The Road to Secession

Antebellum Society and Politics

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

North Carolina waited longer than any other state except Tennessee to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. This is not to say that the Old North State had no secessionists. Rather, North Carolinians had conflicting ideas about leaving the Union. Although staunch supporters of the institution of slavery, many North Carolinians hesitated when it came to taking such a significant step as secession. Some felt it better to stay in the Union and enjoy the Constitutional protections offered there, rather than give up those protections to embark on a new journey. However, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln asked for troops from North Carolina to put down the rebellion, the state acted swiftly and decisively. North Carolina seceded from the Union on May 20, 1861, and the state's involvement in the Civil War began. The following narrative details North Carolina's antebellum political, economic, and social circumstances that led up to this decision.

Antebellum North Carolina

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, North Carolina became more vibrant and progressive. Largely due to a number of political reforms and internal improvements promoted by the dominant Whig Party, it finally began to emerge from the political, social, and economic stagnation that earned it the reputation as the "Rip Van Winkle" state. Western politicians and business leaders had lobbied for many of the changes for years. In order to institute this much needed change, the state constitution, adopted in 1776 and which limited the power of the assembly, needed to be amended or replaced. Prominent citizens David Swain of Asheville and William Gaston of New Bern led the delegates at the 1835 Constitutional Convention. The convention structured representation in the state legislature in a way that pleased both easterners and westerners. Easterners retained an advantage by keeping representation in the Senate based on wealth. Only those who owned fifty or more acres of land could vote for Senators. Westerners obtained relief by having representation in the House based on county population. The governor would be directly elected by the voters instead of being selected by the legislature. The new constitution allowed Catholics in the state to hold office, but continued to deny the right to Jews and atheists. At the same time, however, it removed suffrage from free blacks and Native Americans. This was but one more move toward clamping down on the rights of free blacks in the wake of insurrections such as the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831. Insurrections fueled Southern fears of northern abolitionist movements which advocated slave rebellions and runaway activity.

In the 1830s and 1840s, North Carolina was a two party state. Democrats, led by Nathaniel Macon, controlled most of the eastern part of the state, while Whigs, led by Archibald Murphey and John Motley Morehead, held sway in the west. Whigs gained control of the state after 1840 and pushed for public education and internal improvements. They created the state's first public school system in 1839. By 1845, every county had at least one school. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill continued to thrive. Under David Swain's leadership, it tripled its enrollment and expanded its curriculum. Many of the state's religious denominations also founded colleges during this time period, including Davidson College in 1837 by the Presbyterians, Baptist Literary Institute in 1834 (later Wake Forest College), New Garden Boarding School in 1837 by the Quakers (later Guilford College), and Trinity College in 1838 by the Methodists (later Duke University). Each major denomination also established a college for women in the 1840s, including Greensboro Female College (Methodist), St. Mary's in Raleigh (Episcopalian), Salem Female Academy (Moravian), and Chowan Baptist Female Institute.

Railroads were the primary form of internal improvements during the antebellum period, with more than $1 million in state funds committed to construction. The first state-sponsored lines were the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and the Raleigh & Gaston line. Later, the North Carolina Railroad, begun in 1849 and completed in 1856, made an enormous impact on the state. This railroad connected the western counties with the rest of the state, eventually running from Charlotte to Goldsboro, stopping at many points in between. The North Carolina Railroad unified the state in a number of ways. It ended the west's isolation, allowing people and supplies to move across the state with ease. Improved transportation expanded agriculture and encouraged Piedmont farmers to grow surplus crops, which could be shipped to eastern markets at lower costs. Towns grew up along the railroad, as well as businesses, factories, and trade, further diversifying North Carolina's economy. Towns that were bypassed by the railroads often tried to make up the difference by building plank roads that would connect them to railroad towns.

