By Philip Gerard
The Civil War breaks over North Carolina with the fury of a natural disaster. Yet it is a man-made calamity with roots going back to the founding of the state. The state is the last to secede, in fact votes against even holding a secession convention as late as February 1861. Secession is the result of a complex mix of factors. A minority of wealthy slaveholders and planters, who control the government, favor secession, as does the Democratic party. Others feel backed into it by the actions of both the Lincoln Administration and the Confederate government. Many are confident that secession will lead to independence, not protracted war.
One third of North Carolinians are enslaved, yet those who fight will claim they are defending freedom from the tyranny of the government in Washington.
Zebulon Baird Vance, a staunch Unionist at the start of hostilities, will become both a hero in two early battles and a revered wartime governor. William Woods Holden, the newspaper editor who campaigned vigorously on his behalf, will, in the end, undermine his regime and challenge him for the leadership of the state on a Peace platform.
Among Confederate states, North Carolina will vie with Virginia in sending the most men to the fight and suffering the most casualties. One in four men of military age will die in the war, yet till the very end the Richmond government will regard North Carolina troops as unreliable and promote relatively few officers from the Old North State to generalships.
North Carolina is a rural state, a land of farms, yet by war’s end almost half her citizens will rely on government food to keep from starving.
North Carolina troops will fight on both sides of the conflict. In the west, two regiments of mounted infantry will fight for the Union; in the east, two regiments of infantry will stand with other troops to repel a force of more than 13,000 Confederate troops bent on re-capturing New Bern.
North Carolina will become both a homefront and a battleground. An armada will stage an amphibious landing from the sea. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union Army will invade from the south.
One of the men urging Governor John Ellis toward secession, slave owner John D. Bellamy of Wilmington, will surrender his mansion to be used as headquarters for the occupying Union army and the Freedmen’s Bureau, established to aid emancipated slaves.
Four brutal years of war will cause devastation and privation across the state, along with an untold number of civilian deaths. After a series of bloody battles, the Confederacy will surrender its last viable army– not at Appomattox Court House– but at a modest farmhouse in Durham. The last state to secede will become the stage on which the war comes to a dramatic end.
Slavery and division will give way to freedom and reunion by law—but not necessarily in fact. For black North Carolinians, true freedom will be another century coming. And unity will remain an elusive goal, only partially achieved. For many, Reconstruction in North Carolina will seem no more than a well-intentioned experiment that fails.
Yet slavery and tradition will at last yield to modernity. The state will go from being many isolated, mainly agrarian communities to being an interconnected, partially industrial economy of wage-earners and farmers. A white man’s democracy will slowly—and through more struggle—evolve into a more inclusive democracy.
Act I: 1835 – May 20, 1861: A House Divided
In 1835, though North Carolina is delineated by borders drawn onto a map, it is scarcely a state at all in the sense of being a unified geopolitical entity. In this it shares the challenge of other large southern states such as Virginia.
Seventeen major river basins spider-web the state (White Oak, Pasquotank, Lumber, Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, Chowan, Roanoke, Pee Dee, Yadkin, Catawba, Broad, Savannah, French Broad, Watauga, New, Hiwassee, and Little Tennessee), most running northwest to southeast—barriers to westward passage—along with hundreds of tributary creeks, with precious few bridges spanning any of them. Commerce between the coast and the interior is difficult. The easternmost villages on Hatteras Island lie 600 miles from the settlements in Cherokee County on the western border—and extraordinary distance to traverse on rudimentary dirt roads at the speed of a walking horse. Mail is slow, delivered by stagecoaches where practicable.
The state slants from sea level to the highest point in the eastern United States, Mount Mitchell, 6,684 feet high, spanning a diverse geography of swampy plain, hilly Piedmont, and rugged mountains.
Mountain communities are tucked into hollows in the rocky hills or narrow river valleys, isolated even from one another—typically clusters of extended families with no cash economy: barter is the rule.
Even Raleigh, the capital, may as well be in a foreign country as far as the residents of such mountain counties as Haywood (1808), Cherokee (1839), Madison (1851), and Mitchell (1861) are concerned. They all traffic with East Tennessee. Murphy, the seat of Cherokee County, is closer to five other state capitals than it is to Raleigh, and closer to St. Louis than it is to coastal Manteo.
The state remains a collection of independent, mostly rural communities into which the state and the federal governments hardly intrude in day-to-day life—with different accents, different cultures and national origins, and very different politics. Most North Carolinians live and die without ever leaving their home county. Thus they rarely come in contact with their fellow North Carolinians from different cultures, classes, or regions.
In many respects, the struggle to unify North Carolina reflects the struggle to unify the nation as a whole.
North Carolina is a poor state. A few large plantations are situated on the coastal plain in the basins of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear Rivers, but most farms are small, raising hardly more than enough for the family that owns or tenants them. The state is regarded as backward, and for good reason. The population, mostly small farmers, suffers one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the nation. Regular schooling is a rarity. After 1839, some free, non-compulsory public schools convene for as long as three months a year, and only whites are allowed to enroll—a system of uneven quality, but in fact the first public education system in the South.
The diary and account book of Caroline Brooks Lilly (1803-1846) reveals the hard life of a dedicated teacher in small rural schools, who also kept house on a farm in Montgomery County.
In the mountains, subsistence farming is the rule. In the Piedmont, the farmers are limited by a poor transportation network. On the coast, fishing and trading are carried on, and the plantations are worked by enslaved blacks several generations removed from the Middle Passage, born in the United States. Some have white fathers, but if the mother is black, the child is a slave by law.
So little opportunity is available that there is a steady outflow of people into the cotton states, which are experiencing a boom. Through the 1840s, as much as one-third of the population leaves for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Slaves are sold “down the river” against their will. By 1860, fewer than a million people reside in North Carolina, about a third of them enslaved, more than 30,000 of them “free people of color” – a significant minority who lack political power. These include accomplished artisans. Just one example among many is
legendary cabinetmaker Thomas Day of Milton, whose furniture is prized by the best families of the state.
North Carolina is commonly called the “Rip Van Winkle State,” for sleeping through the great boom of progress and development sweeping the rest of the nation. Loyalties and cultural allegiances are largely local. Religion plays an important role in the small towns, where the local churches become social hubs as well as the arbiters of right behavior.
Progress will require connection—roads and railroads. Beginning in the 1840s under the leadership of Governor John Motley Morehead, North Carolina makes progress on roads, railroads, and other internal improvements, but the pace is slow.
Most North Carolinians live in a world in which physical hardship is routine, danger is a fact of life, and physical violence comes with the territory. They live on isolated farms, raise and butcher their own stock. For most classes, labor is arduous, often fraught with the possibility of maiming or sudden death. Even a planter’s family living on a riverside plantation with all the luxuries of the age has about the same chance of succumbing to a fatal bout of malaria or yellow fever as a tenant farmer’s. Infant mortality is a sad fact of life.
Among the white population, farm women have perhaps the hardest lot of all. Not only do they endure an unending routine of physical labor and the uncertainty of subsistence farming, they also must risk childbirth, not once but typically many times, with only rudimentary medical care. Most live far from cities.
Wilmington, the only deepwater port on the coast, is the largest city, with a population of just under 10,000. Other prominent cities include New Bern, farther up the coast, and Fayetteville, at the head of navigation of the Cape Fear River.
There are several railroads in the east, including the Wilmington and Weldon, connecting Wilmington with Virginia, and the North Carolina Railroad, terminating in Goldsboro. The Atlantic and North Carolina, championed by Governor John Motley Morehead, links the city named for him. Other lines reach into the interior as far as Charlotte, Morganton, and Rutherfordton.
Farmers use slow wagon roads that allow them to sell some cash crops.
The state’s political framework is a two-party system, developed over the decades since the 1820s: Whigs vie for power with Democrats. The Whigs want government to invest tax money in roads in order to stimulate the economy and unite the population in commerce, but the Democrats are opposed to such public financing schemes. They also fear that economic development will lead to more mobility for slaves, more slaves being rented out, being educated, learning to think independently of their masters—thus upsetting the social order. Until 1835—when a revised constitution denies free persons of color the franchise—in cities
such as Fayetteville, the parties compete for the votes of free Blacks, sometimes resorting to vote buying.
For coastal planters, fear of a slave uprising is never far off. In 1829, David Walker, a free black man from Wilmington who went north, publishes his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, exhorting his fellow blacks, “Oh! my coloured brethren, all over the world, when shall we arise from this death-like apathy?- And be men!”
Then in 1831, Nat Turner leads a contingent of slaves in coastal Virginia to massacre more than fifty whites in a failed rebellion. Two years later, the state legislature makes it illegal to teach a slave to read or write, though learning arithmetic is allowed.
