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With regard to the reactions of North Carolinians, there is a distinct difference between immediate reactions and those significantly after Brown’s execution, but both stress the importance of the event in the context of Southern memory. The first reaction to John Brown’s raid found in The Papers of John W. Ellis was a letter from Duncan McDonald, of Edenton, written to the Governor. In his letter, McDonald summarizes the attitude of the citizens of Edenton. “The Harpers Ferry insurrection is of considerable benefit to this section of the State, all persons seem very anxious now to have a well organized militia and I am endeavoring to second their wish. We have been admonished by the Father of our Country, to prepare for War, in time of peace and wish to profit by his advice.”[1] The citizens of Edenton, the fifth most populated city in North Carolina in 1860, believed in preparing a defensive to protect against a second possible attack by Northern abolitionists. The population in Edenton, located in Chowan County, was 50-70 percent enslaved, which explains the heightened fear. Edenton was not alone in supporting the rapid establishment of a militia for defense.

In John Ellis’ letter to John Floyd and John B. Todd’s letter to Governor Ellis, they both mentioned the need for a militia in the wake of John Brown’s raid and execution. Ellis wrote to Floyd, the United States Secretary of War, about the conditions of North Carolina after the John Brown raid, and why North Carolina needed weapons for its militias. “The Sense of insecurity prevailing among the people of this State, renders it necessary that I should apply to you for arms to place in the hands of the militia… I wish to procure from the Government, two thousand long range rifles with bayonets attached, for the use of the State of North Carolina.”[2] This letter, between the Governor of North Carolina and the Secretary of War, represented a very real fear of another Northern abolitionist invasion and the belief that immediate action was necessary. Five days later, John Todd added his opinion to this need for a militia, by suggesting that “the times look a little squally and I would like to have my boys in good trim if they should be needed.”[3] After the surprise of a militant invasion into the South, North Carolinians felt the need to be prepared for another possible invasion, and at worst, war.

It is important to realize that there are exceptions to this demand for a militia. One such exception appears in The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux, where she and her father differed on the issue of being militarily prepared after Brown’s raid. “He does not conceal that he thinks it all folly, childs play, no need of preparation for war…. I do not see how in the present attitude of the North, sample they have given us in the John Brown raid, he can be so indifferent to our preparation for a future one.”[4] Catherine’s entry reflects the attitude of  several newspapers suggesting Northern fanaticism, and well as a family division between her father, a man not convinced of the need for preparing for a war, and Catherine, a woman who was convinced that war would be inevitable.

The reaction of North Carolinians, including Governor Ellis, was not focused solely on the need for a well armed militia. Some believed that the struggle against abolitionists would need to be a collective effort, specifically with Virginia. One such man, Marcus Erwin of Asheville, asserted that North Carolina would not tolerate abolitionists, and that “you may assure our friends in the East that abolition emissaries either native or foreign will meet with as little favor in this region as they would in the household of Gov. Wise himself.”[5] Erwin believed it necessary that North Carolina present a firm stance against abolitionists to the degree of Governor Wise of Virginia, who held office during the raid. He also affirms that, despite the raid occurring in Virginia, North Carolinians will treat the event as if it occurred on North Carolinian soil.

These letters written to Governor Ellis would gradually alter his politics throughout 1860 and 1861. When Ellis responded to a letter to Hugh Waddell, Joseph Jackson and Nathan Ramsay on January 10, he made sure to emphasize the importance of a considered reaction to the raid. “I deem it important too, to avoid all such action as would tend to increase the excitement now existing among our people… When the Legislature meets in regular session, we will have an opportunity of looking calmly on the events of the past year, and the dangers that lie ahead of us.”[6] It is evident that Ellis was aware that many citizens feared another abolitionist invasion and that defense was a top priority, but Ellis, as the Governor, had to make sure he did not propose or sign any legislation too swiftly.

[1] Duncan McDonald to John Ellis, Edenton, November 17, 1859, in The Papers of John W. Ellis: Volume 1, ed. Noble Tolbert (Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 1964), 319.

[2] John Ellis to John Floyd, Raleigh, December 10, 1859, , in The Papers of John W. Ellis: Volume 1, ed. Noble Tolbert (Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 1964), 331.

[3] Joseph Todd to John Ellis, Boone, December 15, 1859, in The Papers of John W. Ellis: Volume 1, 333.

[4] “July 16, 1860,” in “Journal of a Secesh Lady: The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux,” ed. Beth Crabtree and James Patton (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1979), 6.

[5] Marcus Erwin to John Ellis, Asheville, December 22, 1859, in The Papers of John W. Ellis: Volume 1, 334-335.

[6] John Ellis to Hugh Waddell, Joseph Jackson and Nathan Ramsay, Raleigh, January 10, 1860, in The Papers of John W. Ellis: Volume 2, 349.