James T. Leach (1805-1883) played an important role in North Carolina’s Peace Party Movement during the American Civil War. Leach took the rhetoric of liberty that had been used to justify secession and turned it against the Confederate government.
James Thomas Leach was born in Leachburg, North Carolina in 1805. He made his fortune as a medical doctor, and by the 1850s, Leach owned a Johnston County plantation with one hundred and fifty slaves. Unlike some plantation owners, Leach opposed secession. He believed that leaving the Union was a radical and unnecessary move.
At first, Leach belonged to a very small minority. But as the war dragged on, calls for peace became more numerous and louder. Many North Carolinians were angered by what they considered Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s dictatorial policies. They were especially upset when Davis suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1863, a move they deemed tyrannical. More than one hundred “peace meetings” were held throughout the state during the summer of 1863.
Leach became a symbolic leader of the peace movement on May 27, 1863, when the pro-peace Raleigh Weekly Standard published one of his letters. Leach wrote that the war would end if Southern leaders “offer[ed] the olive branch of peace to those who are arrayed against us.” In the fall of 1863, Leach won a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives by calling for a “just, honorable and lasting peace.” Six of North Carolina’s ten representatives were elected on similar peace platforms.
Leach continued to agitate for peace as a Confederate congressman. Although he was anti-war, he was not anti-slavery. He believed that peace would be possible only if the Union agreed to accept slavery as a permanent institution. Congressman Leach also criticized Jefferson Davis. When Davis suspended habeas corpus yet again, Leach wrote to his friend William Graham: “What shall we do to stay the hand of a military despotism more to be dreaded than death itself?”
North Carolina’s peace movement reached its apex in 1864, when “Peace Democrat” William W. Holden ran for governor against the incumbent “War Democrat” Zebulon B. Vance. Holden lost badly, taking less than one-quarter of the vote. This defeat ended the peace movement as a political force. Leach left public life when the Confederate congress was dissolved in 1865. He died at his home in Leachburg on March 28, 1883.
William T. Auman, “Neighbor Against Neighbor: The Inner Civil War in the Central Counties of Confederate North Carolina,” PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1986; Richard E. Beringer, et al, Why The South Lost the Civil War (Athens, 1986); John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2000); Marc W. Kruman, “Parties and Politics in North Carolina, 1846-1865), PhD dissertation, Yale University, 1978 “Leach, James Thomas (1805-1883)” http://politicalgraveyard.com/bio/laxalt-leadbetter.html#LE (Accessed June 10, 2010); William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006).