Thus from colonial times, slave patrols roam the countryside, with broad powers to detain and punish runaway blacks. In 1857, Hinton Rowan Helper, a Mocksville native, publishes The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. During the 1860 presidential campaign, The New York Tribune calls it the most effective argument against slavery ever written. Many Southerners burn it.
In his book, Helper presents a relentless parade of statistics compiled for the 1850 census to show how slave states—and the majority of their non-slaveholding small farmers—are at a competitive disadvantage compared to the free states. He denounces slave owners as “robbers, thieves, ruffians, and murderers.” Using incendiary language, he asks the slaveholders, “Do you aspire, to become the victims of white non-slaveholding vengeance by day, and of barbarous massacre by the negroes at night?”
He recognizes the dramatic class divide between planters and yeoman farmers, the economic reality that slave labor crowds out free, impoverishing free farmers.
A slave is less likely to run away and more likely to procreate if families are not broken up. Nonetheless, in the decade prior to the war, a slave has a one in three chance of being sold away from his or her family, typically into the cotton states of the Deep South or the new territories opened up by victory in the Mexican War.
A so-called Underground Railroad has been rescuing slaves since the 1820s. Among the numerous active “conductors” are two cousins, Levi and Vestal Coffin. Their headquarters is the Quaker enclave of New Garden, in Guilford. From there, slaves are shepherded west over the mountains into Kentucky, or southeast to Wilmington to be smuggled out by sea. It’s a difficult undertaking, and only a comparatively small number of slaves even make the attempt.
The “railroad” runs north but also east, down the rivers, helped along by a strong clandestine tradition of black watermen piloting their fellow slaves through the soggy maze of coastal waterways to freedom—in flatboats, dugout canoes, and periaugers.
Among their most reliable allies are small pockets of runaways who have made a life in the remote vastness of the pine woods, the river canebrakes, the black water swamps. They are known as “maroons” and live beyond the pale of slave law. Some communities on the Pasquotank, the Albemarle, and the Chowan Rivers, and in the Great Dismal Swamp number thirty or forty people and have been established for generations. Never very numerous, they live invisible to white society, out in places no one else seems to want.
From the rice and turpentine plantations, runaways follow the Cape Fear to Wilmington. From tobacco and cotton plantations in the Piedmont they journey down the Neuse to New Bern. The Tar River takes them to Washington, the Roanoke to Plymouth. Each port city is a doorway to a new world, but a dangerous one.
Some slaves wait for months for their chance, others years. A thirty-four-year-old carpenter named Henry Gorham hides out in the forest for eleven months before he can arrange safe passage. Ben Dickenson bides his time for three years. Harriet Jacobs tucks herself away in an attic in Edenton for a full seven years before being taken aboard a schooner bound for Philadelphia. She details the abuse she suffered at the hands of her master and her eventual escape in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861.
Their ordeals illustrate just how difficult it is for a slave to escape, as well as the determination of a daring few to try.
Slaves who never taste freedom leave behind their own legacies. Omar Ibn Said, also known as Uncle Moreau, an Islamic scholar from Senegal, is enslaved and sold to an owner in Fayetteville, where he lives and writes into his nineties. He survives until 1864 and leaves behind fourteen manuscripts in Arabic, including an autobiography.
George Moses Horton, a slave poet in Chatham County, learns to read and write and actually publishes two volumes of poems with the help of a professor’s wife, is liberated by Yankee troops, and publishes a third volume after the war. In 1829, he publishes the first book by an African American writer in the South: The Hope of Liberty—a volume that speaks to the great divide between slave and free
White North Carolinians are also somewhat culturally diverse.
Moravians and Quakers in the Piedmont are philosophically opposed to violence. Scots in the Fayetteville area, formerly Campbellton, once fought their eastern neighbors in the American Revolutionary War and are proud of their martial heritage—their local militias will be among the first to volunteer to fight for the Confederacy. A small German population has settled in Wilmington.
The first Jewish settler in an English colony in the New World is Joachim Ganz, who emigrated from Prague to North Carolina in 1587. Though he vanished with the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, he is followed by many others, including Revolutionary War soldiers Aaron Cohen,
Solomon Simons, and Abraham Moses. Though the state Constitution of 1776 allows only Protestant to hold public offices, Jacob Henry of Beaufort is permitted to serve in the legislature. In the 1800s, the Benjamin family settled in Wilmington and Fayetteville, and their most prominent son, Judah Benjamin, is elected U.S. senator from Louisiana and later serves the Confederacy as Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War.
Early Jewish merchants such as the Bloomingdale brothers are itinerant peddlers, but by 1852 Wilmington is served by twenty-six Jewish merchants, and other Jewish stores are thriving in Goldsboro, Charlotte, and Yanceyville.
Free blacks, who number 30,000, labor always on the borders of slavery and freedom. One free black, twenty-four-year-old Lewis Sheridan Leary of Fayetteville, joins John Brown, the abolitionist, during his raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859. He is shot multiple times by troops under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee and dies after ten hours of agony. Another free black from Raleigh, John Anthony Copeland, was captured during the raid and later hanged.
More native Americans live in North Carolina than in any other state east of the Mississippi River. In the west, a band of Cherokees has defied the national plan of removal and remained in their mountainous ancestral homeland. On the Lumber River, Lumbee Indians, also called Croatans, have the status of “free persons of color” and enjoy no recognition as a tribe.
Six other distinct Indian tribes occupy homelands in the state: we know them as the Coharie, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Occaneechee Band of the Saponi Nation, the Meherrin, the Saponny, and the Waccamaw. Like the Lumbee, they are not allowed to vote, testify, or hold public office, among other restrictions.
In the east, local commerce is carried on by water in flatboats, shallops, and canoes. Steamboats cruise the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, and Cape Fear Rivers, connecting port cities with the hinterlands.
Large slave owners are generally concentrated in the eastern part of the state. John D. Bellamy of Wilmington, for instance, owns 1,000 slaves, three plantations, and a store, according to records provided by his daughter and son. Some of his slaves manage the household of his mansion in Wilmington, built on the eve of war. By 1860, as many as eighty-five plantations— ranging from relatively small holdings to tracts encompassing thousands of acres—are operating along the Cape Fear River alone.
The transatlantic slave trade was officially outlawed by Congress in 1807, but in the three decades leading up to the war as many as a quarter of million African slaves are smuggled into the South. In addition, there develops an interstate slave trade that is, in its disruption of families, equally cruel.
Moses Roper, a light-skinned slave from Caswell County, is sold seventeen times and attempts to escape on sixteen occasions. Having been recaptured by his cruelest master, Mr. Gooch, he reports in Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery, “My master gave me a hearty dinner, the best he ever did give me; but it was to keep me from dying before he had given me all the flogging he intended. After dinner he took me to a log-house, stripped me quite naked, fastened a rail up very high, tied my hands to the rail, fastened my feet together, put a rail between my feet, and stood on one end of it to hold me down; the two sons then gave me fifty lashes each, the son-in-law another fifty, and Mr. Gooch himself fifty more.” In 1834 he at last manages to escape for good to New York.
Likewise Mary Walker, owned by the Camerons of Stagville, under threat of being sold into Alabama escapes in 1848 and spends years trying to recover the three children she left behind. Her oldest son escapes and is never heard from again, and only after the Civil War does she reunite with her younger son and daughter.
The slave economy of the South is fundamentally at odds with the wage-earner economy of the North. The two sections inhabit different moral and economic universes. One or the other will finally have to give. Westward expansion forces the issue to be settled.
The four million slaves collectively constitute the greatest single economic asset in the United States, more valuable by far than land, railroads, or manufacturing: more than $1 billion (almost $26 billion in today’s currency).
Slaves are treated like livestock and traded like any other property, a practice that denies them their essential human dignity. Their skills and practical training often surpass those of their “masters.” Though it is true that on the large eastern plantations most are mostly field hands, they are also carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, cobblers, plasterers, harness makers, seamstresses, brick masons, managers, lockmasters on the rice plantations, river pilots, trail guides, experts at distilling turpentine, teamsters, couriers, bodyguards, preachers, nurses, cooks, hunters and fishermen, accustomed to hard labor in all seasons. In the west, they keep hotels and livery stables, work in mines, using a range of skills.
By the 1850s, the argument over economic development gives way to disputes over the expansion of slavery in the territories.
Both parties support slavery reflexively, can imagine no other economic system for the state. As Congress debates the issue of allowing slavery in the new territories, the Democrats argue that any move to restrict slavery will eventually cause it to wither and die. The Compromise of 1850, which allows California to join the Union as a free state but strengthens the Fugitive Slave Law and allows other new territories to decide the issue by popular vote, only postpones a showdown on the problem. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which brought pro and anti-slavery forces into open conflict as the status of territories was decided.
