Cook: State played major role in Civil War

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

This monthís Rowan County History Club meeting drew a full crowd to the Rowan Museum to hear about North Carolinaís role in the Civil War.
It was not a happy story. A poor state sent nearly all of its men off to fight in a war they initially did not want, to defend an institution ó slavery ó which most of them did not practice.
But itís a story to which we Southerners are drawn, our land brought to its knees and forever shaped by this defeat.
Yes, I know, the war was all about statesí rights. But slavery was a big factor, and that was the line of thinking presented by Wilson Greene, the Civil War expert who addressed the History Club.
It was probably the first Rowan History Club meeting most of us attended. But the Civil War remains a topic of fascination and, in some corners, obsession here in the South. So scores of people jumped at the chance to hear Greene, executive director of the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Va.
The upcoming 150th anniversary of the warís start on April 12 will generate lots of events and stories to stir debate about the war again.
Not that it ever stopped.

North Carolina played an important but often overlooked role in the war, Greene said, though citizens were hardly united on the matter. A conservative land, the state had 692,942 white residents and 34,658 black residents, most of them slaves on plantations in the eastern part of the state. Only three slaveholders in the state had more than 300 slaves, putting North Carolina out of step with neighboring states dominated by large plantations. The average North Carolina slaveholder had fewer than 10 slaves, and many had none.
North Carolina was also one of the most sparsely populated states, Greene said ó truly a vale of humility between the states of Virginia and South Carolina. The largest city in the state was Wilmington, thanks to its port, with about 10,000 people. New Bern was next with 6,000 and Raleigh had 5,000.
Most residents were small farmers growing crops for their own consumption, with a little left over to sell.
The stateís sentiment around 1859 and 1860 was largely pro-Union, according to Greene. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president ó considered an enemy of the South ó did not initially move the state to action, even though he was not on the North Carolina ballot. Though some called for it, the state did not immediately hold a state convention to consider secession, as other states did. But events soon pushed the state to take a stand.

The governor at the time was Rowan native John Ellis, for whom Salisburyís Ellis Street is named.
Ellis was pro-secession, but he knew most of the state was not, Greene said. The firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina changed everything.
Now a national monument, the ancient fort has a website that sums up its role in the war:
ěDecades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back.î
Lincoln called on all states for volunteers to suppress the rebellion in South Carolina, and Ellis stepped up, but not to send volunteers.
The governor called a special session of the legislature and prepared the state for its inevitable alliance with the Confederacy. The assembly passed a bond issue to raise funds, created Camp Ellis in Raleigh. Finally, on May 20, delegates voted at a special convention. Burton Craig, also from Rowan County, submitted the ordinance of secession, and delegates approved it. North Carolina seceded from the Union.
Great celebration followed in Raleigh. Greene read from an account:
ěAmidst the thunder of cannon, the ringing of bells and ëthe inspiring musicí the assembled multitude went wild. Old men rushed into each otherís arms; young men, soldiers and civilians yelled themselves hoarse, and all sorts of extravagances were indulged in.î

Ellis, in poor health at the time, did not live to see how valiantly his state joined the fray. With only one-ninth of the Confederacyís population, North Carolina would contribute one-sixth of its fighting forces ó and suffer the largest death toll of any Confederate state.
By warís end, the celebrations of May 1861 were long forgotten. Greene said 11 major battles and 73 lesser ones had taken place in North Carolina. Farms were destroyed, homes burned. Families were left grieving and destitute. ěNo state suffered more than North Carolina,î Greene said.
Itís not a happy story, but look at North Carolina today ó the 10th most populous state in the nation, home of prestigious universities, cutting-edge research and countless productive industries.
Maybe thatís what we should celebrate on the anniversary of the warís beginning ó how far weíve come, despite the Civil War.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.