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Duty-Bound Soldiers of North Carolina

North Carolina Confederate officers’ explanations of their pre-war activities and conditions varied. Some expressed support for secession, while others explained that they vehemently opposed it. Regardless of their sentiments, they resolved that their participation in the Confederate Army was due to their allegiance to their state, not because of their opposition to the Union. Logically, the two seem mutually exclusive. However, these officers intended to make a point to show that their service was governed by their sense of duty to the sovereign body to which they owed allegiance, the state of North Carolina. In doing so, these officers underscored their sense of honor and loyalty as military men. They followed their state, and they served only in the capacity that the state ordered them to.

The officers whose petitions argued that they agreed with and supported secession also relied on a story of state loyalty. Such officers explained that their allegiance to North Carolina was instilled in them as southerners, and that secession was forced upon them. Writing from Fayetteville on June 6, 1865, former General Theophelius H. Holmes wrote that he was, as “A native of North Carolina, taught from my earliest childhood to consider my first allegiance as due to her.” (Item 466) Echoing this sentiment, former Brigadier General Robert D. Johnston wrote from Gaston County on September 1, 1865 that North Carolina had “withdrawn from the Union in order to resist Federal coercion,” and that he had joined its cause “sincerly [sic] believing that the cause in which he had taken up arms was just and right.” (Item 468) In concurrence with this notion, former Colonel Henry E. Coleman of Granville County wrote on August 3, 1865 that he “was taught that my state had aught [sic] to secede from the Union at its pleasure and I believed it to be my duty to ascertain it in its new position.” (Item 469) Former Confederate naval officer and US Naval Academy graduate Joseph Alexander of Lincoln County also placed emphasis on the soldier’s (or sailor’s) sense of duty. Alexander explained that he joined the Confederacy after “being activated by a sense of duty to his native state,” and hoped that Johnson would extend him pardon because he did so “in common with [what] a large majority of the Southern peoples conceived to be their duty.” (Item 470) Former Confederate officers’ common emphasis on the devotion to duty maintained the idea that their support of the Confederacy  derived from a sense of honor as soldiers and loyalty to the state, not opposition to the Union.

These officers either outright claimed their prewar support of secession, or did not argue otherwise. There were several officers, however, who included in their petitions a declaration of loyalty to the Union and opposition to secession prior to the war. These officers worked to prove in their petitions that, like their pro-secession counterparts, they believed their duty to be to the state. But, these officers disconnected themselves from the political discourse that supported secession. One such petitioner was former Brigadier General Robert Vance of Buncombe County, who wrote in July of 1865 that, prior to Lincoln’s call for troops to “suppress the insurrectionary movements in the extreme Southern States,” he was “devotedly attached to the Federal Union,” and that “he was in no sort responsible for the teachings and causes that gave rise to the rebellion, on the contrary he uniformly opposed them…believing it to be the interest of the entire country to preserve the Union.” (Item 471) Unlike Vance, however, former Colonel of the North Carolina Home Guard Thomas G. Walton of Burke County underscored his political involvement, but went to great lengths to prove that he was ardently opposed to secession before the war. Writing on July 13th, 1865, Walton explained that, as a member of the Whig Party, he had “taken part in the politics in the county,” and “always opposed publicly…the doctrine of secession.” (Item 466) Additionally, Walton claimed that his efforts of opposition to secession were partly responsible for the fact that North Carolina voted down the first secession convention in the beginning of 1861. While explaining that he never voted for anyone who advocated secession, Walton went on to say that only after North Carolina voted to secede in May of 1861 did he “cooperate with his state in endeavoring to gain a separate independence for the so-called Confederate states” due to “a matter of necessity and because he had no other alternative.” (Item 466) Walton wished to show that, even though his attempts to resist secession failed, he “soldiered on” as a dutiful and loyal officer, disconnecting his political reservations from his duty.

Various other officers intended to show that they were not to blame for the political atmosphere, which lead to secession. Former General D.H. Hill wrote that he “took no part in the political agitations of the country,” and Edgecombe County resident and former Confederate officer Richard B. Lee pleaded in June of 1865 that he “avoided all participation in the political events of the period.” (Item 472, Item 473) Likewise, former Brigadier General William McRae wrote in July of 1865 that, before the war, he was a “man of no political importance,” whose “proclivities were decidedly Union until North Carolina formally seceded,” and whose rank was due to merit and efforts, not to his “political influences, which [he] did not possess.” (Item 474) McRae continued to say that, following secession, “deeming such to be my duty, I cast my lot with my native state (N.C.).” (Item 474) Similarly, William P. Roberts of Gates County, who held the wartime rank of brigadier general, wrote on August 26, 1865 that he “had no hand in bringing on the war and only coincided in the movement only after his state had attempted the act of secession.” (Item 475) Roberts insisted that, while not politically involved in the secession, he served in the army due to his allegiance to his state. In the same manner, ex-Brigadier General Richard C. Gatlin of Wake County effectively tied the importance of duty to a soldier to his lack of participation in the political upheaval. Writing from Raleigh on June 8, 1865, Gatlin had to explain the fact that he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and later served in the Confederate Army. Gatlin worked to point out that he “resigned less to ‘evade’ duty in resisting in the rebellion,” than for the fact that he did not wish to actively take up arms against his home and family. (Item 476) Speaking of secession and his rank, Gatlin claimed that North Carolina absconded from the Union because the state was “compelled by the actions of the two large states that almost encloses her,” and that “neither were sought for or desired by the undersigned.” (Item 476) Gatlin painted both himself and the state of North Carolina as reluctant inheritors of secession, and underscored the importance of duty to a soldier.

Former Confederate officers from North Carolina all worked to justify their participation in the rebellion by discussing their motivations for going to war. While some conceded that they supported secession, the majority of them moved to separate themselves from the “political agitations” which led to secession. Regardless of their leanings, they all painted themselves as reluctant soldiers, doing the bidding of their native state, driven by a soldier’s sense of duty. This sense of duty would also come to a fore during the conduct of the war itself. A soldier who felt compelled to enter the military service of the state of North Carolina would be required to take up arms against, and kill or wound Union soldiers. How could this ever be justified? How would a former Confederate officer work to cast a positive light on his wartime service? The following discussion will provide that these former North Carolina officers strove to explain that their participation in the war should be pardoned due to their active adherence to the principles of jus in bello.

Duty-Bound Soldiers of North Carolina