The enthusiasm for education and railroads continued well into the 1850s, but the two-party system gradually changed. The Whig Party dissolved on a national level. Still, westerners and some Tidewater residents continued to vote for former Whigs in state elections. By the 1850s, however, the Democrats had regained control and were steering North Carolina's course. Democrats continued many of the reforms of the 1830s. They also supported reforms not always advocated by Whigs, including universal white manhood suffrage.

Gold mining, as an industry, developed after the first recorded discovery of gold in North America in 1799 at the farm of John Reed (Reed Gold Mine) in Cabarrus County. By the 1820s and 1830s, mining became firmly established and continued to grow in North Carolina. By 1837, the federal government, recognizing North Carolina's importance to the industry, established a branch of the U. S. Mint at Charlotte. Textile mills emerged in the 1840s as an important industry in the state. Leaders in these endeavors included the Battle family of Rocky Mount and the Holt family of Burlington. Textile operations also developed along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries.

Agriculture in Antebellum North Carolina

Despite this growth in manufacturing and industry, the state's economy was still primarily based on agriculture. By the 1850s, North Carolina had developed two cash crops, tobacco and cotton, which drove the state's economy. The development of bright leaf tobacco resulted in a huge increase in tobacco production from 12 million pounds in 1850 to 33 million pounds in 1860. During this same period, cotton production nearly doubled to 145,000 bales. Farmers grew other crops, such as wheat, corn, and rice, but these were grown as staple crops and did not bring in high profits like cotton and tobacco. Other commodities such as timber and naval stores rounded out North Carolina's agricultural contributions to the economy.

Despite this increased agricultural production, North Carolina never developed an extensive plantation system quite like that of her neighbor states, South Carolina and Virginia. In 1860, more than two-thirds of the farms in the state contained fewer than one hundred acres, where the owner and his family did the majority of the labor. If financially able, they may have purchased a few enslaved people to work along side them. However, a closer look at the social classes in North Carolina reveals that while the majority of white people did not enslave people, one-third of the population was enslaved. (MAP: North Carolina Slave Population by County in 1860 - PDF)

Social Classes in Antebellum North Carolina

Josiah Collins III
Josiah Collins III

By 1860, there were six fairly distinct social classes in North Carolina. The gentry or planter class consisted of owners of large plantations with more than twenty enslaved individuals, high public officials, and well-to-do professional men, such as lawyers, doctors, and business leaders. Although smallest, with only about 6 percent of the white population, this class controlled much of the state's government and business and included men such as Josiah Collins, III of Somerset Place at Creswell and Paul Cameron of Stagville plantation near present-day Durham. With their large enslaved populations, Somerset and Stagville were exceptions rather than the rule. In 1860, 28% of the white population enslaved people, but only 3% of these slave-holding whites would have been considered in the planter class. The vast majority of slave-owners enslaved fewer than ten people.

The 25% of slave-owning whites that did not belong to the planter class belonged to the middle class. This group was made up of small merchants and manufacturers, lesser public officials, professional men of moderate income, and small farmers enslaving fewer than twenty individuals and more likely owning only one or two. Examples of men in the middle class included John Harper of Bentonville and Zebulon Vance of Asheville. This middle class held many of the same ideals of the gentry and even aspired to move into that higher class.

John Harper
John Harper

The remainder of the white population, sometimes classified together as common whites, made up the third and fourth social classes. The yeomen farmer/skilled labor class was the largest white class in North Carolina. It constituted about 60%-65% of the white population. The yeoman farmers were smaller land owners who farmed their land independently. They did not enslave people and grew crops or raised livestock for their own use, with any surplus going to settle debts or barter for goods. Others in this class included naval stores workers, miners, mechanics, overseers, artisans, and tradesmen. James Bennett of Orange County was a good example of a Piedmont yeoman farmer. Generally satisfied with their lot in life, these folks had a decent standard of living and, in terms of political rights, had a status equal to the higher classes. A few may have envied those in the gentry, but most admired them and aspired to be like them.

