Secession and War
Gov. John W. Ellis
On May 20, 1861, the state of North Carolina made the most calamitous decision in its history. Following the states of the Deep South, the Tar Heel state seceded from the Union and joined the war for Southern independence. This act ended in defeat and ruin for North Carolina. More than 40,000 native sons died, thousands more were maimed or diseased, its people were impoverished, and the state's economy and institutions were crippled for years to come. When recovery finally came, North Carolina found itself lagging woefully behind the pace of industrial America.
While the institution of slavery slowed the state's progress, the railroad mania of the 1840s and 1850s brought new avenues for commerce and development. Yet by the 1860s, North Carolina remained an agrarian state, with only two percent of her population living in towns. Yeoman farmers were the majority. Plantation society existed on a relatively small scale, and by 1860 fewer than one third of white North Carolina families owned slaves — and nearly 90 percent of that number owned less than twenty.
The first crisis of the Union ended with the Compromise of 1850 — a political attempt to solve the slavery and territorial controversies that arose after the Mexican War. It was a temporary solution, causing much debate in the South, and merely delayed secession.
Tensions rose anew with the Kansas-Nebraska territory issue, and the rise of the new anti-slavery Republican Party. The Republicans were against expansion of slavery into the territories. This caused alarm in North Carolina and other Southern states, as it left no doubt about Republican opposition to the institution, and to the political influence of the South.
Democrat Franklin Buchanan won the presidential election of 1856, but the slavery issue continued to smolder. The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 by the U.S. Supreme Court — declaring that people of African descent could never be citizens of the United States — reinforced the radical Southern position that the right to expand slavery into the territories should be protected.
In October 1859, John Brown and his anti-slavery gang (including two free blacks from North Carolina) marched into Harper's Ferry, Virginia, hoping to ignite a slave revolt. The insurrection was put down by the U.S. military, and Brown was executed. But the incident fanned the flames of Abolition in the North.
Hinton Rowan Helper
Rumors of insurrectionary plots swept through North Carolina, and slavery critic Hinton Rowan Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South inflamed North Carolinians who sought to impose censorship on the state. Northern anti-slavery newspapers were banned, while North Carolina Abolitionist Daniel Worth, of Guilford County, was arrested (at the insistence of Gov. John W. Ellis) and driven from the state for distributing copies of Helper's book. Helper was a native of North Carolina's western piedmont region.
North Carolina's political establishment was more concerned over Northern anti-slavery forces closer to home than about issues in the territories. Yet in 1860, North Carolina joined other Southern Democrats in supporting John C. Breckinridge for president — on a platform demanding protection of slavery in the territories. At the same time, Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas on a platform of letting the territories decide the issue for themselves.
John Bell was the candidate for the Constitutional Union Party, and a little-known lawmaker from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the anti-slavery Republican party.
To complicate matters even more, North Carolina faced a new internal political dilemma. In August 1860, a rejuvenated state Whig party (with a Unionist platform, advocating equal taxation of slave property, and corruption charges against Buchanan) threatened Democratic dominance in the state. The emergence of the Whigs effectively divided North Carolina, just as the national debate reached its crisis in the fall of 1860.
Democratic Gov. John W. Ellis won re-election — fending off the Whig challenge — but only by a thin margin. As supporters of the central government, North Carolina Whigs (and others in the Upper South) threw their weight behind Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell. By the time of the presidential election in November, the internal conflict in North Carolina had turned sentiment against secession solely on the basis of a Republican victory.
President Abraham Lincoln
When Lincoln won the election of 1860, North Carolina's more radical sister to the south seceded from the Union. But North Carolina Unionists (or conservatives) urged a "watch and wait" policy toward the Republican administration. Zebulon B. Vance, then serving in the U.S. Congress, urged the same caution, hoping the crisis would pass. Even North Carolina's fire-breathers for Southern rights (like Governor Ellis) feared the consequences of the dissolution of the Republic. North Carolina's material and economic gains, on the upswing by 1860, were at risk.
In January 1861, at Ellis's urging, the General Assembly approved the raising of a state military force, as a precautionary measure against attack. In January and February, states in the Deep South quickly followed South Carolina out of the Union. When Virginia seceded in April, North Carolina found itself geographically surrounded by the coming rebellion. Final peace efforts failed, and the Tar Heel state joined the Southern Confederacy.