Why Did North Carolina Secede?

North Carolina was another Upper South state whose secession was delayed until after the firing on Fort Sumter. Slavery, while a major factor, didn’t have the same power as it did in the cotton states. One historian put it this way: “Since the soil of the state was not well suited for the growing of cotton, there were relatively few wealthy planters with large slaveholdings to agitate for a break with the Federal government. The non-slaveholders from the mountain districts of the west and the swamp regions of the east, and certain Quaker and small farm elements in the central region, saw no reason to become vitally concerned with the preservation of a slave system in which they had little part. These non-slaveholding whites had considerable influence in the state, and their attitude toward slavery and secession had to be reckoned with. As a prominent citizen put it: ‘Seven-tenths of our people owned no slaves at all, and to say the least of it, felt no great and enduring enthusiasm for its [slavery’s] preservation, especially when it seemed to them that it was in no danger.’ ” [John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, p. 3] Another historian tells us, “Slavery stood at the center of North Carolina life, but plantations did not. Slaves made up about one-third of the state’s 1 million people, a proportion notably smaller than South Carolina’s or Mississippi’s, but slightly larger than Tennessee’s or Virginia’s. Of the roughly one-quarter of North Carolina families who owned slaves, 70 percent owned fewer than 10. Much of the state was full of small to middling farmers; 70 percent of farms were smaller than 100 acres. There were only two towns of 5,000 people, and none had more than 10,000 people.” [Gregory P. Downs, “The Death Knell of Slavery,” Disunion Blog, New York Times, May 19, 2011] Professor Downs also talks about political divisions within the state. “Westerners tended to fight against eastern planters on key issues like state spending on railroads and increased taxation on slaves. Eastern planters formed the backbone of early secessionist movements, while most Appalachian and — particularly — piedmont politicians argued for Union.” [Ibid.] Professor Downs also stresses that while slavery itself was not as important in North Carolina as elsewhere, concerns over its protection were still important. “But if the power of plantations divided the public, the importance of slavery did not. Across the state, most leading men owned slaves. In 1860, more than 85 percent of the state legislators were slaveholders, the highest percentage in the South. Even Appalachian politicians vigorously supported slave orthodoxy. Defending slaveowning was a way of protecting not plantations but property. ‘If they can take our [n-word]s away from us they can take our cows and hosses, and everything else we’ve got!’ one western slaveowner warned his neighbors. Senator Thomas Clingman, a westerner who owned no slaves, was one of the country’s most-virulent defenders of slavery and secession.” [Ibid.] Professor William Boyd wrote, in 1912, “In fact, less than 28 per cent of the families in 1860 held slaves, while the average number of slaves held was 9.6. In strong contrast to the slave-owning class were the nonslaveholders. Their industries included, besides agriculture, two classes of manufacturing: One, factories in which North Carolina ranked next to Virginia and Georgia; the other, domestic arts and hand trades. These latter industries were important because they enabled each plantation or community to be in a large degree economically self-sufficient. The story of the vast number of nonslaveholding whites in the South, their origin, occupations, opinions, and influence, is as yet unwritten. In North Carolina they always had a considerable influence, and by 1860 their protest against certain inequalities produced by the slave system was well under way. Their attitude toward secession has been well stated in the words of Senator Vance: ‘Seven-tenths of our people owned no slaves at all, and to say the least of it, felt no great and enduring enthusiasm for its [slavery’s] preservation, especially when it seemed to them that it was in no danger.’ ” [William K. Boyd, “North Carolina on the Eve of Secession,” in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for 1910, p. 168]