Approximately 5%-10% of the white population fell into the fourth class. Poor whites were landless tenant farmers and poor laborers who went from job to job as available. The majority of this class was illiterate and performed the lowest level of jobs. Although excluded from the ranks of the social, political, and economic elite, poor whites, like yeomen, supported the basic social hierarchy established by the planter class because it protected their position as higher than that of the enslaved. Many common whites not only verbally supported the institution of slavery, they also served on slave patrols and county militias that guarded against revolts and tracked down freedom seekers. When the time came for war, this class filled the Confederate ranks and fought to defend the very system that kept them at the bottom of the white social order.

North Carolina had a rather large population of free African Americans - 30,463 in 1860 - who constituted the fifth social class. Approximately 10% of the black population fell into this category. The most sizable free black communities were in Wilmington, New Bern, and Halifax. Over two-thirds of this class was mulatto, that is, persons of mixed race. Although some blacks traced their freedom back to the Revolution, or even before, most obtained liberty from manumission or emancipation by their owner. In the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion and fears of other insurrections, freedom by emancipation became more difficult by mid-century, with new laws restricting where formerly enslaved people could live and setting high costs to the owner for freeing them. Some enslaved people purchased their own freedom or freedom for family members.

Being a free black in North Carolina was better than being enslaved, but there were still many restrictions and much discrimination against them. Common whites saw free blacks as direct competition for jobs and trade, leading to even more tension between the races. Increasing legal restrictions prevented true freedom of movement by free blacks and prohibited their associations with enslaved blacks. Despite these restrictions, many free blacks, such as skilled cabinet maker Thomas Day of Caswell County or businessman John Caruthers Stanly of New Bern, lived productive lives. Some, like Stanly, even enslaved poeple themselves, often, but not always, family members. Other free blacks farmed, much like their counterpart white yeoman farmers.

The sixth and lowest social class was that of the enslaved persons. Enslaved individuals made up nearly one-third of the state's total population in 1860. Most served as agricultural labor on farms and plantations. They were found in every county in the state, with a greater concentration in the eastern areas that had the most suitable soil for growing cash crops, especially cotton. Some businessmen simply saw slavery as an investment, a place to put their capital, which would increase in value. Owning slaves was a sign of wealth, prestige, and power in the entire South and in North Carolina, both east and west. Western counties that produced fewer cash crops had fewer slaves. Although the mountain climate and terrain prevented the development of large plantations, such as those in the eastern part of the state, slavery was, nevertheless, a vital part of the mountain economy. The major distinction in slavery in the west was the diversity of economic activity it supported. Enslaved men and women often worked alongside the mountain farmer/owner, in thriving tourist businesses such as hotels and resorts, in mines, and in livestock endeavors.

The Life of a Slave

Living Historians portraying enslaved life at Somerset Plantation
Living Historians portraying
enslaved life at Somerset

Slavery, by its very nature was dehumanizing, as people were considered property and their worth was primarily valued by the amount of work they could do. Most slave owners provided the mere basics for their slaves, as any extra consideration would cut into their profit margin. The average slave dwelling was very basic, usually rough log, one-room houses with dirt floors and a fireplace for heating and cooking. Most windows contained no glass, only a wooden shutter to close out harsh elements of rain, wind, and cold. There were exceptions, such as the housing at Horton Grove on Stagville plantation, where Paul Cameron provided some of his slaves with two-story, four room quarters, with wood floors. These buildings housed four families, with each family getting one room. Despite being crowded, these dwellings were nonetheless considered of higher standard than most houses for the enslaved population.

Owners usually provided the most basic food rations, including some meat - usually fat pork – cornmeal, and molasses. Enslaved people often supplemented this meager diet with vegetables grown in a community or household garden, which they tended only after their day's labor for the owner was completed. Slaves also improved their diet by hunting and fishing when possible.