When the election of 1860 comes, Abraham Lincoln is not even a candidate in North Carolina— yet he is elected, and South Carolina secedes in short order.
In February 1861, when secessionists propose a convention to discuss secession by North Carolina, it is voted down. Only when Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion do the secessionists get their way. Governor John Ellis declares, “You can get no troops from North Carolina.”
Secessionists wage an energetic campaign to convince the public that if the state doesn’t stand with the Confederacy, whites will suffer the horror of having to live on equal terms in a society with hundreds of thousands of emancipated blacks.
A little more than a month after the attack on Fort Sumter, on May 20, 1861, the Convention of 120 delegates unanimously votes for secession. It is perhaps the first moment of political unity the state has ever known, but it is illusory and fleeting. This war will be not just a war against the United States government and its army.
It will also be a war within a war, a civil war for control of the soul of the state.
Act II: 1861-1865: A Battleground and a Home Front
The war begins with parades and fancy dress balls. Local militias, used to drilling four times a year, turn out in motley of local uniforms. The officers wear hand-tailored uniforms of their own designs, with plumed hats and sash-hung swords. The enlisted men wear gray or butternut homespun battle shirts made by mothers or wives, blue or grey frock-coats, trousers made from “slave cloth”—a practical cotton-wool weave. Their shoes are plain lace-up brogans.
Virginia has Virginia Military Institute, and South Carolina has The Citadel, but there are no military colleges in North Carolina. Instead there are military academies such as the Hillsborough Military Academy and the North Carolina Military Institute, with cadets ranging from 12-21 years of age. The Institute’s cadets and faculty form the core of the First North Carolina Regiment.
From Asheville to Wilmington, the troops turn out, jubilant at the prospect of glory, certain of a quick victory. They call themselves colorful names that honor their home places and resonate with bellicose confidence: the Duplin Rifles, the Scotch Boys, the Rough and Readies, the Cape Fear Rifles, the Wilmington Light Infantry, the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry, the Burke Rifles, the Cabarrus Troopers, the Lexington Wildcats, the Rockingham Invincibles. They assume the air of the Knights of the Round Table about to embark on a chaste and holy quest. The volunteers include men such as William Rand Kenan of New Hanover County, whose forebears fought in the Revolution.
The militias carry irregular armaments—everything from Revolutionary-era muskets and flintlock pistols to Bowie knives and broadswords. They have never seen battle. They have few artillery pieces. North Carolina has not a single cannon foundry. The officers ride their own horses.
Only a handful of officers have any experience at war, and that was service in the brief, one-sided Mexican Campaign. The volunteer soldier is eager for adventure and confident in the fighting ability of his compatriots.
One writes, “All we want is a pure open field fight and we will fight three to one our Col. [says] we will whip them and I do not doubt it at all.”
The troops march off to war accompanied by regimental bands, most famously the Moravian brass band of the 26th North Carolina, including Julius A. Leinbach. Drummers, fifers, and buglers assist with command and control on the battlefield. The brass bands entertain and boost morale.
There are some troubling harbingers. As the Flat Creek Guards march out of Durham County to the war, they stop at Walnut Hall, home of William Preston Mangum, a young enlistee, so he can bid farewell to his family. His father, a former United States Senator now crippled by s stroke, speaks to them haltingly, with his daughter Pattie interpreting: “Boys, God bless you every one, but you can’t succeed. Their resources are too great for you.” Young Willie Mangum is mortally wounded at the First Battle of Manassas. A pocket Bible stops the bullet, so he lingers for two weeks until succumbing to infection.
Though initially it relies on volunteers, the Confederacy quickly passes a conscription act. In North Carolina, 95% of white males ages fifteen to fifty participate as soldiers, home guards, or prison camp guards: 125,000 men. This compares with 75% participation in the Confederacy overall. More than half are wounded, many more than once, and some 32,000 die from battle wounds, illness, or other causes. Boys as young as fifteen enlist in the junior reserves. Some are so small and weak that they cannot aim their rifles without resting the muzzle on a fence or wall. The Old North State supplies a quarter of all the men conscripted into the Confederate Army. One in four of them will die in the war.
Some 1,500 of them die in service to the Union.
There are loopholes. An eligible man may buy his way out of the army by hiring a substitute, but the price can range as high as $3,000—a cost only the wealthy plantation class can afford to pay. And a man who owns twenty slaves is exempt from service. This lends a galling irony to the war: Zebulon Vance is not alone in calling it a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
And so the war that was championed by slaveholders is now fought by ordinary men with a range of motives: honor, pride, lust for adventure, loyalty, duress, and a desire to preserve a
familiar way of life that is, nonetheless, corrupted at its core by slavery. They express it most often as fighting for freedom from the interference of a distant government in Washington.
Yet the government in Richmond essentially enslaves many white men to the army, where they enjoy no civil rights and can be executed for running away. Richmond rescinds habeus corpus, the basic right of the accused man to due process under the law. It confiscates crops and manufactured goods for the Cause and levies taxes on small farmers who can ill afford them.
The Fayetteville Federal Arsenal, in operation since 1838, is seized by the Fayetteville Light Infantry and other North Carolina troops called out by Governor John W. Ellis on April 27, 1861. In truth, it’s not a very valuable military commodity. Over the course of twenty years, it has gradually been built up, but on the eve of war, it contains only about 7,000 obsolete 1812-era muskets and no modern machinery. In October, machinery and arms captured at Harpers Ferry are installed in the Arsenal, and it begins producing rifled muskets, 10,000 in all. Women work making paper cartridges. By the end of the war, 2,000 people labor at the arsenal, which becomes crucial to the Confederate war effort.
Gov. Ellis lives long enough to convene the Secession Convention in Raleigh, but by summer he vacates his office to Acting Governor Henry T. Clark, the Speaker of the State Senate, and dies of consumption on July 7, 1861. Clark is a proficient administrator. He commandeers the state’s thirty-nine textile mills for the war effort and organizes the railroads to serve the army. He establishes salt works to provide the army with the precious food preservative. He builds a gunpowder mill, establishes trading connections across the Atlantic, and authorizes a Confederate prison in North Carolina at Salisbury. A factory in Kenansville manufactures swords.
He brokers a special arrangement with the CSA Quartermaster Corps: the state will provide its own uniforms in exchange for funds. Thus North Carolina troops are among the best clothed and equipped in the Confederate Army. But he is not cut out for the treacherous political landscape that comes with the war.
A few prominent newspapers trumpet the news and politics of the day, each strongly partisan. E. J. Hale’s Fayetteville Observer, influential from 1820s until it is burned by Sherman in 1865, is a staunch defender of the Confederacy. William Woods Holden’s Raleigh-based Standard establishes itself as a bitter critic of both the Raleigh and Richmond governments.
Zebulon Vance, a Congressman from Buncombe County who opposed secession, bravely leads the 26th North Carolina Regiment at the Battle of Malvern Hill outside Richmond. Then, without campaigning, he is elected by a landslide to the office of governor and remains North Carolina’s wartime governor for the duration. He is catapulted to power by Holden, who campaigns relentlessly for Vance in the pages of the Standard. Ironically, Vance pursues a policy of states’ rights within the Confederacy, refusing to enforce many of Richmond’s edicts and becoming a permanent adversary of Jefferson Davis even as he is wildly popular and successful as governor.
By the end of August 1861, Yankee troops under General Ambrose Burnside have taken Fort Hatteras. By Spring 1862, they hold Beaufort, Fort Macon, Elizabeth City, Morehead City, New Bern, and Roanoke Island. Many residents chafe at what they regard as high-handed Yankee treatment, but others welcome the Union soldiers. From their coastal foothold, they constantly threaten the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, attack as far west as Kinston and Goldsboro before withdrawing. North Carolina is hemmed in from the coast, except for Wilmington. The Federal armada controls both Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Runaway slaves accumulate in the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island as well as in New Bern, James City, and other so-called “contraband camps.”
Abraham Galloway, an escaped slave from Smithville (Southport), returns to North Carolina and orchestrates a ring of African American Union spies. In 1863, he is instrumental in forming three regiments of U.S. Colored Infantry, the 35th, 36th, and 37th —that join more than 170 other Colored regiments in the Union Army, not just infantry but also cavalry and artillery. After the war he is active at the Freedmen’s Convention in Raleigh and is elected state senator.
For women in North Carolina, as for women throughout the South, the war brings privation and want. But for every class of woman, it is a different war.