While Abraham Lincoln’s election was the catalyst for the cotton states to declare themselves seceded from the Union, that didn’t happen in North Carolina. Barrett tells us, “Yet in North Carolina there was little talk of secession. The great majority of people did not regard the election of a ‘Black Republican,’ however distasteful, as sufficient grounds for withdrawing from the Union.” [John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, pp. 3-4] Downs tells us, “On Feb. 28 the state voted narrowly — by about 650 votes out of about 94,000 — against a secession convention. And Unionist strength was greater than those numbers indicate: Because some people voted both for the convention and for Unionist delegates, Unionists would have held about 80 of the 120 seats. Many Unionists in fact regretted the convention’s defeat; had the convention met, it would have been controlled by conservatives. A future crisis, they feared, might prompt the election of more radical delegates.” [Gregory P. Downs, “The Death Knell of Slavery,” Disunion Blog, New York Times, May 19, 2011] It’s undeniable that as of February 28, 1861 the sentiment for secession was in the minority. It was nip and tuck for awhile, though. “By late December and early January secessionists appeared to have the advantage. ‘The outside pressure to drag us out of the Union is terrible,’ one Union legislator complained to his wife. ‘All sorts of lies are circulated by telegraph and every bad report … constantly paraded in extras from the disunion press to excite, intimidate and overawe us.’ Another influential Union legislator feared that the politicians who had initiated the panic could no longer control it. ‘Conservative Democrats’ were allowing radicals to lead. ‘If those who would preserve the Union say nothing,’ he warned, ‘we go with South Carolina.’ A Gaston County secessionist noted that sentiment in his area was ‘unanimous almost for a Southern Confederacy. … Every one not for us is against us and is counted an enemy, a ‘submissionist,’ equal to a Tory.’ Furthermore, North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis stood firmly with the Southern Rights wing of the Democratic party. His public statements expressed great pessimism about the Union, and his private correspondence shows him to have been an ardent secessionist.” [Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis, pp. 144-145] There was a strong voice for Union, though. “Just as Andrew Johnson had emboldened Union Democrats in Tennessee to make common cause with Union Whigs, efforts to build Unionist cooperation across party lines in North Carolina received similar stimulus from Democratic editor William W. Holden. He transformed the North Carolina Standard, the widely read official journal of the state Democracy, into the most aggressively pro-Union newspaper in North Carolina. By daily characterizing Governor Ellis and other Southern Rights Democrats as pawns in the hands of lower South disunionists, Holden depressed support for secession among the Democratic rank and file. His stance also helped to stir a surge of antisecession feeling among Union Whigs and many previous nonvoters.” [Ibid., p. 145]

As with the rest of the Upper South, most Unionists in North Carolina were primarily conditional Unionists, not unconditional Unionists. “Unionists cautioned northerners and Republicans not to interpret the upper South elections as affirmations of unconditional Unionism. Virginia legislator James Barbour pointed out to William H. Seward that Unionists generally had insisted ‘that there was hope of obtaining … constitutional guaranties of our slave property rights’ and that the published statement by Douglas and Crittenden to that effect had been ‘the most potent campaign document in this part of the state.’ If Republicans left Unionists ‘unsupported,’ secession was ‘as inevitable as fate.’ … An East Tennessee Unionist feared that Republicans would ‘deceive themselves’ by thinking his state would align with the North if forced to choose sides. ‘When it comes to reducing the question to North and South,’ he warned prophetically, ‘you will find it will run like a mighty tide of hurricane sweeping everything before it.’ ” [Ibid., p. 153]

North Carolina Unionist John A. Gilmer advised Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, not to try to hold Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. “Gilmer described the nervous impetuousness among secessionists, who were more and more inclined toward violent action to maintain their flagging revolution. Their ‘only hope,’ he noted, ‘is that some sort of collision will be brought about between federal and state forces.’ … Gilmber believed that any fighting in the near future would reunite the South. Anxieties about federal interference with slavery had become closely tied to the supposed threat of ‘coercion,’ loosely defined to include any use of federal force against the seceding states. Persistent alarms about an armed federal invasion of the South, even if unsubstantiated, tended to keep southern Unionists on the defensive. As Gilmer explained to Seward: ‘The only thing now that gives the secessionists the advantage of the conservatives is the cry of coercion–that the whipping of a slave state, is the whipping of slavery.’ ” [Ibid., p. 258]

With the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation, in accordance with the Militia Act of 1795, calling for 75,000 men to be called up to put down the rebellion. Overnight, it seems, support in North Carolina went from majority Unionist to majority secessionist. Editor William Holden wrote, “The proclamation of Mr. Lincoln, calling for troops to make war on the Southern States, dissolved the Union so far as we are concerned, and summoned every true Southern man to arms.” [Ibid., p. 333]

The Journal of North Carolina’s Secession Convention, unfortunately, does not give us what was said in any discussions. But we have some clues. In addition to the attitudes of the conditional Unionists mentioned above, we also have the makeup of the secession convention. “One hundred members of the one hundred and twenty-two-man convention were listed as slaveholders in the 1860 census. The average holding for the convention was 30.5 slaves and … this was well spread out, the median holding being 21 slaves. Thus the typical delegate to the North Carolina convention was a small planter, if ownership of 20 slaves is accepted as the criterion for classification as a ‘planter.’ ” [Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South, pp. 197-198]

