ORGANIZING SECESSION IN NORTH CAROLINA PRIOR TO THE 20th of MAY, 1861 SECESSIONIST CONVENTION IN RALEIGH: THE PRIMARY LEADERS CONSUMED BY THE LEADERSHIP WORK NECESSARY TO TAKE NORTH CAROLINA OUT OF THE UNITED STATES WERE WEALTHY, PRIVILEGED MEN INCLUDING WELDON EDWARDS of Warren County, BURTON CRAIGE of Rowan County, THOMAS RUFFIN of Wayne and Alamance Counties, WILLIAM S. ASHE of New Hanover County, GOVERNOR JOHN ELLIS of Rowan County, SENATOR THOMAS CLINGMAN of Buncombe County, V. C. BARRINGER of Carbarrus County and D. K. McRAE of Cumberland County.
WARNINGS ABOUT THE LIKELY IMPACT ON NORTH CAROLINIANS IF THE STATE SECEDED:
THE WILMINGTON DAILY HERALD. of 9 November 1860, warned readers that the secession, by the State of North Carolina, would not be blood letting alone but also would result in:  a breaking of the foundation for government;  a destruction of American nationality;  the ruination of trade;  a stoppage of industrial pursuits;  a general bankruptcy throughout the state and  a universal distress would be visited upon the people of North Carolina.
THE NORTH CAROLINA STANDARD, of 1 December 1860, warned the people of the state that secession would result in a loss of constitutional liberty and all that remained would be:  discretionary powers;  martial law;  military rule;  oppressive taxation;  civil and servile war;  industry languishing;  trade obstructed;  internal improvements stopped; and  the morals of society irreparably compromised.
THE FEAR OF THE LEGAL VOTERS IN NORTH CAROLINA BY SECESSIONIST LEADERS OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY:
After the rejection by North Carolina voters, in February, 1861, to hold a secessionist convention, the leaders listed above made sure that the final decision on secession and joining the Confederacy would be decided by them and not by a popular vote, like Virginia and Tennessee. Of the leaders listed above the three who were delegates to 1861 Secessionist Convention; namely, Weldon Edwards of Warren County, Thomas Ruffin of Alamance County and Burton Craige of Rowan County all voted against submitting to the legal voters of North Carolina the question of whether North Carolina should join the Confederacy or not.
“The disunion mania which now pervades the breasts of so many Southern men progresses with unprecedented rapidity, and like a devastating tornado threatens to prostate all in the dust. . . .If the people do not take the matter into their own hands all is iost. . . . Let the people take the country out of the hands of the politicians.” ALFRED DOCKERY, one of the 46 members of the North Carolina legislature who voted against holding a secessionist convention in May, 1861, as reported in THE CAROLINA WATCHMAN, 5 Feb 1861, page 1. In 1860, 85% of the representatives in the North Carolina legislature, Senate and House of Commons combined, were slaveholders, while the actual ownership of slaves, in the state, was about 29% of the population.
The tariff policies of the late 1820s and early 1830s, did not produce sufficient unity, in the Southern states south of the Potomac, to result in their secession from the Union, however, threats to slave property, in 1850s and early 1860s, birthed the Confederate experiment and the annihilation of an extended civil war. RICHARD SPAIGHT DONNELL, 1861 Secession Convention Delegate from Beaufort County, NC in July of 1863.
After December of 1860, as the lower Southern states began to withdraw from the Union, secessionist Governor John Ellis, a wealthy planter from Rowan County, pressured the state legislature to call a special convention to consider the condition of the “federal relations” of North Carolina with the United States of America. With Union sentiment strong in the state, the best he could get was referendum in which the legal voters could decide on February 28, 1861 whether to hold such a convention. When the final vote was counted for holding such a convention, it was rejected by 47,672 voting “No” and 46,323 voting “Yes” [as reported in THE STATE JOURNAL, 13 March 1861 and THE NORTH CAROLINA STANDARD, 20 March 1861, cited in Sitterson, page 223]. Also, on February 28th, the votes had selected one hundred and twenty delegates in case the vote for a convention was favorable. If the convention had been approved, the secessionist in the state could not have been pleased since the voters elected: 50 unconditional Unionist; 20 conditional Unionist; and 30 secessionist. In the break down of votes by the various North Carolina counties: 30 voted secessionist; 35 voted unconditional Unionist; 17 voted conditional Unionist; and 4 were divided. [from Sitterson, pages 223 and 224]. Instead accepting this expression of popular will, the secessionist leaders of state continue to organize rallies in various counties and plan a large convention in secessionist leaning Goldsboro. Henry Wagstaff describes these events in his book STATE RIGHTS AND POLITICAL PARTIES IN NORTH CAROLINA-1776-1861 [Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1906]: 140 – 155.
