Wartime North Carolina


The outbreak of the war and the occupation of the coast by Federal forces early on, led to dramatic changes for the people of North Carolina. Black refugees, seeking freedom, flocked to Union lines. White slave owners, with their slave property in tow, sought safety by heading west to the Piedmont. Conscription policies created tensions between the state and the Confederate government. Desertion and discontent became very real problems for Gov. Zebulon Vance. The Union blockade of the coast caused shortages of goods, which were felt across the state, and inflation was rampant. These were the consequences of war, and all of them impacted the civilian population.

Wartime Politics

Edward Stanly
Edward Stanly

The Lincoln administration, once it had a Union beachhead along the coast, attempted to reestablish North Carolina as a loyal state. The president appointed Edward Stanly, a former Whig and native of New Bern, as the military governor. Stanly attempted to control the occupied parts of the state, but not necessarily the citizens of North Carolina, who elected their own governor. Lincoln, Stanly, and Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Union military in North Carolina, incorrectly believed that Unionist sentiment stood ready to sweep the state back into the Union. Beginning in April 1862, Governor Stanly pursued a conservative policy, assuring North Carolinians that Lincoln had no plans to free the enslaved population, and attempting to provide civil government and security in the territory he administered. After a poor voter turnout for U.S. congressional elections on January 1, 1863, Stanly resigned in dismay as the Emancipation Proclamation became an official aim of the administration, and civil government by the Union in eastern North Carolina ceased until 1865.

Though John W. Ellis and Henry T. Clark both served as governor early in the war, politics in North Carolina during the conflict was dominated by the tenure of Gov. Zebulon B. Vance. A popular Buncombe County attorney and legislator, Vance served as colonel of the 26th North Carolina Regiment prior to running for governor in the 1862 election. Vance took office on September 8, 1862 and refused any effort at cooperation with the Union military governor in the east, Edward Stanly. From the beginning, he fought a constant battle to maintain a balance between his support for the Confederacy and his duty to attend to the needs of his state. Furthermore, in the midst of war, Vance had to deal with a peace movement and reelection campaign. The stances that Governor Vance took on all these issues had consequences for North Carolina’s civilian population.

Conscription proved one of the most troublesome issues in the Confederacy and placed Vance in conflict with the Richmond government on many occasions. For example, conscription laws exempted certain persons from service, including some state officials. Vance likely shielded more men from conscription than any other southern governor by interpreting the exemptions very broadly, thereby allowing lower level officials to escape Confederate service. Still, Vance worked diligently to enforce conscription laws and apprehend deserters. Later in the war, he relaxed his standards of exempting state officials and also agreed to allow the Home Guard to serve outside of North Carolina’s borders in an effort to shore up the depleted Confederate forces. This was a significant step, as Home Guard troops were usually young boys and older men who were raised to defend and keep order within the state. They were almost always exempt from service outside of North Carolina.

Confederate conscription policies caused a great deal of tension within the state. Many felt that the conscription policy of the Confederate government was unconstitutional since it forced men to join the army against their will. Many, who had the means to do so, hired substitutes to go in their places. However, the government attempted to conscript some of these men again. State courts defended these men against conscription and eventually the Confederate government relented. Regardless, most North Carolinians could not afford to hire a substitute, and many families saw their husbands, brothers, and sons go off to war without any choice in the matter. This left women, children, and elderly men to tend to the farms and businesses of the state. As the war continued, resentment over conscription grew.

Opposition to conscription policies also produced two types of protest: draft resistance and desertion. Draft resisters simply refused to join the army when called. Many hid out in the swamps of the eastern part of the state or in the mountains. Family members often assisted these men in their efforts to resist. Deserters joined the army, but later left without permission and either returned home or hid like draft resisters. Some whites defiantly showed their opposition to the Confederacy by joining Union regiments raised in Union occupied areas along the coast and in the mountains.

Draft resisters and deserters had various reasons for their actions. Some held Unionist views and disagreed with the war. Some were simply apathetic towards the war effort and felt compelled to stay home to care for their families. Others resented the planter class and felt they were fighting a war so that rich men could keep their enslaved property. Incidents of resistance and desertion were highest in the western Piedmont area known as the Quaker Belt and in the mountains, although instances of both could also be found in the northeastern part of the state.

As the war dragged on, some of these men formed armed bands that preyed on the local civilian population. These lawless groups often perpetrated crimes against civilians and clashed with both Union and Confederate military forces. One instance of this type of activity was the Shelton Laurel Massacre in February 1863. Confederate military forces rounded up and killed a number of men believed to be deserters and Union sympathizers, after the sympathizers had allegedly raided the town of Marshall in Madison County to obtain salt. The sympathizers were reported to have broken into several stores and pillaged the private residence of a Confederate officer. Governor Vance ordered the incident investigated after reports that Confederate Lt. Col. James A. Keith and his force had brutally murdered thirteen old men and young boys without establishing their guilt. Brig. Gen. Henry Heth, who commanded Confederate forces in western North Carolina, allowed Keith to resign his commission on grounds of incompetence, but Keith was not further punished for the incident at Shelton Laurel.