Even within the enslaved community, there was a social hierarchy. On large plantations, the personal servants, household servants, slave drivers, and black overseers held a higher status than the vast majority of slaves that worked in the fields. Owners sometimes allowed enslaved craftsmen and artisans more freedom of movement than others. Slaves who worked the naval stores industry and maritime trades had tremendous freedom but were nonetheless, by all legal accounts, still enslaved. Some owners even allowed well trusted slaves permission to travel and visit family members on nearby plantations or towns. At Somerset Place, Josiah Collins granted a holiday so that several of his slaves could travel to Edenton to visit family. Enslaved people in the western part of the state often led livestock over long drives to market in South Carolina and Georgia. This relative independence stands in sharp contrast to the tight control by overseers over field hands on large plantations. One might wonder why slaves simply did not leave and never return if they were granted such freedom of movement. Many did. Even those held under tight control on eastern plantations made attempts to escape. Records of runaways and the efforts employed by slave owners to secure their return are part of the historical record. Many slaves escaped via the waterways and swamps of eastern North Carolina but it was a frightening and treacherous journey filled with threats from man and nature. The story of Harriet Jacobs of Edenton highlights what one woman would endure in her quest for freedom. She not only secured her freedom in 1842 but wrote about it and published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861.

The Great Barn
The Great Barn - built by
enslaved craftsmen at
Stagville Plantation in 1860

Discipline and punishment within the institution of slavery was varied. Certainly there were despicable slave owners who whipped and abused their slaves without conscience. The majority most likely did not treat their slaves in a brutal fashion. After all, enslaved people were legally considered property and it was in their owners' best interests to keep them healthy enough to work. Nevertheless, even the kindest master could resort to harsh disciplinary measures when necessary, in order to maintain control of his or her labor force. Whipping was often used as a means of punishment and also as a means of intimidating others to behave and work diligently lest they be whipped next. As the voices of abolitionists in the North grew louder, white southern fears of slave revolts grew stronger, causing owners to exercise ever more control over their property.

Perhaps the most effective means for controlling the enslaved population was simply the threat of being "sold South." Demand for slaves in the lower South grew with the expansion of cotton cultivation at a far greater pace than in North Carolina. A very active slave trade developed between the upper and lower South after the international slave trade ended in 1808. Between 1830 and 1860, North Carolina exported about 100,000 slaves to states in the lower South. Such sales often resulted in the break up of an enslaved family. In fact the dissolution of families was one of the hardest circumstances of a slave's life. This is evident in the poetry of George Moses Horton, a Chatham County slave who wrote and sold poems to students at the University of North Carolina. Changes that occurred in the master's life, such as marriage, death, or simply relocating, often had ripple effects on the lives of enslaved property. If the master suffered an economic or financial crisis, he often quickly sold off some of his slaves to obtain ready cash. Thus, for the enslaved, there was no guarantee each morning that they would see their loved ones later that night.

Political Response to Slavery

Such horrors had caused the issue of slavery to be a hotly debated issue throughout the nation's history. The United States government went to great lengths to try to pacify both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions within the country. This resulted in a series of compromises that began with the Three-Fifths Compromise in the United States Constitution, but the debates became more heated beginning in 1820. In that year the Missouri Compromise was passed, maintaining the balance between slave states and free states. Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state and, as a counterbalance, Maine was admitted as a free state. From that point forward all territory below the line of 36° 30' was to be slave and all territory above it free. This proved to be a temporary compromise, as the expansion of the United States into the southwest territories resurrected this balance of power issue.

In North Carolina, the two major antebellum political parties, Whigs and Democrats, spearheaded the defense of slavery and southern rights. Though both parties agreed that southern rights should be defended, each approached that defense in its own way. Further, each argued that its method of defending southern rights was the best, and that the opposing party was not doing the job effectively. The political defense of southern rights came to the forefront in the 1840s and 1850s.

