The Civil War in North Carolina


As new President Abraham Lincoln was giving his inauguration speech on March 4, 1861, a storm cloud hovered over the nation he was preparing to lead. For at least a decade before that day, the country had been split in half, North against South, quarreling over a way of living that some called a necessity and others called atrocious. In North Carolina, the storm had already erupted-politician fought against citizen; conservatives fought with liberals. From the beginning of 1856 and the Republican Party, North Carolina fought its own civil war. This is the story of how the division of a nation and the disunity of a state caused a period of complete demoralization and collapse in North Carolina.

Political and Economic Conditions of NC in 1860 - The Road to Secession - War in North Carolina - African Americans in the Civil War - The South Surrenders - War After Peace

Political and Economic Conditions of NC in 1860

Slavery had become an accepted way of life for most southern states by the 1850s. In North Carolina particularly, cotton and tobacco farmers used slave labor during planting and harvest. Managers of commerce, mining and other businesses also utilized slaves for heavy and dangerous work. All of these slave owners became nervous after the election of President James Polk in 1845. During conversations involving the annexation of Texas, Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania proposed the Wilmot Proviso, which required states annexed to the country after 1845 to be territories without slavery. Many of the southern slave states demanded a compromise.

In 1850, President Filmore gave the South its compromise by maintaining slavery in the District of Columbia and making punishment of fugitive slaves more severe. Although the compromise conceded to slave owners, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi began conspiring to leave the Union. North Carolinians did not join this conspiracy, because the Union provided them a certain amount of security they could not get on their own.

The birth of the Republican Party in 1856 made all North Carolinians nervous, as the party promised that states added to the Union would be free states. Democrat James Buchanan's victory in the first Democrat-Whig-Republican contest quelled some of their fears until Kansas was admitted as a free state.

The slave revolt of October 16, 1859 at Harpers Ferry ignited a new controversy. John Brown, the leader of the revolt, and his followers were quickly overcome by Colonel Robert E. Lee's army, and Brown was eventually executed. Antislavery proponents in the North used this incident to grow support for the Republican Party.

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The Road to Secession

Even though many North Carolinians discussed the possibility of leaving the Union if a Republican president were elected, the majority rejected it. However, the October 1860 Republican nomination of Abraham Lincoln against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Whig John C. Breckinridge revived their nervousness. The election results in November increased the possibility of southern secession.

As South Carolina and lower southern states began forming their own Confederate Union, North Carolinians were divided on whether to remain with the Union or join their southern neighbors. Most North Carolinians did not want to leave the economic security the Union gave them, and a public vote on a possible convention caused a clear split in sentiments. Residents who wanted to stay in the Union accused South Carolina of trying to start a war. Secessionists, including Governor Ellis, claimed that the Republicans were intent on abolishing slavery and forecasted revolts and destruction.

Although the February election on the convention clearly indicated that most North Carolinians rejected secession, the majority stipulated that their final decision on whether or not to stay in the Union rested on President Lincoln's attitude toward the seceded states. If Lincoln forced the southern states back into the Union or raised up arms against them, they reasoned that they would have no choice but to leave the Union.

North Carolinians watched as more and more southern states left the Union. Virginia left, then Arkansas, then Tennessee. The separated states formed the Confederate States of America, creating their own flag, electing Jefferson Davis as their president and printing their own money. Undecided, North Carolina's governor waited until the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and President Lincoln issued a formal declaration of war. On May 20, 1861, North Carolina joined her neighbor states, the last of the southern states to join the Confederacy.

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War in North Carolina

With an army about half the size of the Union army, North Carolina's generals did their best to hold Union soldiers from devastating the state. After four years of fighting and hundreds of thousands of human losses, Fort Fisher fell on January 15, 1965, closing Wilmington and the Confederacy's last major blockade-running seaport. General William Sherman began his attack on North Carolina in February. President Davis chose General Joseph E. Johnston to lead North Carolina and Tennessee's armies, although he and Johnston had no love for each other. Johnston knew his armies did not have the strength to tackle Sherman's vast army, and at best he hoped for a compromise.

Even though Johnston eventually had the assistance of General Braxton Bragg and his North Carolina troops, at the battle of Averasboroughthe two armies reached only a stalemate with the Union army of Bvt. Maj. General Judson Kilpatrick and retreated.

After resting in Smithfield for several days, Johnston decided to attack Sherman's army as Sherman waited for reinforcements from General Schofield. However, both the Confederates and the Union armies had a disadvantage-the maps they possessed were long out of date, and both generals misjudged distances and access roads, cheating Johnston's army out of time that the general had anticipated they would have to prepare.

By the time Sherman's army arrived at Bentonville, the Confederates had not been waiting long. Johnston hoped his offensive would do two things: allow him time to evacuate his wounded and boost his army's sinking morale. However, after an intense attack by Sherman's army, Johnston's army sustained over 3,000 casualties, and Sherman finally halted the fighting. Johnston and his army retreated that night.

