Secession of the state of North Carolina from the American Union occurred on May 20, 1861; this date was chosen to celebrate the anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of 1775. The right of a state to separate from the Federal Union was not seriously questioned during the formation of the American Republic and had even been contemplated by some New England states during the War of 1812. North Carolina’s secession, however, was more in accord with the doctrines of John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina.
Some Tar Heel politicians, including Senator Thomas L. Clingman (1812-1897), expressed secessionist views in 1856, when the Republican Party nominated its first presidential candidate. Secession sentiment, however, was weak prior to the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).
North Carolina excluded Lincoln from the ballot. As a result, the popular vote for president was 48,533 for John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) of Kentucky, the Southern Democratic candidate; 44,039 for John Bell (1797-1869) of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union nominee; and 2,690 for Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), the Democratic nominee. Because Bell and Breckinridge supporters expressed allegiance to the Union, the overall vote reveals a strong Unionist sentiment among Tar Heels.
The non-slaveholding yeoman farmers made up a majority of Tar Heel voters and constituted the core of Unionist strength. The northeastern and western counties, and portions of the Piedmont, were areas of Union sentiment and, therefore, disinclined to secede over slavery.
The Whig Party, which had disintegrated as a national force by 1860, still commanded a strong following. Whig politicians like Congressman Zebulon B. Vance (1830-1894) and former Governor and Senator William A. Graham (1804-1875) comprised much of the leadership, though one leading Democrat, William W. Holden (1818-1892), editor of the North Carolina Standard, was among them.
The secessionists were led primarily by Democrats, including Senator Clingman, Governor John W. Ellis (1820-1861), Congressman Thomas Ruffin (1820-1863), and former Congressman William S. Ashe (1814-1862). The major secessionist newspaper was the Wilmington Journal, located in slaveholding New Hanover County. Not surprisingly, the main areas of secessionist strength were in the Coastal counties with large slave populations and in Piedmont counties, especially Mecklenburg, bordering South Carolina.
The election of Lincoln prompted secessionists to launch a series of statewide local meetings. The first was held in Cleveland County on November 12, the second in New Hanover on November 19. The movement was encouraged by the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860.
To counter the secessionist fervor, Unionists also convened. Holden’s Standard effectively upheld the Union cause and expressed hope for compromise. On January 29, the General Assembly decided to put the convention question to the people on February 28 and voted to send delegates to the Washington Peace Conference on February 4.
The convention campaign was vigorously waged. Unionists defined the terms of debate as a question of “Union or Disunion.” Secessionist attempts to redefine the campaign in terms of self-defense were not successful. Answering the charge that disunion meant war, secession supporter A. W. Venable (1799-1876) of Granville County declared that he would “wipe up every drop of blood shed in the war with this handkerchief of mine”; this may have been the most memorable statement of the convention campaign.
Defeating the secessionists by a vote of 47,323 to 46,672, Unionists carried the northeastern counties and most of the Piedmont and western counties. Because a few Unionists like Vance supported the convention call, the delegate elections are more indicative of actual sentiment; only 39 of the 120 delegates were secessionists. A few days after the vote, on March 4, Lincoln gave an inaugural address, which many considered conciliatory.
The secessionists did not give up. On March 22 and 23, delegates from twenty-five counties assembled in Goldsboro and organized the Southern Rights Party. They urged the legislature to reconvene and demanded that North Carolina join the Confederacy. Despite numerous meetings, by early April of 1861, the state seemed no nearer secession than it was in February. Then, reports came of the April 12 bombardment of Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina.
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.” When word arrived of Lincoln’s summons, Zebulon Vance, with arms upraised, was pleading for the preservation of the Union: “When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation,” he said, “it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist.”
Ellis called a special session of the legislature for May 1 and ordered seizure of all federal property. The Assembly voted to have a delegate election on May 13 to an unrestricted convention to meet in Raleigh on May 20. The campaign that followed was characterized more by resignation than enthusiasm, as evidenced by former Unionists’ and secessionists’ speeches disparaging aggression.
When the convention met, delegates debated whether to secede, as some Unionists suggested, on the basis of “the right of revolution.” Radical secessionists, however, favored repealing the state’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution as the most appropriate means of leaving the Union.
The convention elected Weldon N. Edwards (1788-1873), a Democratic planter from Warren County, as president. In a speech, he denounced allying with the “Black Republican Union.” One-time Unionist George R. Badger (1795-1866) introduced a resolution for separation from the Union based on the right of revolution. An alternative ordinance, dissolving the Union by repeal of ratification was proposed by F. Burton Craige (1811-1875) of Rowan County. The Badger proposal was defeated by a vote of 72 to 40, after which the Craige resolution passed unanimously. Delegates then voted to join the Confederate States of America (CSA). They also voted, at the request of Governor Ellis, not to put the secession ordinance to a popular vote. On May 21, President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) proclaimed North Carolina a Confederate state.
The convention had not been restricted and met three more times before finally adjourning on May 13, 1862. The convention mostly dealt with military matters, but it also amended the Constitution to permit the ad valorem taxation of slaves and eliminated the disqualification of Jews from holding public office.
North Carolinians seceded reluctantly. Jonathan Worth (1802-1869) stated publicly: “Lincoln had made us a unit to resist until we repel our invaders or die.” Privately, however, Worth feared that the South had “commit[ed] suicide.” The continued strength of Unionist sentiment was revealed a year later when Vance was easily elected governor despite radical secession opposition.
The Tar Heel State, which only acted after Lincoln called for troops, became a bulwark of the Confederate defense, providing more men and supplies to the CSA and suffering more casualties than any other Southern state. In the end, most Tar Heels seceded in the name of self-defense.
Kemp P. Battle, “The Secession Convention of 1861,” North Carolina Booklet (Raleigh, 1916); James H. Boykin, North Carolina in 1861 (New York, 1961); Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill, 1989); William C. Harris, North Carolina and the Coming of the Civil War (Raleigh, 1988); Hugh T. Lefler, North Carolina History Told by Contemporaries (Chapel Hill, 1956); John G. McCormick, Personnel of the Convention of 1861 (Chapel Hill, 1900); Joseph C. Sitterson, The Secession Movement in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1939); Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South (Princeton, 1962).