Women of the plantation class are buffered in several ways. First, many of their husbands stay home from the war. In addition, their properties hold storehouses of meat, flour, coffee, wine, and other foodstuffs. Third, their slaves perform any additional physical labor required for the war, including the building of defense works. Fourth, when invasion is imminent, they can flee to someplace safer, traveling under the protection of a trusted escort of servants and family.
But eventually the shortages reach even the moneyed class. All the textiles in the state are commandeered for uniforms, so clothing is suddenly scarce, even for the well-to-do. From her Looking Glass Plantation in the eastern part of the state, Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston complains to her diary, “Have been all day devising ways to make a small piece of flannel do duty for a large one. But all my table covers go and bare mahogany is the order of the day.”
Middle-class women raid their attics for discarded dresses, blankets, baby clothes, laboriously pull out the stitching, recut the cloth, and fashion new dresses, shirts, or uniforms. Carpets and drapes are unraveled and made into blankets and coats. Alice Campbell, a young upper class woman from Fayetteville, laments, “I had a calico dress for State occasions for which I paid ten dollars a yard and shoes that cost one hundred dollars a pair.” By war’s end, a new pair of shoes will cost as much as $500, a gentleman’s overcoat $1,500.
Farther down on the social scale, the shortages hit early and hard and only get worse. Such shortages are now commonplace throughout the states of the Confederacy—though not in the states of the Union.
One by one the small amenities that make life bearable disappear into the cataclysm of the war. At the time of secession, a barrel of flour costs eight dollars. Less than four years later, it
costs $500. The price of coffee rises from fifteen cents a pound to over a hundred dollars a pound, and then it becomes simply unavailable.
Wheat, rye, and okra seed are ground for coffee. Sorghum substituted for sugar. Hats are woven from palmetto leaves, and buttons made from persimmon seeds. Leather goods disappear into the army, so a firm in Raleigh, Theim and Fraps, offers a line of wooden shoes.
Many women across the state go to work in the cotton and woolen mills, the first time in their lives most have worked outside the home. Others work in “cottage” factories, private homes. Patriotic women form sewing circles and fashion cartridge boxes from layers of precious linen painted with varnish. They spin rabbit fur with wool and make socks for men at the front. They fashion “helmets” or “smoking” caps—colorfully decorated head-warmers—for soldiers living in outdoor camps to wear while sleeping.
But their industry is no substitute for the bounty of trade goods cut off by the Yankee blockade, which clamps down harder on the coast with each passing month.
Blockade runners manage to slip their cargoes into Wilmington, but corruption takes its toll. Unscrupulous traders and speculators hoard staples such as bread and cloth and charge astronomical prices.
Hardest hit of all white women are the farmwives, especially those of tenant farmers, who survive from season to season on their crops, with little or nothing stored up against shortages. They also rely on their men to do the backbreaking physical labor of plowing and harvesting, digging and hauling. Their lives, already precarious, teeter on the verge of starvation and ruin.
One farm woman seeks help from Governor Vance: “I am a pore woman with a pasel of little children and i wil have to starve or go naked.” Another pleads for “mearcy” and provisions: “I have plowed & hoed and worked in the field like a negro I have. . . no relations near me that is able to help me now.”
Left behind by husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, for the first time in their lives, women must not only plow, plant, and harvest; they must also make crucial decisions about what and when to plant and how and where to bring their goods to market during a turbulent time—all the while fending off corrupt local Home Guards, roving gangs of deserters, and later Yankee “bummers” who come to pillage and vandalize their property.
Often alone and isolated, in regions where loyalties are at best divided, they face the ever-present risk of being assaulted or burned out by neighbors who suspect they favor the other faction, or by lawless men set adrift by the war. Confederate Home Guard patrols on the hunt for Unionists are known to torture women to get them to reveal the whereabouts of their husbands, sons, and fathers.
On some plantations whose men are absent, the women are not able to control their slaves. Slaves run away to the Union lines. Those left behind—usually women and children—all too often face reprisal at the hands of their masters.
The hardships facing black women, especially those in bondage, are magnified many times over. Some whose husbands have run away to join the Union forces are punished with beatings or turned out of their homes. Increasingly, women slaves take the gamble of running to the Union lines. But they are not always welcomed there, are frequently treated as whores and beggars. Too many are brutalized and raped by soldiers on both sides. If caught while escaping, they will be whipped or even hanged. Once safely within the Union lines, many work as cooks and laundresses.
As North Carolina soldiers are fed into the great battles of Manassas, Antietam, and the Wilderness, most cities and towns set up hospitals, usually near railroad depots. Women volunteer as nurses and housekeepers. The women from poor and working class backgrounds prove more useful, as a rule, their sensibilities not so delicate.
Some of the women of the educated class become teachers. Before the war, fewer than seven out of a hundred schoolteachers in North Carolina are women. By the end, half will be women.
In general, except for the plantation class, the white women are less enthusiastic about the war than their men. And as the war goes on and the casualty lists grow, they see the fighting almost as a natural disaster to be borne. Patriotic fervor, now tempered by long suffering, gives way to grim resignation. Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, wife of a Halifax County planter and virulently pro-Confederate, tracks the progress of the war in her diary. Other accounts come down from Annie Darden and Elizabeth Collier.
Some women take a more active role. Abby House, known as “Aunt Abby,” visits battlefields to
tend the wounded, sends eight nephews off to war with the promise that if they are ever
wounded, she will be there to “nuss” them. She is as good as her word, tending to five of them,
along with other wounded and ill from her native Franklin County.
But in cities such as Raleigh, Salisbury, Marshall, and Burnsille—as in other Southern cities— women openly revolt against the privations of war by raiding storehouses of supplies stockpiled by speculators, in co-called “bread riots.” By the late days of the war, as many as 40% of North Carolinians are dependent on government-issued foodstuffs.
The violence and privation of the war amplify the existing faultlines across the state—and in some areas mirror the divided loyalties of the Revolution.
The Civil War is fought as an internal civil war—neighbor against neighbor, the struggle of the nation in microcosm. Just as the states of the Union divide into blue and gray, the state itself divides into blue and gray. Under the pressure of conscription, taxation, shortages of food and other essentials, invasion, epidemic illness, injury, and mass death, the state fractures into
warring groups: coastal men enlist in three regiments of “loyal” North Carolina Union troops. Mountaineers fight on both sides and neither, intensify old feuds. Fierce Confederates form regiments in Asheville, Raleigh, Goldsboro, and Durham. Quakers refuse to fight and suffer harassment, imprisonment, even torture at the hands of conscription patrols.
Black men are taken into the field as enslaved laborers: teamsters, cooks, and musicians. They do the tough work of moving the armies. And they are essential to the building of fortresses and other fortifications. Thus they are exposed on the front lines along with the defenders in the ferocious bombardment from Union guns at Fort Fisher, Petersburg, and elsewhere— leading to the myth of the “black Confederates.”
On the home front, education suffers. Wake Forest College closes in 1862, converted to a Confederate hospital. Trinity remains open by admitting young women, but it too suspends activities by spring 1865, as does Davidson. Women’s colleges such as The New Garden Boarding School (Guilford) remain open, but the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill is decimated: In 1860, its students number nearly 400 from every state in the Confederacy, but the class of 1865 has only fourteen successful applicants. After the war, it becomes a barracks for the occupying Michigan cavalry. When General William T. Sherman’s army overruns the state late in the war, Major James H. Foote walks seventeen miles under a flag of truce to ask Sherman to spare Wake Forest College from the torch, and Sherman grants his request—Wake Forest is saved.
The common soldier faces privation almost from the start: antiquated equipment, lack of shoes and harness, unreliable rations. Two in three of the men who die are killed by illness—typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, pneumonia, dysentery. Men who have never before been outside their own small communities have no immunity to even common illnesses, and epidemics sweep the camps.
If a soldier is wounded, his ordeal is only beginning. He may lie untended on the field for hours. Once the smoke has cleared and the field is safe enough to venture onto, musicians, medical orderlies, and slaves attached to the army carry off the wounded on stretchers. They place them on two and four-wheeled ambulances, often just farm wagons pressed into service. Assistant surgeons rove the battlefield, treating some men on the spot, directing that others be conveyed to field hospitals. There, the wounded are divided into three categories: those who are going to die no matter what treatment they receive; those who will survive without immediate treatment; and those whom immediate treatment can save.
Most wounds of the stomach, chest, and bowels are untreatable. Wounds to the limbs often require amputation. The operating theater is a living room, a front porch, a barn, a shed. Surgery is performed on kitchen tables, the tailgate of a wagon, a door set across two barrels. Incredibly, if a man undergoes amputation within twenty-four hours of wounding, his chance for survival is almost 75 percent. Early in the war, ether and chloroform are available to dull the pain, but later on, only whiskey is to be had—sometimes. Surgical instruments are used over and over without sterilization—blades and saws.
