Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Remember when N.C. voted to save the Union?

     Four days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, North Carolina held a statewide referendum to decide whether to secede from the Union. 
     You might have thought that was a foregone conclusion. Seven southern states had already exited.
     Yet at the end of February 1861, voters across North Carolina rejected secession and chose to remain in the Union. The vote was close, and it wasn't binding for long, but it remains a refreshing history lesson for our generation as we deal with another polarizing presidency and an increasingly fractious society.
North Carolina Standard, March 20, 1861
     This referendum was news to me when I began researching Stoneman's Raid and learned about it from the books of North Carolina historian Michael C. Hardy. I looked it up in old newspapers and found this county-by-county table in the North Carolina Standard published March 20, 1861 in Raleigh. The referendum was held February 28 (156 years ago today), but back then it took a couple of weeks to compile all the votes.
     North Carolina voters faced two questions: First whether to call for a constitutional convention to consider secession, and second to nominate delegates in case the convention was approved.
     In effect, a vote against the convention was a vote for the Union. North Carolina rejected the convention by a margin of just 661 votes, 47,333 against and 46,672 for. That made the second question moot, but if the delegates had convened they would have been 83-37 in favor of the Union.
     Many of the counties that would be raided by Stoneman in 1865 were overwhelmingly loyal to the Union: Watauga voted against a convention 536-72, Caldwell 651-186, Wilkes 1,890-51, Yadkin 1,490-34, Forsyth 1,409-286, and Guilford 2,771-113.
     Among counties ready to secede were Rowan 1,150-882, Catawba 918-158, Lincoln 708-86, Mecklenburg 1,448-252, McDowell 638-217, and Buncombe 1,219-389. Most of the support for secession was in eastern North Carolina, where slavery was more widespread.
     While North Carolina was still counting votes, Lincoln gave his inaugural address on March 4 and made one last eloquent plea to save the Union:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
     So if North Carolinians were loyal to the Union, how did we wind up in the Confederacy?
     Six weeks after the referendum, the political landscape was jolted April 12-13 by the rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 15 by Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion, and April 17 by the secession of Virginia, which geographically severed North Carolina from the Union.
     Lincoln's action would have required North Carolinians to go to war against their neighboring states, and that was too much to ask. One way or another, the Union was already broken.
     Secessionist leaders in North Carolina seized the moment, bypassed the referendum, and defied the expressed will of the people. On May 1, Gov. John Ellis called for a special session of the state legislature, which authorized a constitutional convention and nominated its own slate of delegates. On May 20, 1861, they voted 120-0 to secede from the Union. North Carolina became the 11th and last state to join the Confederacy.
     Historian William T. Auman described the death spiral in his book, Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt (the Quaker Belt was centered in Winston-Salem and Greensboro):
North Carolina's Unionism proved to be no match for the centrifugal forces then pulling the United States apart along sectional seams. With the secession of the Deep South, the failure of one sectional compromise effort after another, the secession of Virginia, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the call by Lincoln on each state for troops to force the seceded states back into the Union, most Tar Heel Unionistsincluding those in the Quaker Beltfelt compelled to choose between what they viewed as the lesser of two evils and take their stand with their native section.
Less than 12 weeks after North Carolina voted to stay in the Union,
delegates unanimously approved the Ordinance of Secession.


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