THE “SELF CONSTITUTED”, SECESSIONIST GOLDSBORO CONVENTION, March 22 to 23, 1861
[beginning on page 140 of Wagstaff] “The WILMINGTON DAILY JOURNAL of March 4 suggested a plan of action which became at once the policy of the state rights party. This plan contemplated another state convention [called by the governor]. For its call an extra session of the Assembly would be necessary. The governor [John Ellis, a wealthy planter from Rowan County], though well known to be favorable, was not likely to call the Assembly together for this purpose so soon after the late defeat unless there was a strong demand for such action. The JOURNAL’s plan was to give this demand an effective form. Delegates who had been elected to the defeated convention were invited to meet as an advisory body of citizens, which, if not a legally organized assembly, would at least be composed of gentlemen legally chosen, whose views would necessarily have much weight, both within and without the state. The movement would have to be wholly spontaneous on the part of the delegates and at their own expense. [Once secessionist rallied to this plan, radicals held meetings, in various counties, making speeches advocating secession and the formation of a Southern Confederacy. Sitterson, p. 234] Goldsboro [a hotbed of secession] was suggested as the place of meeting [rather than Raleigh, a Unionist stronghold], and April 4 indicated as the date. [On March 13, the GOLDSBORO ROUGH NOTES suggested that county representatives of the States’ Rights party gather in Goldsboro on March 22 and 23 to “save your State from the clutches of the Abolitionists”. North Carolina’s secessionist press encouraged all counties to send representatives. Sitterson, p. 234]. The plan received such hearty endorsement from the party that the earlier date of March 22 was fixed upon. The course of national affairs still further lent force and activity to the state rights party, for besides the failure of the peace proposition and the fact that Lincoln’s “address “furnished no tangible guarantee for peace and security, David Wilmot was entering the United States Senate, and the strongest places in the President’s cabinet had been filled by Seward and Chase. These three men were looked upon as life-long enemies to southern rights. [In March and April, 1861, the state’s secessionist leaders, with the assistance of their press, were holding meetings and organizing a political party, while the men claiming to be Unionists were relatively speaking less active. Also, the appeal of the Unionist case, in the state, had been weakened by the failure of the Peace Conference and the success of the secessionist in selling a twisted, negative view of Lincoln’s conciliatory inaugural address. Some of the North Carolina Union leaders included John A. Gilmer and Robert P. Dick of Guilford County, J. G. Ramsay and Nathaniel Boyden of Rowan County and H. W. Miller of Wake County. The major Union newspapers in opposition to secession were THE NORTH CAROLINA STANDARD, THE CAROLINA WATCHMAN (published in Salisbury), THE RALEIGH REGISTER and THE GREENSBOROUGH PATRIOT. During this time John Gilmer corresponded frequently with Secretary of State William H. Seward encouraging the Lincoln Administration to pursue policies that supported state unionist and, by all possible means, to not get involved in violence against state, which, in his view, would destroy the appeal of Unionist in North Carolina. Sitterson, page 235]
The proposal for the Goldsboro convention contained an invitation to all delegates of both parties who had been elected February 28. As has been seen, more than two-thirds of these delegates were Unionists. They refused to countenance the Goldsboro meeting, and it was denounced by the Unionist press as illegal and revolutionary.  With only the secession delegates remaining, the convention was turned into a mass-meeting wholly secessionist, with the secession delegates as a nucleus to give it the character of a convention. About twenty-five counties were represented during the two days’ session, each of these sending as many delegates as there were persons willing to go.  Some near-by counties were represented by several hundred, some by fifty, and about half by from one to three delegates. Most of the twenty-five counties were middle state and eastern, the territory represented coinciding roughly with the slave-holding area of the state. From Rowan County Representative Craige brought the delegation. Holding strong state rights views, and a close personal friend of Governor Ellis, Mr. Craige’s attendance at Goldsboro gave the convention official recognition and endorsement. The body organized March 22 by the choice of Weldon N. Edwards as chairman. The first period of the session was given over to a speech from Franklin J. Moses, commissioner from South Carolina. Mr. Moses referred to the natural affinity between North Carolina and the seceded states and reminded his hearers of the difficulties which then beset them in the old Union and which, he averred, would grow constantly worse; but security, peace, and fraternal feeling awaited them in the arms of the southern union. Also, Edmund Ruffin, a well-known Virginia secessionist, spoke to the group and encouraged North Carolina to withdraw from the Union. Both speakers pushed the theme that North Carolina should join the Southern Confederacy due to her common interests with them. Also, they assured the audience that the border states, like North Carolina, could not be secure under abolition rule. [from: Sitterson, p. 236].
[Once Weldon Edwards was selected at the President of the convention in his speech to the group he summarized the prevailing sentiments by stating:
“To remain in this Black Republican Union. . . (North Carolina’s) position must be one of degradation and bankruptcy. . . .I have but a few years left to me, but so help me God, they shall be spent in the cause of the rights of the whole South.” from: Sitterson, p. 236.]