President James K. Polk
President James K. Polk

In 1844, James K. Polk became President. A Democrat from Tennessee, he was born and spent much of his childhood in North Carolina. Polk campaigned on an expansionist platform that invoked questions of slavery and its extension into new territories. Shortly after taking office, he signed a bill to organize the Oregon Territory, and North Carolina's Democrats supported it. Whigs, however, attacked the bill, saying it was hostile to southern rights because it excluded slavery from the territory. Democrats argued that they expected few, if any, slave owners to move to the territory and that it lay well north of the 36° 30' line set by the Missouri Compromise.

The annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846-1848) proved to be even more important in the slavery debate. Democrats cheered President Polk's decisions to annex Texas and subsequently go to war with Mexico, while the Whigs felt that the war was nothing more than Democratic imperialism. Though the two parties disagreed on these issues, northern efforts to limit slavery in the new territories acquired from Mexico forced each party to focus on the defense of slavery and southern rights. The Democrats chose to fight against the Wilmot Proviso, a provision, which northern Congressman David Wilmot attached to a war funding bill. The proviso outlawed slavery in any territory acquired as a result of the war. The proposed legislation divided the Congress along sectional lines. Northern Democrats and Whigs supported the proviso while southern Democrats and Whigs opposed it and agreed that disallowing the expansion of slavery into the territories was a denial of southern rights and put southern whites on an unequal footing with northerners. Some North Carolina Whigs opposed the acquisition of territory altogether in order to avoid the inevitable conflict over the expansion of slavery.

Though both parties portrayed themselves as the defenders of southern rights and southern equality, the Whigs gained the upper hand in the election of 1848. The party nominated Zachary Taylor, a retired general and one of the heroes of the Mexican War. Taylor, a Louisiana plantation owner, supported the Whig view in the debate over the defense of southern rights. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, a northerner that the Whigs portrayed as a supporter of the Wilmot Proviso and the choice of the abolitionists. With Taylor's election as president, the Whigs supported the extension of the Missouri Compromise line at 30º 30' to the Pacific Ocean and opposed legislation to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Throughout the late 1840s and early 1850s, North Carolina Whigs enjoyed much greater success than did the national party and continued their strong support of President Taylor's policies.

After the discovery of gold in California, the limits on the expansion of slavery set by the Missouri Compromise became apparent once again. As settlers poured into the territory, the petition for statehood came earlier than many anticipated. And once again the question regarding slavery reared its ugly head. To settle the issue, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. The compromise called for California to enter the nation as a free state and the Utah and New Mexico territories to be created, allowing the question of slavery therein to be decided by popular sovereignty. The institution of slavery was given the protection of a stronger fugitive slave law nationally, which required all Americans to return escaped slaves to their masters. A final provision of the Compromise of 1850 abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Throughout the 1850s, southerners continued to be wary of northern politicians' abolitionist sentiments and the threat imposed on southern rights by the federal government. The slavery issue simply would not be put to rest. As settlers moved into the mid-west, the need for territorial governments arose. In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced legislation to create the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Despite the fact that both of these territories lay north of the Missouri Compromise line, the bill declared that popular sovereignty would decide the question of allowing slavery or not, just as in Utah and New Mexico. This, in effect, negated the Missouri Compromise. Northern abolitionists were outraged and vowed to block any territory that appealed for admission as a slave state. Antislavery and pro-slavery forces battled in Kansas with such violence that the territory earned the nickname "Bleeding Kansas." In the end, pro-slavery forces met in Lecompton, Kansas, drafted a state constitution and appealed for admission to the Union as a slave state. Congress rejected this bid and southerners realized that the northern states held the greater power. The South felt more and more threatened.

This issue also threatened the national Whig party. The northern arm of the Whigs became more antislavery and less concerned with keeping the party together by compromising ideals to satisfy the southern arm. This resulted in an official break in 1854, with the establishment of a new political party that only existed in the free states – the Republican Party. The Republican Party drew antislavery Whigs and Democrats as members.

