Civil War

Written By North Carolina History Project

Although many major battles did not occur in North Carolina, the state played an important role during the American Civil War.  

The state provided more men (133, 905) for the Confederate cause, than any other state.  This number comprised approximately one-sixth of the Confederate fighting force.   Of that number, one sixth (approximately 20,000) became casualties of war.  Disease took approximately 20,000 Tar Heels lives, too.  According to historian Paul Escott, the state “had only about one-ninth of the Confederacy’s white population,” yet “it furnished one-sixth of its fighting men.”  In sum, 30-percent (approximately 40,000) of those fighting for the Confederacy died during the war.

North Carolina provided numerous generals to the Confederate cause.  The most famous include Braxton Bragg, Daniel H. Hill, William Dorsey Pender, Stephen Dodson Ramseur, Robert F. Hoke, and James J. Pettigrew.   Less famous yet important generals included L.O.B. Branch and Bryan Grimes.

It must be remembered that the American Civil war, at times, pitted North Carolinians against North Carolinian.  Approximately 8,000 men put on the Union blue.  Of them, 3,156 were white and 5,035 were black.  

The election of Lincoln in 1861 prompted secessionists to launch a series of statewide local meetings.  In time, the matter of secession was put to the people of North Carolina.  Unionists narrowly defeated the secessionists (47,323 to 46,672).  On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to “put down the rebellion.”  Governor Ellis responded:  “You can get no troops from North Carolina” and a second secession convention was called.  Although many delegates from various counties still wished to remain in the Union, the majority wanted secession.   The state seceded from the Union on May, 20, 1861.  That day was chosen as a celebration of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775.   

Early in the war, the northeastern region fell into Union hands.  Fort Hatteras and Fort Macon, both protecting the important Hatteras port, were occupied in Spring 1862—the military attacks were aided greatly by the United States Navy, which maintained a strong presence along the North Carolina coast throughout the war.   During the war, guerrilla warfare raged in the mountain region.  During the latter stages of the conflict, mountaineers experienced Union attack and occupation.  The most famous raid in the mountains during the war was General George Stoneman’s cavalry in March 1865.   

Although more major battles occurred in other Southern states, major campaigns were waged in the Old North State.   Most of the major campaigns occurred in 1865, the last year of the war.  After Sherman performed his March to the Sea campaign in Georgia and turned northward and marched through South Carolina, he entered North Carolina.  After General William J. Hardee prolonged Sherman’s advance at Averasboro, General Joseph E. Johnston engaged Sherman’s forces on from March 19-21 at Bentonville; that battle became the last major engagement in the Civil War.  A little over a month later, Sherman accepted the terms of surrender from Johnston at Bennett Place.  

North Carolina was an important state during the conflict.  The state contributed to the Confederate war effort in various ways; the Piedmont region produced crops that fed Confederate forces, and for a few months in 1865, Wilmington provided the Confederacy’s only access to the Atlantic Ocean and European trade.   The state contributed to the Union war effort, too.  From the fall of 1861, much of northeastern North Carolina had fallen into Union hands, and Lincoln established a provisional government, with Edward Stanly as governor.  The ports under Union occupation strengthened the Union war effort as their loss weakened the Confederate effort.  As the Confederates lost more northeastern territory, more slaves fled to Union lines and contraband camps were formed.

Political events in North Carolina influenced Confederate policy.  After John Ellis and Henry Toole Clarke served as governors, Zebulon B. Vance is remembered as the wartime governor.  And he, fairly or unfairly, earned a reputation for being a political thorn in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s side.  On more than one occasion, Confederate Governor Vance believed the Confederacy took advantage of the Old North State: the Confederacy, he complained, took Tar Heel men away to fight elsewhere while the state’s borders remained undermanned.  In 1864, the Peace Party influenced politics at the local, state, and national levels; however, its membership, although significant, remained a minority of the state’s voting population.