Vance and many other North Carolinians certainly felt slighted by the lack of opportunity for the state’s military leaders. North Carolina provided approximately 125,000 troops to the Confederacy, more than any other southern state, and also suffered the most casualties of any state in the Confederacy, including over 40,000 dead. Despite supplying the largest number of troops to the cause, the Old North State was underrepresented in the officer corps, with only thirty-seven generals in the army.

Aside from these military slights in the field of battle, Vance became agitated with Confederate appointments of outsiders to certain posts within the state. The Confederate medical director at Raleigh was from Maryland and a South Carolinian was appointed to oversee the Salisbury Prison. Particularly vexing to Vance was the appointment of Col. Thomas P. August, a Virginian, to oversee the conscription of soldiers in North Carolina.

Blockade Running

Blockade Runner
Blockade Runner — Typical style of vessel used
to run the blockade at Cape Fear

One of Vance’s greatest successes as governor was his initiation of state-sponsored blockade running. Blockade running was a financial venture whereby government owned and privately held ships eluded the Union blockade and smuggled goods, both military and consumer, into the Confederacy. Wilmington became the favorite southern port for blockade runners as other southern ports were gradually closed by the Union.

The state-owned blockade runner Advance made eight successful runs between Bermuda and Wilmington between July 1863 and August 1864. The state also owned 25percent interest in four other blockade runners owned by Alexander Collie and Company of England. Through successful blockade running and skillful management of smuggled goods, North Carolina’s soldiers were likely the best equipped in the army. Vance did more than any other southern governor to bring supplies into the Confederacy from Europe and later recounted that North Carolina’s blockade running enterprise accounted for

Large quantities of machinery supplies; 60,000 pairs of handcards; 10,000 grain scythes; 200 bbls. blue stone for wheat-growers; leather and shoes to 250,000 pairs, 50,000 blankets, gray woolen cloth for at least 250,000 suits of uniforms, 12,000 overcoats (ready made), 2,000 best Enfield rifles (with 100 rounds of fixed ammunition), 100,000 pounds of bacon; 500 sacks of coffee for hospital use, $50,000 worth of medicines at gold prices, large quantities of lubricating oils, besides minor supplies of various kinds for the charitable institutions of the State. Not only was the supply of shoes, blankets and clothing more than sufficient for the supply of North Carolina troops, but large quantities were turned over to the Confederate government for the troops of other states.

But even this endeavor brought him into conflict with the Confederate administration in Richmond. A prime example of this conflict occurred in January 1864 when the Confederate government tried to claim one-third of the space on the private vessel Don, then docked at Wilmington. Don was one of the vessels jointly owned by the state and Alexander Collie and Company. Vance argued that such Confederate interference reduced the owners’ profits and incentive to participate in blockade running.

Wartime Hardships

Though blockade running was crucial in supplying North Carolina’s troops in the field, the Union blockade left the civilian population drastically undersupplied in daily necessities. Even though the blockade was only partially effective for most of the war, the state and Confederate governments wanted to ensure that the majority of cargo being imported via blockade running was military supplies. Therefore, many civilian goods became scarce, if available at all. As the blockade became more effective towards the end of the war, the goods became even harder to get. Because goods were scarce, prices soared. Between 1862 and 1865 the price of a barrel of flour rose from $18 to $500. Corn, the staple of the southern diet, increased from $1 per bushel to $30 per bushel. The need to clothe soldiers also created a scarcity of textiles. State and Confederate issued paper money was almost worthless, because there was no hard specie (i.e. gold or silver) behind it. This made the purchase of goods even more difficult. Merchants did not want to accept Confederate paper money as payment for goods because they were not ensured of being able to exchange that money for hard specie at face value.

This scarcity of goods and the absence of men forced civilians and the government to become creative in seeking solutions to problems. One of the most important products of the day was salt. Salt was used to preserve meat, and, without it, feeding the army would have been difficult. The state established a salt works at Wilmington to distill salt from seawater, and numerous private operations sprang up all over the coast to help supply the state as well as private citizens. Many of these salt works eventually became targets of Union military operations.

Women were often left to manage family farms or plantations, while others tried to find work where they could in order to help support their families. Some worked as nurses in hospitals, while others worked in shops making clothing and bandages or manufacturing ammunition for the soldiers. A number of counties tried to provide as much aid as possible to destitute women and children. Some women took quasi-political action, participating in bread riots in Salisbury and Raleigh. On countless occasions, poor men and women petitioned Vance for relief from high prices and shortages and threatened violence as an alternative. Such instances occurred even in Bladen County, an area of the state that was very supportive of the Confederacy. Hardships endured by the civilian population, along with other factors, led to various forms of population upheaval within the state.