On April 11, 1865, Johnston received news that General Lee had surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox. Knowing that the Southern cause was all but lost, Johnston withheld the news from his men, intending to surrender to Sherman under good terms. Governor Zebulon Vance, who before this time had committed neither to continuing nor surrendering, decided to send a flag of truce to Sherman but ordered Johnston to evacuate Raleigh to prevent decimation of the city.

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African Americans in the Civil War

The Civil War created turmoil for everyone in the States, northerner and southerner, free and slave. Southern African Americans, most of whom were slaves, suddenly found what little security they had vanishing completely. The war touched the black experience in ways that inspired both hope and fear. Some black southerners would realize a taste of freedom they would not otherwise have known. Others found their terror and distrust more of a reality.

Slavery in North Carolina varied from that in other states in the Union. Many blacks worked as labor on farms, including those for cotton, rice, hogs and tobacco, and others were artisans and skilled laborers. The slave communities on the coast and at some of the larger plantations, like Somerset Place, represented many skilled trades. Coastal slaves, for instance, were shipbuilders, sailors, fishermen, and tradesmen. In addition, because of their constant contact with seamen from other areas, they developed more of a political awareness than many of the blacks who lived inland.

Slaves could be "ingenious chameleons," wearing one face with their white owners and another face with the black community. Most slaves set up an unspoken contract with their owners that exchanged free labor for protection of self and family. But for the most part, slaves were aware of the seeming permanence of their shackles. Some North Carolina African Americans, like John Anthony Copeland, Jr., joined some of the pre-Civil War slave rebellions, such as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.

North Carolina's secession changed that. With the upheaval created by the state's new independence, slaves took advantage of their owners' dilemma and confusion. Several walked off of their farms, hopeful that their freedom would soon be in sight. But most kept a careful watch on the white people who now called themselves "Unionists."

With the hope of freedom, many blacks traveled to Federal territories and placed ads in local newspapers looking for family members. In areas of the North Carolina coast, blacks congregated and organized black churches, like the AME Zion church that was founded in Beaufort. Others built African American schools and militia. In fact, New Bern slaves organized the first black militia, before Lincoln approved the inclusion of African Americans in the Union army. Several other coastal slaves gathered to start the first civil rights group.

As the war progressed, African Americans proved themselves more and more necessary to a Union victory. In one instance, Federal armies, led by African American sea pilots, captured the city of Beaufort at night without firing a shot. Further inland, slaves provided horses and other materials to Union soldiers as a kind of barter for their lives. However, even with the hope that a Union victory would mean their freedom, many slaves feared that they could not trust any white person--no matter what color his uniform. As Union officers scorned or raped slaves, the African Americans' fear proved quite reasonable.

Although the war's conclusion brought an end to slavery as an institution, slavery survived for African Americans as a painful way of life. Slaves who did not commandeer their owner's plantation were left homeless and poor, forced back into manual labor livelihoods like sharecropping. The "freedom" the Union had given them was, for most African Americans, a token in name only, and a reconstruction period and a new era of repression would begin before any of them experienced liberty in even the smallest way.

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The South Surrenders

On the morning of April 13, 1865, Johnston informed President Davis of his intention to surrender. In fact, Johnston suggested surrendering the entire Confederacy. General Sherman agreed to represent the Union during the peace negotiations, rejecting Kilpatrick's counsel against negotiating. As Sherman traveled to James and Nancy Bennett's farm in Durham to meet Johnston, he learned of President Lincoln's assassination. Knowing that the news would upset his armies, Sherman decided to agree to very generous terms of surrender. Over a bottle of whisky in the Bennett's main house, Johnston offered several terms of surrender-one of which included allowing the southern armies to keep their arms-and although Sherman accepted, he cautioned that he could not sign the agreement without the permission of new President Andrew Johnson.

However, President Johnson did not accept the terms. With the support of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Johnson threatened to continue the war since the surrender terms preserved the separate Confederacy. Johnson proposed the same peace terms given to General Grant at Appomattox; however, Johnston rejected those terms for North Carolina because they would leave the southern armies without food, shelter and money.

Generals Sherman and Johnston met again at Bennett Place for a renegotiation on April 26, 1865, and with a list of six "Supplementary Terms" drafted by General Schofield, the Confederate States of America came to an end.

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War After Peace

Although Johnston intended to end the war with little destruction, some of the Union armies had other plans. Even the Bennett's farm was not spared, for after the peace negotiations were finished, souvenir hunters and Union officers took all of the Bennetts' possessions, including a drop-leaf table that one Union officer offered to pay for but never did. Years after he learned that his stolen property had been sold for profit, Bennett sought remuneration for his belongings, with no avail. Like other North Carolina residents who woke in the middle of the night to find their barns on fire or their livestock stolen, Bennett never received compensation for his damages.

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Harris, William C. North Carolina and the Coming of the Civil War. Raleigh: NC Dept of Cultural Resources, 1988.> Bradley, Mark L. This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2000.