The Rise of Abolitionist Movements and Southern Reactions

Hinton Rowan Helper
Hinton Rowan Helper

Although most North Carolinians supported slavery, a significant portion of the population was either ambivalent about the institution or firmly on the side of the abolitionists. The Quakers in the Piedmont had always opposed slaveholding and, as early as 1816, had formed the North Carolina Manumission Society to raise money to purchase slaves and give them their freedom. The University of North Carolina dismissed Prof. Benjamin Hedrick from his position because he openly supported Republican John C. Frémont for the presidency in 1856. Hedrick not only lost his job but was also run out of the state because of his anti-slavery views. In 1857, the publication The Impending Crisis of the South, written by Hinton Rowan Helper of Davie County, inflamed the proslavery advocates in North Carolina. Helper argued that slavery should be abolished because it was detrimental to the livelihood of the poor white population in the region. According to Helper, the South would continue to be backward and lag economically as long as slavery existed. Like Hedrick, Helper soon realized that he was not welcome in North Carolina because of his views. Despite the significant abolitionist sentiment in the state, slavery had become a thoroughly entrenched and defended institution in North Carolina by the late 1830s, and this stance grew ever stronger as the next two decades passed.

Two other events drove home the fears of southerners that a federal government dominated by northerners, Republicans, and abolitionists would strain the bonds of union to the breaking point. In 1857, the decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford stated that Congress did not have the authority to forbid slavery in the territories and that a slave could not sue in court. Furthermore slaveholders could not be denied their property without due process of law. Southerners were elated at this decision, but Republicans in Congress refused to accept the ruling. They continued to thwart efforts to expand slavery into the territories, and southerners saw that even the Supreme Court could not protect their rights. Later, in 1859, a more frightening event took place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. An abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal located there, in an attempt to seize guns and arm slaves for insurrection. Federal troops responded to the threat and captured Brown, who was later tried and hanged. This made Brown a martyr for the northern abolitionist cause and filled southerners with fear of further rebellions. In North Carolina, stricter control over the enslaved population was instituted to protect slaveholder property rights and guard against threats of violence to the white population in general. The fear and intimidation that southerners felt was only to get worse as a result of the upcoming elections.

The Presidential Election of 1860 and Its Aftermath

The presidential election of 1860 proved to be cataclysmic for the United States. North Carolina split its votes in the election almost evenly between the Southern Democrat, John C. Breckenridge, and the Constitutional Union Party candidate, John Bell. Democrat Stephen A. Douglas received minimal votes in North Carolina and Republican Abraham Lincoln received none, as he did not appear on the ballot. Though Breckenridge ran second in the general election, he fell far behind Lincoln, who became the sixteenth president of the United States. This sent shock waves through North Carolina and the entire South. The rise of the Republican Party to power in both the presidency and in Congress jeopardized the institution of slavery, and many in the South felt secession was their only recourse.

Immediately following Lincoln's election, North Carolina's Unionists proved influential in defeating a motion by North Carolina Gov. John W. Ellis to hold a secession convention. The Old North State adopted what was called the "Watch and Wait" policy to see if Lincoln could find a peaceful solution to the divisiveness and sectionalism plaguing the country. Though Unionists supported the federal government initially, they did not want to see any harm done to the institution of slavery or military action taken against any southern state. In the meantime, on December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded. Shortly after, six other southern states, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi, joined South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America. The Union was finally broken over the issue of slavery but North Carolina remained reluctant to leave it.

North Carolina's fate was sealed on April 12, 1861, when troops in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter as the Union was attempting to resupply the garrison there. President Lincoln called for volunteers from every state still in the Union to "put down the rebellion." With that call for troops, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee left the Union, refusing to bear arms against their fellow southerners. North Carolina held its secession convention on May 20, 1861 and joined the Confederacy the next day. The groundwork for this decision, laid in the early part of the century had at last culminated in a complete rending of our union.