Ironically, being ill or wounded helps to unite North Carolinians from far-flung backgrounds.
After initial treatment, the soldier is sent by wagon or rail to a regular hospital for extended care and convalescence, and the hospital system is organized so that each state’s soldiers are housed together in hospitals like Moore Hospital in Richmond, close to the deadliest battlefield. Dr. Thomas Fanning Wood of Wilmington, trained at Moore, becomes one of the 3,200 surgeons in the army, attached to the 3rd North Carolina in Stonewall Jackson’s brigade. At Chancellorsville, he performs the first of hundreds of amputations he will do throughout the war.
Many Lumbees are impressed to do tough work for the Confederacy, including building Fort Fisher.
Henry Berry Lowrie, an Indian from Robeson County, shoots down a conscription officer named James Brantley Harris in January 1865. Two months later, the Home Guard searches his father Allen Lowrie’s home and discovers firearms—contraband for a free person of color. The Home Guard executes Allen Lowrie and his son William, as Henry Lowrie watches from hiding. Lowrie and his gang of eleven friends and relatives go on a revenge spree, killing and robbing wealthy white men. Lowrie is captured at his wedding in 1869 but breaks jail and remains on the loose until he disappears forever into myth in 1872.
North Carolina regiments include more than seventy Jews, including six Cohen brothers. The small Jewish community in Charlotte sends thirteen men, including Louis Leon, who left behind a priceless diary of his war experiences, Captain Julius Roessler, and Private Henry Wertheim.
A number of foreigners living in North Carolina enlist. Two heavily Irish-born units are Company C, 1st North Carolina Artillery, also known as the Charlotte Artillery, and 2nd Company H, 2nd North Carolina Artillery, known as Dudley’s Battery.
The Scots heritage is also apparent in the names of several North Carolina units and the common names found among them: Cameron, Campbell, McDugald, and McKenzie. Company F, 18th North Carolina, raised in June 1861 in Richmond County, march off to war calling themselves the “Scotch Boys.” The “Moore County Scotch Riflemen”—officially designated Company C, 35th North Carolina—are formed in September 1861 and commanded by Scottish-born captain John McDonald Kelly. Company D, 51st North Carolina, forms in 1862, calling themselves the “Scotch Tigers.”
From Wilmington come the 123 German Volunteers of Company A, 18th North Carolina Infantry, 83 of them born in Germany—joining two days after the attack on Fort Sumter.
In the West, William Holland Thomas, the only white man ever to be made a Cherokee chief, leads Thomas’ Legion of Indians and Highlanders, defending the mountain passes against Union invasion. But in other mountain communities, loyalties are bitterly divided. Troops of the
64th North Carolina under Lieutenant Colonel James Keith massacre thirteen captive Unionists at Shelton Laurel. Outliers defy the conscription agents and raid their neighbors’ farms. Old feuds find new expression in wartime loyalties, and the violence is personal. Old scores are settled. Non-combatant men and women are tortured, robbed, hanged, or shot. Homes are looted and burned.
Almost from the start, pacifist Quakers defy the conscription laws passed by the Confederate Congress in the northern Piedmont—the so-called Quaker Belt, a strip that includes all or part of nine counties encompassing some 4,669 square miles. It’s an area nearly the size of Connecticut—including key cities such as Salem, Asheboro, Lexington, and Greensboro. The nine counties—Alamance, Chatham, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Surry, and Yadkin—form a kind of no-man’s-land just west of the capital. They prove to be hostile ground for Home Guards, dangerous territory for the conscription patrols sent to round up able-bodied men for the Cause.
There an organization calling itself the Heroes of America organizes with a simple and audacious goal: to bring down the Confederacy. The Heroes engage in espionage. They guide escaping Yankee soldiers over the Appalachians into Tennessee and Kentucky. They spirit runaway slaves and fellow Unionists alike to free states. Through pamphlets and clandestine meetings in cantonments, they convince Confederate soldiers to desert their units, then help them hide out from the conscription patrols. Like the Freemasons, they adopt signs and countersigns, special handshakes and symbols, and an oath of loyalty unto death to fellow members.
North Carolina opens a prison at Salisbury, fifty miles southwest of Greensboro—one of the first of thirty that will be established throughout the Southern states. Salisbury is a railroad hub in bountiful farm country. For $15,000, the Confederate government buys the Old Cotton Factory, a vacant three-story brick structure on sixteen acres. Workers erect a stout wooden stockade encompassing six acres of lawn shaded by oak trees.
In 1861, forty-six Yankees captured at Manassas are the first tenants. Soon they are joined by seventy-three sailors from the Union, which grounded off the coast. For these first prisoners, Salisbury is a pleasant, almost restful place. They spend their time playing baseball in the yard, reading under the trees, gambling at poker, staging amateur theatricals, trading buttons and pocket goods with the locals for fresh vegetables and tobacco.
But by October of 1864, almost 9,000 POW’s are living in open-air burrows, enduring filth, brutality and disease. The hellish plight of the prisoners leads them to a bloody uprising. On Nov. 25, 1864, a mob of prisoners storms the gate. They overpower their guards and take their muskets, push out of the stockade. But other guards turn artillery on them—three cannons loaded with grapeshot, canisters full of metal slugs the size of rivets—at point-blank range. A troop train at the nearby depot unleashes a wave of reinforcements, who add their massed fire.
The incident illustrates the hellish circumstances of imprisonment on both sides of the conflict—worsening in the South as food and medicine run out.
As the diary one inmate, Private Benjamin F. Booth of the 22nd Iowa Volunteers, tells the awful tale: “The desperate men acted solely on the impulse of the moment. It was an ill-advised, futile attempt. It lasted but a few moments, nevertheless, in that short time eighty-one were killed and as many wounded. The enemy were so enraged that they kept up the firing long after the prisoners surrendered.”
The dead are hauled directly to the burying ground and heaved into a pit. Later, affidavits from prominent citizens of Salisbury affirm that two of the men are still alive when dirt is shoveled over their faces.
An estimated 4,000 POWs die at Salisbury during the war. In the spring of 1865, the survivors march into Wilmington, where they are met by U.S. Colored Infantry, who give them food, water, and clothing. Booth writes, “The climax was reached when we drew near to headquarters and saw that poles had been erected on each side of the road which were wreathed in evergreens and a banner drawn across the road from pole to pole, on which was inscribed, in large gilt letters, WE WELCOME YOU HOME OUR BROTHERS.”
Meanwhile slaves take advantage of the chaos caused by the war, including the yellow fever epidemic brought to Wilmington by the blockade runner Kate in August 1862, which empties the city of more than half its white inhabitants, including Bellamy. One of the slaves who built his mansion, William B. Gould, is a twenty-four-year-old master brick mason and plasterer.
On the rainy night of September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other slave companions steal aboard a small boat and row more than twenty miles down the Cape Fear River. Fourteen other escaping slaves man two additional boats. The current sweeps them downriver past the moored blockade runners, past the guns of nine Confederate forts.
At last, long past sunrise, they are spied by the U.S.S. Cambridge, one of the blockading Union squadron, which records the event in her log: “Saw a sail S.W.S. and signaled same to other vessels. Stood for strange sail and at 10:30 picked up a boat with 8 contrabands from Wilmington, NC.” Almost at that very hour, President Abraham Lincoln is summoning his cabinet to brief them on a restatement of the Union war aims, which he calls the Emancipation Proclamation.
After terrible losses borne by North Carolina troops at Hanover Courthouse, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, in July 1863 comes the news that breaks the back of Confederate loyalty in North Carolina: Gettysburg. The shock is not just that the great battle was lost, but the staggering casualty figures. Of the nearly 20,000 killed and wounded on the Confederate side, one in four is from North Carolina. Many die on the last day of battle in General George Pickett’s valorous, suicidal charge.
General Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade of North Carolinians charges along with the Virginians.
One of its regiments, the 26th North Carolina, suffers 86% casualties.
William M. Cheek, a private from Chatham County, recalls the last charge of Colonel Henry King Burgywn, the twenty-one-year-old “boy colonel” of the 26th: “The color-sergeant was killed quite early in the advance and then a private of F company took the flag. He was shot once, but rose and went on, saying, ‘Come on, boys!’ and as the words left his lips was again shot down, when the flag was taken by Captain McCreary, who was killed a moment or two later. Then Colonel Burgwyn himself took the colors and as we were advancing over the brow of a little hill and he was a few feet in advance of the center of the regiment, he was shot as he partly turned to give an order, a bullet passing through his abdomen. He fell backwards, the regiment continuing its advance, Lieutenant-Colonel John R. Lane taking command and at the same time taking the flag from Colonel Burgwyn. In a moment, it seemed, he was shot, and then Captain W. S. Brewer, of my company, took the flag and carried it through the remainder of the advance, Major John Jones having then assumed command of the regiment. Our regiment was recalled and retired.”
