Since the beginning of the American Civil War, there were a percentage of North Carolinians who were Unionists or who wanted peace. Peace advocates were not necessarily Unionist in spirit. Most did not necessarily want peace because they loved the Union; they instead reacted to wartime circumstances and wished to preserve the antebellum status quo.
There had been dissidents among North Carolinians since the war’s beginning, but the Peace Now Movement started evolving in 1863, when Democrat James Leach, who later served in the Confederate Congress from 1864 to 1865 and in the U.S. Congress from 1871 to 1875, asked for what he called an “honorable peace.” Others adopted his plan: give up Southern independence for peace and reunion so that the antebellum status quo might be preserved. Like Randolph County native James Leach and the North Carolina Standard editor and later Reconstruction Governor, William W. Holden, many Peace Party members undermined the Confederate war effort to secure their personal interest. “We favor peace,” wrote Holden in July 1863, “because we believe that peace now would save slavery, while we very much fear that a prolongation of the war will obliterate the last vestige of it.” Peace Party members were not abolitionists, and were not even anti-slavery/free-soilers.
During Autumn 1863, political rallies held across the state produced the Peace Party and William W. Holden emerged as its leader. Holden had been a political ally of Governor Zebulon Vance, but his participation in the Peace Party placed him at odds with the state’s executive. According to historian William Auman, Vance considered Holden’s transforming politics and the peace movement to be “dangerous and subversive.” Although initially Holden’s political ally, Vance held different views regarding the matter: “Believing the only hope of the South depended upon the prosecution of the war at all hazards and to the utmost extremity so long as the foot of the invader pressed Southern soil, I took the field at an early day, with the determination to remain there until an independence was achieved. My convictions in this regard remain unchanged.”
In Fall 1863 and Winter 1863-1864, the Peace Party became a political force. Many peace now supporters offered shelter to deserters, who fled to the central Piedmont and formed armed bands. In the fall of 1863, candidates expressing elements of the Peace Party platform were victorious in 6 out of 10 Confederate Congressional elections in North Carolina. In 1864, Holden’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, however, proved that the majority of North Carolinians wanted Confederate victory and not an “honorable peace”; the Peace Party candidate won only approximately 13% of the military vote (1,824 out of 15,033 votes) and received little over 24% of the overall vote (14,432 out of 57,873). According to Auman, Holden’s defeat and the military suppression of armed deserters in the Piedmont “delivered the death blow to the peace movement in Confederate North Carolina.”
William Auman, “Peace Movement,” in William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006); John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1963); Norman D. Brown, Edward Stanly: Whiggery’s Tarheel “Conqueror” (Tuscaloosa, 1974); Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007).