accept this status quo, Etheridge wrote directly to Oliver Otis Howard, steward of the newly established Freedman’s Bureau in 1865: “The white soldiers break into our houses act as they please steal our chickens rob our gardens and if any one defends their-Selves against them they are taken to the gard house for it. So our familys have no protection when [the Union soldiers] are here to protect them and will not do it.” Etheridge signed his letter, “in behalf of humanity.”
It is unclear whether or not Howard responded to Etheridge’s appeal with any sort of remedy, but the act itself distinguished Etheridge as both a leader and advocate for the freedman’s population. Further, his ability to compose and send such a document demonstrated that unlike many men raised in slavery, he could read and write, a skill that may have lent itself to positions of authority early on. These talents would serve him well as Union occupation ended in North Carolina and throughout the South and local populations were left to work out new racial dynamics on their own.
Reconstruction in the Outer Banks took unique forms. As the United States’ economy began to rebuild, it became increasingly necessary to rebuild navigational aids along the coast destroyed during the war. Furthermore, shipping and ocean navigation increased exponentially – so too did shipwrecks off the treacherous North Carolina coast. In response, Congress authorized the production of Life Saving Stations and began construction in North Carolina in the early 1870s. Recruited from local populations, lifesaving crews began as integrated units with freedmen serving alongside their white counterparts, as they had in an unofficial capacity in the years before a formalized service took root. Known as “checkerboard” crews, African American members were often consigned to the lower ranks, and given additional duties such as cooking. Poor performance of crews in North Carolina and a series of failed rescues led Congress to authorize the construction of additional stations in 1878, as Reconstruction was ending throughout the South.
Richard Etheridge distinguished himself again as an exceptional surfman while serving on the Bodie Island Lifesaving Crew, and consequently he was recommended for the position of Keeper at one of the new Life Saving Stations to be located on Pea Island further south. Predictably, local whites refused to work for a black Keeper. To resolve this problem, administrators decided to consolidate black surfman at Pea Island under Etheridge, and in doing so effectively segregated a formerly integrated organization. Despite the fact that they were not expressly political positions, Keepers were considered leaders in the local community and resentment grew among certain whites who felt they should have been given Etheridge’s job. During the off-season of 1880, whites set fire to the Pea Island station. Though the perpetrators were easily identified, no one was prosecuted for the destruction of a federal building.
This act of violence however did not deter Etheridge and his crew, who not only returned in the fall for their next season of duty but rebuilt their station during their down time. Etheridge developed a reputation for training, diligence, and excellence unheard of in the Lifesaving Service in North Carolina and his precedent continued for the duration of the station’s existence. In their first thirty-five years of service, the Pea Island Lifesavers lost only seven lives while saving over two hundred people and at least thirty vessels. In 1996, Etheridge and his crew were finally recognized for their exemplary actions and commitment to duty despite the particular difficulties they faced in the era of Jim Crow, posthumously receiving the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the Coast Guard. Though Etheridge’s story is extremely localized, it exemplifies the ways in which the Civil War, and later Reconstruction, reverberated into every aspect of society, including the seemingly unrelated operations of the Lifesaving Service.
Becca Capobianco received her M.A. in US and Public History from Villanova University. She has worked in education with the National Park Service and currently works as a Park Ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. ©
Sources and Further Reading:
Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1991.
Opperman, Joseph K. “Bodie Island Lifesaving Station Historic Structure Report.” National Park Service, 2005. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/caha/bilss_hsr.pdf
Stover, Douglas. “Pea Island Lifesaving Station Historic Resource Study.” National Park Service, 2008. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/caha/life_saving_hrs.pdf
Whites, LeeAnn, and Alecia P Long. Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
Wright, David, and David Zoby. Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. New York: Scribner, 2000.
Wright, David, and David Zoby. “Ignoring Jim Crow: The Turbulent Appointment of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers.” The Journal of Negro History 80.2 (1995): 66-80.