Colonel Burgwyn’s last words: “I have no regret at my approaching death. I fell in the defense of my country.”
In a rearguard action at Falling Waters during the retreat back to the Potomac, one of North Carolina’s most beloved officers, known as much for his scholarly record at the University of North Carolina as for his honorable service, is also killed: Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew.
In the 1864 gubernatorial election, William Woods Holden—formerly Vance’s champion— challenges Vance on a Peace Party platform, with the aim of seeking a separate peace with Washington before the state is invaded and laid waste. Vance defeats him in a landslide.
As the war grinds on, drawing more thousands toward maiming or sudden death in battle, or lingering death by pneumonia, yellow fever, or smallpox, North Carolinians desert in greater numbers. Sometimes whole companies evaporate from the lines and head to the backwoods of western North Carolina, where they can hide out near their homes. They form bands of “outliers,” some wanting only to be left alone, others murdering and pillaging their neighbors on the other side of the conflict.
In the east, desertion is rampant. Despite the difficulty of traversing Gum Swamp, soldiers manage to cross the no-man’s-land between Kinston and New Bern into the Union camp at New Bern. In January 1864, Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, a North Carolinian, invades from the north with Major General George Pickett and 13,000 troops to take New Bern. A secondary objective is to capture Union troops made up of North Carolina men. The expedition fails to capture New Bern but it does take fifty-three captives of the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers. Pickett hangs twenty-two of them for desertion from Confederate units—an act for which he will be hunted as a war criminal and go into voluntary temporary exile in Canada.
Constant skirmishing along the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad interrupts the Confederacy’s supply line from Wilmington, which by late 1864 is the last open port of the Confederacy— guarded by a massive sand fortress, Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Since the Yankee blockade became effective, more and more slaves have realized all they have to do is make it to the beach and they can be rescued by small boat patrols. Colonel William Lamb, the young commander and architect of Fort Fisher, discovers one of his own slaves has run away to the beach and freedom, with momentous consequences.
In May 1864, Charles Wesley slips out to the beach and is picked up by sailors from the U.S.S. Niphong. Having helped to build the fort, he proceeds to brief the Yankees on the layout of the fort, its garrison of 800 artillerymen, regular soldiers, and junior reserves, and its armaments.
Thus an escaped slave helps to engineer the downfall of the mighty fortress.
Meanwhile, by December 21, 1864, an army of 60,000 veterans under General William Tecumseh Sherman has reached Savannah overland from Atlanta. He has “made Georgia howl” with his strategy of total war. General Ulysses S. Grant orders him to move by sea to join the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and surround General Robert E. Lee’s army in “Operation Crusher.”
But Sherman persuades him of another course of action. He writes, “I feel confident that I can break up the whole railroad system of South Carolina and North Carolina, and be on the Roanoke, either at Raleigh or Weldon, by the time spring fairly opens.”
Grant agrees to the plan and, to aid him, orders a second attack on Fort Fisher to secure Wilmington, the vital port and railroad terminus.
After an abortive attack in December 1864 is fended off, the Federal fleet returns in January 1865 and unleashes the most massive bombardment in history against the fort. General Braxton Bragg refuses to send reinforcements, and the fort surrenders at nightfall of January 12, 1865, and Wilmington is occupied within weeks.
Among the 9,000 troops who finally assault Fort Fisher is the 27th United States Colored Troops. Many other brigades of USCT take part in the Wilmington Campaign—including many former slaves, some from the Cape Fear area.
Now Sherman culls 300 unfit men, then heads north to punish South Carolina, the cradle of rebellion. He occupies Columbia, the capital, and it is destroyed in a conflagration—though Sherman insists he did not fire the town. The cause of the fire will remain a matter of bitter contention for a century and a half. Sherman pauses at Cheraw before crossing into North Carolina. His objective is Goldsboro—a railroad junction where he can join forces with General Alfred Terry’s army coming up from Wilmington and General John Schofield’s army from New
Bern. He orders Colonel W.W. Wright, superintendent of railroads, to make a quick passage to New Bern and prepare to extend the railroad west to Goldsboro by March 15th.
Sherman determines to go by way of Fayetteville. There the Cape Fear River and eight plank roads come together in a transportation hub at the Market House, where one of the commodities bought and sold is slaves. He aims to destroy the Fayetteville Arsenal, the only Confederate arsenal left on the whole coast south of Virginia.
Before moving on Laurinburg, he issues new orders to his troops: no foraging in North Carolina. Stores and livestock are to be purchased, not simply commandeered. Noncombatant civilians are to be left alone. Homes and private property are to be respected. He notes, “It may be of political consequence to us.” He is well aware of the divided loyalties of the state and hopes for many Unionists to rally to him.
As Sherman’s army is moving north, Major General George Stoneman—who holds the dubious honors of having been the highest ranking prisoner of war and of having been called by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “One of the most worthless officers in the service”—moves across the border from Tennessee with 5,000 cavalry troopers. His aim is to liberate the Union prisoners at Salisbury. He moves through Boone, destroying supplies, bridges, and railroads. He arrives too late to rescue the prisoners at Salisbury, so he burns the prison and most of the town in a pyre visible all night long from fifteen miles away before withdrawing through Asheville in late March.
Sherman’s Final March covers 425 miles of muddy roads, thick forest, and boggy swamp.
Sherman’s army moves in two wings, spreading out along every available road. It moves like an army of ghosts in blinding sheets of rain, guided by 4,400 cavalrymen. The columns stretch out for miles, trailing 2,500 quartermaster’s and commissary wagons drawn by 10,000 laboring mules. Their 68 wheeled guns are harnessed to 272 big horses, their wooden caissons filled with canisters of black powder and cannonballs weighing up to 18 pounds each, atop two-wheeled limbers. The army even has 600 ambulances, each drawn by two horses.
At this point in the war, Sherman’s army likely has more fit draft and saddle stock than is available in the entire rest of the state.
His pioneers lay down more than a dozen miles of corduroy roads every day, and his army moves too swiftly to be outflanked by the divided Confederate forces—which, uncertain of his intentions, have attempted to guard both Charleston and Charlotte, neither of which is his target.
Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, in command at Charleston and later to face Sherman’s army at Bentonville, writes, “I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar,”
Sherman is more fond of the South than Southerners imagine—he has many southern friends. He has declared, “The only legitimate object of war is a perfect peace.” But he practices a policy of total war, depriving the army of its supplies by destroying farms and burning storehouses.
Fearful of his approach, farmers bury their valuables and many flee. And though there is some looting, rape and destruction are mercifully far less than in Georgia and South Carolina. Eight-year-old Robert Winston watches in awe as Sherman’s army overruns southern Franklin County and chronicles the experience years later in It’s a Far Cry.
Sherman routs the defenders at Fayetteville and enters the city on March 11, 1865. The following day he orders the destruction the arsenal. “I will destroy the arsenal utterly. Since I cannot leave a guard to hold it, I therefore shall burn it, blow it up with gunpowder and then with rams knock down its walls.”
One thousand engineers from the 1st Regiment of Michigan Engineers destroy the machinery with sledgehammers, then knock down the walls with railroad ties swung from wooden tripods. They finish the demolition with explosives, rocking the city. The Federals also destroy shops, factories, stores, and the Fayetteville Observer.
Trailing Sherman’s army is a contingent of 25,000 contrabands—escaped or freed slaves. Now that Wilmington is captured, he sends them downriver from Fayetteville on steamboats to be assisted by the Freedman’s Bureau there.
The retreating Confederate troops burn the Clarendon Bridge behind them as they cross the river to Averasboro and mount a bloody delaying action on the Smith Plantation on the Cape Fear River. Some 1,600 soldiers are killed or wounded. Many fallen Confederates are buried in unmarked graves.
A bigger fight at Bentonville seals the fate of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee—and adds another 4,500 casualties to the war’s grim butcher’s bill. Johnston surrenders 90,000 men of the Army of Tennessee, including more than 20,000 troops in North Carolina and all the troops in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, at the John and Nancy Bennett (Bennitt) farm on April 26, 1865. He does so against the orders of President Jefferson Davis, who has instructed him to send the cavalry to guard the government-in-exile and release the infantry to carry on a guerrilla war.
The surrender at the Bennett farm effectively ends the war, both militarily and politically.
