Although some scholars, such as T. Harrell Allen and Donald E. Reynolds cited newspapers which, they believed, contributed to both North Carolina and the South’s decision to secede from the Union by either openly arguing for secession or shifting their positions to eventually favor secession, this was not true of all newspapers in North Carolina, and certainly not true of Central North Carolina’s Unionist papers, as demonstrated by the three studied in this exhibit. The newspaper that Allen cites most effectively in his analysis of North Carolina’s shifting antebellum opinion was the Wilmington Daily Herald. While the Herald’s early and dramatic shift in its stance on secession effectively demonstrates the sentiment of its readers, in the eastern slaveholding region of North Carolina felt, it cannot be looked to as the bellwether of North Carolina’s public opinion as a whole. The most even split in opinion was in the central part of the state, and the Observer, Standard, and Watchman are good examples of Unionist newspapers in that vital area. These three newspapers took up the Unionist cause after Lincoln’s election and only grudgingly reversed themselves after Lincoln called for troops to fight against the Confederacy. Each argued that the Union could not be preserved by force, and Lincoln’s Proclamation was proof that peaceful negotiations had ended.
All of the newspapers examined in this essay fought for the Union until Lincoln’s call for troops. Examination of all three reveals numerous editorials, arguments, ads for pro-Union meetings, and calls to action for the Unionist cause. All three papers fought for peace until South Carolina and President Lincoln provided circumstances that proved too much to fight against. The tide of public opinion shifted in a flash, and the papers could not continue to argue that North Carolina could bide her time and play a waiting game. For better or worse, North Carolina was a southern state, and the prospect of fighting her brothers in the South was an idea that few whites in the state could abide.
In all three papers’ editorial pages, it was not until President Lincoln called for troops that each gave up on the possibility of North Carolina’s remaining a part of the Union. The Fayetteville Observer summed up the event best by writing it was “the last feather that breaks the camel’s back.” It was this event that forced the Unionists and Unionist newspapers in the state to join the secessionist cause, and unlike the original secessionists, they did not go joyfully. All three papers analyzed offered a bleak outlook on the coming war. This war was one that they did not want and was one that they fought as hard as they could against. The Civil War was a war which, like the Observer predicted, would “be hard to say whether victor or vanquished is the greater sufferer.” Although the Weekly Standard, Fayetteville Observer, and Carolina Watchman devoted countless words in their newspaper’s pages to supporting the cause of North Carolina’s continuation in the Union, their ability to shape public opinion could not stand in opposition to the dramatic events that occurred in mid-April of 1861.