Population Upheavals

Numbers of enslaved people took the opportunity afforded by early Union victories in eastern North Carolina to run away from their masters and find safety and freedom inside the Union lines. Once under Union protection, formerly enslaved African Americans continued their journey toward freedom. Refugee camps or Freedmen’s Colonies, established by the military, grew at Roanoke Island and at New Bern. Women and children attended schools, men discussed politics, and families went to their own churches together. In the refugee camps, blacks built upon existing political and communal networks to create a forceful vision of the meaning of freedom. Before the Lincoln administration’s gradual embrace of emancipation, African Americans in North Carolina refugee camps demanded full equality in politics and military service. Eventually, former slaves were recruited to serve in the four regiments of U. S. Colored Troops that were raised in North Carolina.

Union officials in eastern North Carolina, particularly around New Bern, also found themselves helping poor southern whites who came into the Union lines looking for assistance as well as whites seeking to serve the Union cause.

Many white planters in the coastal plain, particularly in those areas under Union occupation, moved their families, farming operations, and slave property inland to areas that were securely held by the Confederates. Josiah Collins of Somerset Place moved his family to Hillsborough and started farming at a plantation called Hurry Scurry. This put quite a bit of financial stress on the family and its resources. The Collins family hired out a number of their slaves to help build fortifications around Wilmington, illustrating that black labor was very important to the state’s war efforts. Many enslaved persons were put to work in aid of the Confederacy, in effect furthering the goals of those who sought to keep them enslaved.

Some enslaved persons, free blacks, and white women took part in the subversive activity of espionage. Abraham Galloway, a free person of color, served as a spy for the Union in coastal North Carolina. Rose O’Neal Greenhow of Wilmington and Emeline Pigott of Carteret County both served as spies for the Confederacy. Spying was dangerous work, and both Greenhow and Pigott suffered the consequences of their actions. Greenhow drowned in the ocean off Fort Fisher while trying to make it to shore in a small boat, after the blockade runner on which she was a passenger went aground. Pigott was captured and imprisoned in New Bern for a short time before being released due to lack of evidence.

The Peace Movement

Because the term of governor in North Carolina was only two years, Vance faced a reelection campaign in 1864, which was made more difficult by the emergence of a peace movement within the state. The peace movement was led by former Vance supporter turned political opponent, William W. Holden. Supporters of the peace movement wanted North Carolina to negotiate a separate peace with the Federal government, something Vance refused to consider. In order to win the election, Vance knew that he would have to demonstrate his support for the Confederacy to keep the conservatives happy, while showing peace movement supporters that he was not a servant of the Richmond government. This was the great dilemma of Vance’s tenure as governor, played out in his campaign for reelection.

Vance highlighted a number of issues in order to placate both sides of the political spectrum. For the conservatives, he highlighted his cooperation with Confederate policies on conscription and dealing with deserters, support for the war effort, and overall concern for North Carolina’s troops in the field. To defuse the peace movement, he demonstrated his repeated disagreements with the Richmond administration on suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, his defense of North Carolina citizens against Confederate impressments of supplies, and his pre-war anti-secessionist views.

Peace advocates opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, impressment, tax-in-kind legislation, and conscription, denouncing these laws as unjust and unconstitutional. When possible they evaded or refused to obey them. The best developed of the peace societies was the Order of the Heroes of America, which was active in North Carolina.

As Confederate morale declined, the strength of the peace parties increased despite efforts by the Confederate military to suppress them. Their influence played a strong role in the Confederate Congress’ reluctance to suspend habeas corpus for extended periods and also boosted support for peace advocates in government. Their protection of deserters and conscripts denied the army thousands of able-bodied men when they were critically needed.

Always a masterful politician, Vance successfully appealed to both factions and won reelection by a wide margin. Following his reelection, Vance sensed that the Confederacy’s days were numbered. He continued to run the state as efficiently as possible. He exerted all of his power and influence in support of the Confederacy. He rounded up deserters, arranged for provisions and supplies for the army, and continued normal governmental functions. He halted many of these efforts only when it became clear that the Federal army was advancing on the state. Vance ensured that all of the state government papers were moved to safekeeping in advance of the arrival of enemy troops. He worked tirelessly to sustain the Confederacy, in an effort to maintain his credibility and personal honor as well as that of the State of North Carolina.

Politics, military operations, and Union occupation of much of the coastal plain combined to cause great hardships to the citizens of North Carolina, black and white, enslaved and free. These hardships, in turn, caused a tremendous amount of upheaval amongst the population. Families were torn apart as men went off to war. Others were forced to relocate to avoid danger or persecution. Some enslaved people escaped to freedom, while others remained in bondage throughout the conflict. Many people took on vastly different roles in society than those to which they were accustomed. In one way or another, the war affected everyone in the state.