There is a leveling unity in defeat: many of the wealthy have lost their fortunes. Yeoman farmers from the coast to the mountains have been driven into dire poverty. There is no industrial base to fall back on. African Americans are now united in emancipation.
Act III: 1865-Present: Toward Reunion and Freedom
When the war ends, North Carolina embarks on a contentious period of progress and retrenchment, agricultural bust and industrial boom, and ultimately a long relapse into a political culture of white supremacy that lasts well into the Twentieth Century. Social justice for black citizens is fought for, won, and lost again. Out of the struggle of war and its aftermath emerges a state that has a definite identity, that is now connected by roads, railroads, a growing commitment to education, and a burgeoning industrial sector, welcoming an influx of immigrants from Europe and opportunistic investors from northern states
Some 331,000 African Americans are suddenly emancipated, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with freedom.
Most are desperately poor, owning just the clothes on their backs, their only wealth the wages of daily labor. Abuses are rampant: men are cheated out of wages, property is confiscated under pretext of law, blacks are whipped, even shot. Some of the plantations remain intact, and many former slaves remain on the only home ground they’ve known, trying to determine what comes next. Others go north. Many go in search of lost or separated family members.
All-black towns sprout up in Princeville and James City, representing an effort to establish stable, family-centered communities. Many former slaves commit themselves to locating family members separated from them during slave times. They must answer a crucial question: where is home? On the plantation they knew all their lives? In an ethnic homeland they have never seen? In some new place?
With freedom come decision, responsibility, and control of their own destinies.
Some return to the places where they once lived as slaves. Others migrate to Durham, Greensboro, and other cities to work in mills and factories. One hundred thirty-nine blacks from Goldsboro answer this question by striking out for Kansas in 1878—the “exo-dusters.”
Stagville Plantation, a 30,000-acre tract near Durham owned by Paul Cameron, was home to 900 slaves at the start of the war. On Christmas Day 1965, Cameron declares he is not going to hire his former slaves but instead replace them with white workers, so in one stroke hundreds of blacks are now homeless and must seek new lives elsewhere.
Though several thousand Union troops remain to ensure their rights, the troops mainly are garrisoned in the cities.
In 1865, “Black Codes” are enforced: Interracial marriage is forbidden, as is the issuing of a firearms license to a black. There are laws warning about intent to rape a white woman, banning blacks from testifying in court, imposing draconian punishments for vagrancy—a common condition among recently enslaved, homeless persons.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passes the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is then ratified by the state legislatures on December 6th: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
At last the slaves are free by law, but in North Carolina, as in many Southern states, freedom too often means poverty, homelessness, or the peonage of sharecropping. (As late as the 1940s, black sharecroppers will be living in the old slave cabins at Stagville.)
The state constitutional convention of 1865 includes no black delegates, so prominent African Americans convene their own Freedmen Convention in September 1865. Bishop James W. Hood presides. Speakers include the heroic spymaster Abraham Galloway. The 100 delegates from thirty-four counties draft a document arguing for their constitutional rights: “Born upon the same soil, and brought up in an intimacy of relationship unknown to any other state of society, we have formed attachments for the white race which must be as enduring as life, and we can conceive of no reason that our God-bestowed freedom should now sever the kindly ties which have so long united us.”
On October 2-5, 1866, a second Freedmen Convention is convened in Raleigh, attended by 115 delegates from sixty counties. The convention resolves to support Civil Rights bills and constitutional amendments then before Congress, and establishes the Freedmen’s Educational Association of North-Carolina: “The object of this Association shall be to aid in the establishment of schools, from which none shall be excluded on account of color or poverty and to encourage unsectarian education in this State especially among the freedmen.”
White Republicans will share this determination by the African American community to secure the benefits of education.
The convention founds a statewide organization to advocate for African Americans, and establishes local auxiliary leagues “whose duty it shall be to receive reports of outrages from auxiliary leagues, or from the people of said counties, &c., and communicate them to headquarters, and such newspapers throughout the county as it may deem proper, so that the government and the world may know of the cruelties inflicted upon us, and the disadvantages under which we labor.”
Progress seems to coming. The 14th Amendment is ratified by Congress on July 9, 1868, granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including freed slaves, assuring them due process and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment, ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, declares that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
From 1868 until 1900, 125 African Americans serve in the state legislature. Many serve multiple terms, including Senator Henry Eppes of Halifax County and Representative John R.
Williamson of Franklin County, both of whom serve five terms. Other notables include Abraham Galloway, elected to the state senate. They push for recognition of black civil rights under law and champion the cause of education for all citizens, black and white.
Men who were slaves only a few years before are now making law—and history.
Hiram Revels, a native of Fayetteville, becomes the first of only six African Americans ever to serve in the U.S. Senate, representing Mississippi.
But by 1868, in the countryside, the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan. led by ex-Confederate officers, terrorize those who dare to stand up for their rights. Klansmen stab and choke to death State Senator John W. Stephens in the Caswell County courthouse. Wyatt Outlaw, a prominent black Unionist, is dragged from his home and hanged on the lawn of the Alamance Courthouse. The reign of terror and violence ultimately causes Provisional Governor William Woods Holden to hire detectives to root out the ringleaders. With the help of the militia, 100 are arrested—but Holden is impeached by the legislature for overstepping his bounds and driven from office, not to be pardoned until 2011—and then only by the State Senate, not the House.
There are some energetic efforts at reform. Albion Tourgée, a wounded Union veteran, relocates in North Carolina after the war and tirelessly promotes the cause of racial equality. As a member of the 1868 Constitutional Convention, he writes many of the progressive statutes and is elected superior court judge. General Benjamin Butler, the military authority, does his best to enforce justice for all races.
Meanwhile, the returning Confederate soldiers find devastation. Most major industries have been destroyed, so a complete rebuilding process begins. There is an equally terrible psychological devastation. As many as 35,000 soldiers will never return, a whole generation of husbands and sons, survived by a generation of widows and orphans. An estimated 50,000 civilians across the South are also dead. For those maimed in combat, the state purchases almost 1,000 prosthetic arms and legs from the Jewett Patent Company.
A few have turned a profit on the war. James Sprunt from Wilmington shipped out as a young purser on the Lilian, a blockade runner skippered by Captain John N. Maffitt. During his travels, he traded molasses for twenty-four bales of cotton, which he sent to Wilmington for safe keeping. In partnership with his father Alexander, James Sprunt—still not yet twenty years old—parlays his first profits into a cotton export business that trades with more than fifty agents throughout Europe. In short order, Sprunts is the largest exporter of cotton on the planet. In 1907-09, Sprunts exports more than half a million bales of cotton valued at more than $30 million (about $740 million in today’s dollars).
A few “carpetbaggers” invade the state—most notoriously Union General Milton S. Littlefield, a suave and unscrupulous grifter who defrauds the state by inducing legislators to authorize
bonds for a railroad, then steals the bonds. Many other northerners, though, arrive to help set up schools, care for orphans, or invest in legitimate businesses.
Once a railroad bridge is constructed across the Cape Fear River, local investors establish fertilizer plants at Navassa, near Wilmington. It is just one of many locally started enterprises in cities and towns across the state.
In 1876, D. A. Tompkins buys The Charlotte Observer, and uses it to trumpet his vision of the New South, which is focused on the need for economic development, especially mills to process raw cotton. By 1900, half the looms in the nation are located within 500 miles of Gastonia. To finance the new mills, investors led by Samuel Wittkowsky establish a savings and loan association that become Home Federal savings and Loan—and finance much of the commercial development of Charlotte. By the 1870s, rail lines link mercantile enterprises in Charlotte, Wilmington, and the Piedmont to suppliers in the Northeast.
In the 1880s, James Duke succeeds to his father’s tobacco business and imports 125 Jewish workers from New York City. Soon the Duke tobacco fortune is legendary. In both the cigarette factories and the cotton mills, whites take the best jobs, as a rule, leaving the dirty “outside” jobs to blacks.
In 1895, Moses and Caesar Cone of Baltimore establish a textile mill in Greensboro, and before long Cone Mills is one of the world’s leading producers of clothing fabric—flannel, denim, and corduroy.
The Jewish influence is cultural as much as commercial. By the 1880s, thousands of Jews make their home in North Carolina, including many immigrants recruited for factory work. By 1900, Jewish congregations can be found in Wilmington, Goldsboro, Statesville, Asheville, Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, Lumberton, and New Bern. Jewish mayors emerge in many cities, most prominently Solomon Fishblate in Wilmington in 1878. The Jewish legacy of philanthropy is significant, resulting in the Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, among many other institutions and foundations.
Orphanages are established for displaced children, white and black. Social organizations like the YMCA and the Boy Scouts gradually fill new roles in the social fabric. The African American community embraces the NAACP and the Urban League. By the 1920s, a “Black Wall Street” has sprung up in Durham.
