Catawba lecture explores run-up to secession
By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY — One hundred and fifty years ago Friday, delegates from around North Carolina voted to secede from the Union.
The anniversary of the Civil War is being commemorated throughout the South with a focus on history and its impact on the world today.
In Salisbury, Catawba College professor Gary Freeze gave a lecture on the city’s role in the decision to join the Confederacy.
To say “states’ rights” or “slavery” caused secession oversimplifies things, Freeze said.
He sees in the decision a longstanding desire to be free of outside authority, stretching back to the Mecklenburg Resolves — a declaration of independence signed over a year before the July 4 declaration authored by Thomas Jefferson.
That North Carolina declaration was signed on the same day: May 20, 1775.
“Their identities were tied up in the preservation of their state,” Freeze said.
But before Lincoln called for troops to do battle with Southern states, North Carolinians were far from united in the desire to break away.
In his lecture, hosted by the N.C. Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Freeze pointed to a divide between farmers who grew wheat and plantation owners who grew cotton.
The vote for secession was largely split along those lines. County by county, the cotton-growing counties voted to secede.
But Freeze also noted that most counties voting for secession were predominantly Baptist, a denomination that values individual authority and local governance.
By contrast, largely Methodist areas — where ministers were sent out by bishops, not called by individual churches — tended to vote for the Union.
It’s not a perfect model, Freeze said.
But it shows that North Carolina was by no means monolithic then, just as it is politically diverse today.
“And that’s what made North Carolina so distinct,” he said.
Salisbury, too, hosted both pro-union and pro-secession factions.
But, Freeze noted, the rhetoric leading up to the declaration of war was one of outsiders invading the homeland, not the image of “brother against brother” that later was seen.
“The ‘Year of Secession,’ from the summer of 1860 to the summer of 1861, was a deeply complex year in Salisbury,” Freeze said.
Even as locals were expressing a willingness to fight, if needed, the Constitutional Union Party held its statewide rally here.
Some 6,000 people gathered in Salisbury for that event.
There were also racial tensions, with at least one attempted lynching.
That man survived, thanks to the intervention of city leaders who helped him escape to Charlotte, Freeze said.
But despite all of the debate, when Lincoln called for volunteers to fight the South, Freeze said, the tide of opinion turned.
Those who attended Freeze’s leture, the first in a series of anniversary lectures, said they learned something about local, and national, history.
“I think what I learned more than anything was that the Civil War was about more than just slavery,” said Nancy Davis of Archdale.
Brenda Leonard of Lexington said she learned the significance of May 20.
“It’s no longer just another date,” she said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.