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John W. Ellis, 1820-1862


John W. Ellis, 1820-1862


John Willis Ellis was a North Carolina lawyer, legislator, judge, and Democratic governor. Ellis was Governor during the secession crisis in North Carolina.


Ridge, Jordan


John Willis Ellis was a North Carolina lawyer, legislator, judge, and Democratic governor. Born in Rowan County in 1820, he was a son of a Planter. Ellis graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1841, and served as a lawyer, until he was elected to the state legislature. From 1844 to 1848, he served in the state legislative assembly. In 1848, the General Assembly voted for him to be a Superior Court judge, a position he filled until winning the gubernatorial election of 1858. John Ellis was the governor of North Carolina during the session crisis of 1861.
The son of a planter, Ellis unsurprisingly championed the property rights of slaveholders. Ellis believed the U.S. Constitution protected one’s private property. While his own personal beliefs were geared toward keeping the intuition of slavery, the governor did not aggressively steer the state toward secession. Although he sympathized with the plight of the original seven states of the Confederacy and anticipated Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, he believed secession was unnecessary to preserve slavery. Ellis reflected many North Carolinian's feelings on the secession of the seven states. He cautiously dealt with an explosive political situation. For instance, Ellis dispatched envoys to Montgomery (the capital of the Confederacy before Virginia seceded) and Washington, D. C. and commanded secessionists who seized Forts Caswell and Johnston to give the federal forts back. But when Lincoln called for North Carolina troops to put down the rebellion, Ellis replied, “I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.” North Carolina would secede from the Union on May 20, 1861.


Noble J. Tolbert, “John Willis Ellis” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill, 1979-1996)


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Ridge, Jordan, John W. Ellis, 1820-1862, Civil War Era NC, accessed April 17, 2024,