The American Missionary Association, an abolitionist organization that was active all through the war, aiding the Freedman’s Bureau, now establishes schools for African Americans.
So between the end of the war and the early 1870s, blacks enjoy a period of rising expectations, an evolving middle class, especially in the cities, where the Klan is less active and the occupying troops ensure a measure of safety.
Gradually a black middle class emerges—thanks in large part to politically active African American women who are less threatening to the white male governing class. Within a generation of emancipation, there are thriving black communities in the east and the Piedmont full of politically active, educated former slaves and their families.
In 1875, the Congress enacts a Civil Rights bill that declares, “Be it enacted, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”
But in North Carolina, the realty is far less fair for black citizens. In 1876, Zebulon Vance, the wartime governor of Confederate North Carolina, is once again elected governor with a Democratic legislature, a crowning effort to keep the state, its economy, and its land firmly in the hands of its white citizens.
In 1883, an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 1875 Civil Rights law, further undoing the reforms bought at such price by the war. Meantime, by the 1880s an agricultural depression has trapped many sharecroppers—and thus many blacks—into a state of permanent indebtedness to their landlords, and many small farmers lose their land. The crisis on the farms fuels the Fusionist movement—a “fusion” of Populists and Republicans, a united front aimed at bettering conditions for the lower and working classes—including equality, dignity, and opportunity for African Americans. They manage to wrest power from the Democrats in the 1890s, but can’t keep it against the onslaught of white “redeemer” Democrats.
Another arena of struggle is education. When the war is over, Davidson, Wake Forest, and Trinity Colleges all reopen. But the University of North Carolina, dependent on a bankrupt state, closes in 1870. A student chalks its epitaph on a blackboard: “Today this University busted and went to hell.”
Mrs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer, one of the few professional woman journalists in the state, also known as “the woman who rang the bell,” leads a successful bid to reopen the school in 1875, but financing is still a limiting factor, and it struggles.
Initially, the public or “common” schools are shuttered—the state, which supports them, is broke. The burden of support is passed on to local governments, which rarely have the means to reopen them. But beginning in 1868, a Republican legislature champions public education. The Constitution of 1868 establishes a superintendent of public instruction and requires the establishment of a free public school system for all citizens aged six to twenty-one.
In 1869, the legislature passes a law providing for separate school for white and “Negroes” and appropriates a massive sum—$100,000—for schools. But lack of funds to back up the
appropriations and suspicion of the superintendent, Rev. S. S. Ashley, a Michigan native deemed a carpetbagger, keep the school system from fulfilling its promise.
With the advent of the Land Grant College Act, North Carolina establishes five new colleges: Fayetteville Colored Normal in 1877; North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (North Carolina State University) in 1887; the State Normal and Industrial School for Girls in Greensboro in 1891; the North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race at Greensboro in 1891; and the Elizabeth City Colored Normal School, also in 1891.
But public schools lag, due to lack of funding, politics, and lack of organization. By 1880, there are still 185,500 white adults over the age of ten who cannot read or write. Numbers among blacks are even higher. Illiteracy has actually increased in the decades following the war.
During Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau fills some of the gap by establishing more than 400 schools to serve 20,000 pupils, white and black.
In many communities of sharecroppers, the only building owned by African Americans is their church, often donated by white landowners. These become their schools and, along with the ones created by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the track toward a better life for their children.
By 1876, a medical school in Charlotte is education African American doctors. The legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) is especially strong in North Carolina, an artifact of the faith of both the black community and key state officials in the power of education to better the lives of citizens.
Despite gains made by some forward-thinking towns and the leadership of education champions such as Walter Hines Page (columnist for the State Chronicle), Charles D. McIver, Kemp P. Battle (UNC), and others, the Democratic government through the 1880s remains largely indifferent to advancing public education—another of the reasons it is driven from power in the 1890s.
After the war, the various Indian groups feel a need to differentiate themselves from the black community, and people who once intermingled freely now find themselves divided into like communities. Robeson County for instance, now has four school systems: white, black, Indian, and the Smiling system, set up for a single family of Smiling Eppses from South Carolina. Partly this is born of a necessity for Indians to define themselves and their cultures, to get their own share of the limited resources available in the depressed post-war economy. In 1887, with an appropriation of $500 the legislature establishes the Croatan Normal School (now UNC Pembroke) to serve Native Americans. But even within Indian communities, education now leads to a divide between so-called “swamp Indians” and “brick-house Indians.”
In the west, tribal leaders establish a Cherokee school.
Among the Lumbee, women achieved power when their men were conscripted. Now, like their white counterparts, they relinquish it—reluctantly.
From the 1890s on, the United Daughters of the Confederacy wages an energetic—and successful—campaign to glorify the exploits of Tarheel Confederate soldiers and to deify generals such as Robert E. Lee. They rewrite school textbooks, erect statues and monuments, stage programs, and print books extolling the Lost Cause. Some see this as returning a sense of manliness and dignity to the thousands maimed by the war, others as racist propaganda.
In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court affirms a “separate but equal” doctrine, thus enshrining segregated “Jim Crow” practices into law—a doctrine that will stand until 1954.
The Fusionist Movement is stopped in its tracks by the white supremacist coup of 1898 in Wilmington, the largest city in the state. Backed by the state democratic “Redeemer” party, a mob of 1,000 armed whites led by ex-Confederate Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell and aided by veterans such as Kenan and Colonel Roger Moore, seize the city government and exile black and white Fusionist leaders, while killing an unknown number of black citizens. Novelist Charles Chestnutt, the African American son of a white Civil War veteran, documents the violence in The Marrow of Tradition. George Rountree, one of many prominent white citizens to participate in the coup, is elected to the legislature, where he authors the so-called “Grandfather Clause,” a devious piece of legislation that allows illiterate whites to vote but that keeps blacks from voting without passing a literacy test, until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-65.
In 1899, a law is enacted segregating railroad car seating.
Charles Brantley Aycock, later to be lauded as a staunch supporter of education during his tenure as governor from 1901-05, supports the white supremacists. So does Josephus Daniels, son of a Confederate shipbuilder from Little Washington. Daniels owns several newspapers, most prominently the Raleigh News and Observer, and is a vigorous proponent of Jim Crow laws. In later life, he comes to regret his earlier bigotry and promotes a more progressive egalitarian state.
George Henry White, the last black North Carolina Congressman until modern times, is driven out in 1901. He famously tells his colleagues in what becomes known as his “Phoenix” speech, “We were driven out, but we are coming back.”
As late as January 18, 1958, the Klan is still terrorizing not only blacks but Indians as well. Under Klan leader James W. “Catfish” Cole, they burn crosses at Lumbee homes and rally in a field near Maxton. Cole asserts that their purpose is “to put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.” But as many as a thousand armed Lumbees descended on the rally, dispersing it.
In many ways, the Civil War, fought at such a cost, was only the beginning of the long struggle for reunion and the hard road toward freedom for African Americans in North Carolina. The war drove the Indian tribes to assert their shared heritage and unify, at the cost of separating more
from the black community. Both freedom and unity are helped along by a series of progressive governors, notably Governor Terry Sanford, a passionate advocate of public education in the 1960s. Public education becomes the most powerful force for both economic security and unity.
The Civil War broke upon a poor state divided by geography, race, class, culture, religion, and politics, in which fully a third of its people were enslaved. It uprooted citizens from their familiar isolated communities and forced them to interact with people from all walks of life across the state and beyond. The materièl of war demanded manufacturing—textiles, armaments, tools, ships, salt. The necessity of moving troops and supplies spurred the development of roads and railroads, linking the cities and the hinterlands for the first time.
It left the white population united in having survived the most cataclysmic struggle of their lives. They were united also in their loss: of loved ones, of material prosperity, of control over their government, of the mores of social class, of certainty.
The African Americans in North Carolina were at last united in freedom, but the full measure of that freedom would not be truly theirs until another century passed. Meanwhile they endured the legal discrimination of the Black Codes, the terrorism of the Klan, and the indignities of the Jim Crow era, all the while struggling to grasp education and opportunity to climb up into the middle class.
With its neighbor, South Carolina, North Carolina rejoined the Union on June 25, 1868. A condition of reunion was ratification by the legislature of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
By the turn of the twentieth century, a state that before the war had been geographically divided, dependent on agriculture, and part of the slave-holding South had become connected, modernized, and industrialized. But it would take even longer for North Carolina to at last offer equal opportunity for all its citizens.
In 2008, North Carolina, which at the start of the Civil War held more than a third of a million African Americans in bondage, cast its 15 electoral votes for Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States of America.
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