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Debate Over Secession

The Debate of secession in North Carolina cut the states into two parts. The secession crisis pitted the landed elite and the yeomen farmers or east and west against each other.  The Yeomen farmers inhabited the piedmont and mountain areas in the western part of the state, and owned few or no slaves.  Those who owed the greatest amount of slaves, and were the wealthiest, tended to reside in Carven and Albemarle (near the coast), but there were well off plantation owners that lived around the large cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte. Consequently these were the counties and the voices in the general assembly that pushed for secession of the state. In December of 1860, Craven County (located in the eastern part of the state) sent a set of resolutions that is an example of how the secessionist faction in North Carolina took action, passed resolutions, and petitioned the governor to enact those resolutions. The committee outlined the grievances to the governor in order to take action and leave the Union. The document stated that “ the Union of these States under the Constitution as interpreted by the non-slaveholding States no longer affords to North Carolina that welfare, equality, and tranquility which it was intended to secure; and new Constitutional guarantees for her protection are necessary as well as against overt acts of aggression” (Item 380).  These calls for secession where for the longest time in the minority in the state, and were denounced by many NC newspapers as war mongering.

            In the state Assembly and in the newspapers was where the most fighting over secession occurred. On January 10, 1861 T.N. Crumpler form Ashe County in the Western part of the state gave a speech in the General Assembly on Federal Relations. In essence Crumpler was reinforcing the commonly held belief that North Carolina did not need to leave the Union. He said “Let North Carolina lead in the movement. She is a modest and conservative State, but in the memorable days of 1775, she led in the race of glory, and let her now add to the honor of having laid the corner stone of this great republic, the honor of making the first movement for its preservation” (Item 28). Crumpler called for NC to be an example for other southern states and keep to the path of Union.  Crumpler’s speech was reaffirmed by the special committee passing resolutions that showed “North Carolina is devotedly attached to a constitutional union of the states the Union of our fathers and still hopes that it may be restored” (Item 535). In short at the begging of 1861 there was no majority calling for secession of North Carolina.

            In February of 1861, Governor Ellis sent a delegation to a Peace Conference in D.C. The delegation reported back that while the convention had proposed and supported a number of amendments that would fix the issues over slavery, but lacked the faith “what disposition Congress will make of this matter; but a few days must determine it. Nor do the undersigned possess any authentic information upon the question, whether should Congress prepare those Amendments, they will fail before the States” (Item 202). While the state assembly pushed to solve the issues over slavery with these conferences, the fact of the matter was, only the federal government could enact change. If the federal government did not meet the demands of North Carolina, it would soon change its stance on secession.  

The question over whether or not North Carolina should secede was put to a vote on February 28, 1861.   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. 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 (Stillison, 200).  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. Governor Ellis urged the assembly to consider secession, he had received a letter on March 28th form the Arkansas state Assembly, telling of its own secession form the Union and inquiring about NC plans in order to “inform me as soon as convenient and practicable what action your State has taken, or proposes to take, on reference to the proposition to hold a border Slave State Convention, at Frankfort, Kentucky, or elsewhere, during the coming Spring or Summer” (Item 534 ). Despite numerous meetings, by early April of 1861, the state seemed no nearer secession than it was in February.