The slavery issue undeniably formed the basis of the secession movement. “The secession press denounced the abolitionists and declared that the result of Republican rule would be the abolition of slavery, resulting in a condition of race equality in the slaveholding states that remained in the Union. The racial aspect of slavery underlay much of the Southern hatred of abolitionism. The problem of an uncivilized alien race was solved under the slavery system. What could be done with the Negro were he free? The Wilmington Journal declared that the policy of the Republican party would lead to the lowering of the white men of the South to the level of the Negro, since the Negro from his nature could not rise to the level of the whites.” [Joseph Carlyle Sitterson, The Secession Movement in North Carolina, pp. 213-214] How much of a basis did the slavery issue form? We can only estimate, but it seems a fairly good approximation is the result of the election of delegates at the February 28 vote that defeated the proposal for having a convention. “The election resulted in the defeat of the convention by the vote of 47,323 to 46,672. Of the one hundred and twenty delegates chosen, forty-two were secessionists, twenty-eight conditional Unionists, and fifty unconditional Unionists. Of the eighty-six counties in the state, thirty elected secession delegates, thirty-five elected unconditional Union delegates, seventeen elected conditional Union delegates, and four chose divided delegations. … A comparison of the vote with the percentage of slaves in the counties reveals some interesting facts. Of the fifty-four counties in which slaves composed more than twenty-five per cent of the population, twenty-two were secession, eleven conditional Union, seventeen unconditional Union, and four divided. Of the fourteen counties in which over half the total population was slave, six were secession, five conditional Union, and two unconditional Union. Of the thirty-two counties in which slaves formed less than twenty-five per cent of the total population, eighteen were unconditional Union, six conditional Union and eight secession. Of the twelve counties having ten per cent or less slaves, eight were unconditional Union, two were conditional Union, and two were secession. In other words, twenty-two of the thirty secession counties, six of seventeen conditional Union counties, and seventeen of the thirty-five unconditional Union counties had a slave population of over twenty-five per cent.” [Ibid., 223-224] Conditional Unionists, recall, were Unionists as long as they could see protection for slavery in the Union. Fifty-eight percent of the delegates, then, were motivated in some manner by the slavery issue, though they were divided between those who thought slavery wasn’t safe at the time and those who believed slavery was safe in the Union for the time being. Again, this is an approximation only.

Between the February 28 election and the firing on Fort Sumter, the secessionists conducted a full-scale campaign to build support. “The radical press was aggressively advocating the separation of North Carolina. The people were asked to choose between the abolition North and people of the Southern Confederacy who were ‘waiting with open arms and willing hearts’ to receive them.” [Ibid., pp. 237-238] Unionists tried to fight back, but the tide was against them. The attack on Fort Sumter, followed by Lincoln’s proclamation and then Virginia’s secession doomed all hope of North Carolina remaining loyal. The secession convention met on May 20, and the major division was between those who advocated secession as a legal measure and those who denied secession’s legality and instead insisted North Carolina separate on the principle of revolution, not secession. The conditional Unionists, aware that a war was upon them and believing slavery could not be protected in the Union, converted to secessionists. The issue of “coercion” did play a role in the secession, but the evidence indicates that beyond the lofty rhetoric about “coercion,” ultimately the protection of slavery was a determining factor. There are also some analysts who believe once Virginia seceded, North Carolina was surrounded by confederate states and had no choice but to join them.

The bottom line, then, is that North Carolina seceded because of protection of slavery, because the Civil War started, and because she was surrounded by confederate states. Of these, the most important factor was the protection of slavery, with the second most important factor being the Civil War’s start leading to concerns about slavery’s safety in the Union and “coercion” of seceded states.



  1. Yes! I have been waiting for a N Carolina breakdown. This is a neo confederate favorite one to point to when they say the cause of the war was not slavery. Looking forward to reading this one.

  2. Charles Persinger · · Reply

    Its funny that some of the neo-confederates think that Jeff Davis was somehow duped into the Ft. Sumter situation. It worked out really well for him and it was something he wanted because he knew it would get states like Virginia and North Carolina to succeed.

    1. Yes, the West Point graduate, former Secretary of War, Senator Jeff Davis was duped by a one-term Congressman from the backwoods.


  3. Civil war North Carolina is a fascinating study.

    Coastal areas were occupied by the US early in the war, NC provided the 2nd most soldiers to the CSA and vast amounts of supply, and the state was virtually untouched by war until Sherman’s march in March 1865.

    I’m wondering what the 2 ‘towns of 5,000’ are? Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington, somewhere else? Charlotte was pretty much a railroad junction in 1860. The state population was large and dispersed.

    1. He doesn’t identify the towns in the article, so it would take a delve into the Census to find out. I may get some ambition to do that later today. 🙂

  4. interesting.

    “North Carolina had a number of towns in the antebellum period — though a “town” then was far smaller than it would be today. Only two, Wilmington and New Bern, had more than 5,000 people; Raleigh and Fayetteville were the only others with more than 2,500. ”


    Southern war-time city size is difficult to grasp. Union soldiers at Atlanta complained of over-shots coming from their own batteries – on the other side of the encircled town about a mile away.

    1. Thanks, Hank.

      Here’s what I have from the 1860 Census:

      Charlotte: 2,265
      Fayetteville: 4,790
      Newbern: 5,432
      Raleigh: 4,780
      Salisbury: 2,420
      Wilmington: 9,552

  5. IIRC, the governor (Ellis?) was a fairly strong secessionist.

    1. Yes, he was.

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