Strong speeches, supporting “Southern rights”, were made by V. C. Barringer, Burton Craige and D. K. McRae, from the leadership, and others in attendance.
The important work of the convention was embodied in its favorable action on a set of resolutions brought in on the second day by a committee under Mr. Craige [he chaired the committee]. These resolutions set forth that the vote taken on the convention February 28 was not the deliberate fiat of the people; that subsequent events had brought many into a readiness for reconsideration of the state’s relations to the Union. Therefore, it was recommended that an organization should be formed whose object should be the dissemination of the facts and the presentation of the arguments bearing upon the issue to the people of every county, in the belief that when this information was in the minds of the people they would demand of the governor and the Assembly an opportunity to express their wishes at the ballot-box. In accordance with the resolutions two men were appointed in each congressional district to make up an executive committee of the Southern Rights party for the state. It was further recommended that the Southern Rights citizens of each county form organizations whose executive offices should correspond with the state executive committee and be a means for promoting the party principles. A final resolution declared that the interest and honor of North Carolina demanded political connection with the Southern Confederacy. [Sitterson argues, on the actions by the same committee, chaired by Burton Craige, that a set of resolutions was adopted by the convention. “The resolutions stated that the interests and honor of North Carolina demanded that it join its sister states of the South and recommended that an organization be set up to disseminate the facts on this issue to the people of every county, who, upon fully understanding these facts, would demand the call of a convention; that a State Executive Committee of two members from each congressional district be formed for the purpose of carrying out the objects of the Southern Rights party; and that Southern Rights orgaizations be set up in each county. A final resolution declared that any additional forces placed in the United States forts in North Carolina would be regarded as a menace and would be resisted at all hazards. After the appointment of an executive committee, the [Goldsboro] convention adjourned t meet in Charlotte, May 20, the “birthday of independence.” – Sitterson, pp. 236 – 237].
In the two days’ proceedings of this Goldsboro Convention is observable an entire absence of any disposition to preserve the Union. No word indicated the existence in the mind of any person of a hope of the restoration of that amity and brotherhood which once existed between the sections. No form of compromise likely to be reached offered security; therefore, the party stood ready to carry into practice the particularistic theory of the government which had never been dead where the state rights party was now strongest. Within a week of the adjournment of the convention the citizens of many state rights counties had organized in accordance with the recommendation.
In changing times a party with a policy to offer secures advantage by reason of its readiness and positive[ly advocated] program. The unanimity of the representatives in the Goldsboro Convention, their aggressiveness, and the definiteness of their plans are in sharp contrast with the confusion that prevailed among the Unionists. Though in a majority, the Unionists were forced into the attitude of merely an opposition party. Only past blessings could be instanced as reasons for fidelity to the Union. This could not long be a very potent argument when the present was so threatening and the future unfathomable. The unionists, unable to offer a solution, could only attack the irregularity of the proceedings of the state rights party. The Goldsboro Convention was bitterly assailed, and Moses was accused of trying to induce the leaders to override the will of the people. The disunion leaders were reminded that the ballot box was the arbiter of all political controversies in our form of government; that the decision had been given on February 28, and, until a new contingency arose, should be final.
Freedom of speech and toleration of opposing opinion were generally insisted upon throughout March and the first two weeks of April, though infractions of the rule were occasional on the part of both parties in the respective localities where they were in large majorities. In Wayne (County), a strong secession county, a speaker gave offense by his conservatism on the leading question, slavery. A committee of ardent secessionists waited upon him and threatened a coat of tar and feathers as an aid to a change of sentiment. In Raleigh, on April 8, some young men wearing Confederate cockades in their hats raised a small Confederate flag on a pole in a vacant lot. The movement excited the ire of many of the bystanders, and called forth a threat to cut down the pole. Though the threat was not executed, one bellicose Union man blazed away at the flag with a rusty old fire-lock amid the applause of the crowd. Raleigh, however, stood firmly Unionist, despite the attitude of the governor and of his administration.
The Southern Rights party had lost no time in perfecting its organization along the lines laid down at Goldsboro, and was busily engaged in holding county meetings and in sending petitions to the governor for a call of the General Assembly in extra session. Public opinion was in a formative stage. Governor Ellis was not yet prepared, however, without further developments, to disregard the people’s decision, but for this he had not now long to wait. External events were hastening which would affect North Carolina and force her to a rapid decision.
[Sitterson describes the time after the adjournment of the Goldsboro Convention on March 23, 1861 in the following way, adding important details: “In the weeks following its organization, the newly organized Southern Rights party conducted an aggressive campaign in advocacy of the secession of North Carolina. Numerous meetings were held in (the predominantly) slaveholding counties of the East and in the southwest. Most of them elected delegates to a grand rally of the Southern Rights party which, upon the request of citizens of Craven County, was to be held in New Bern, April 25 and 26, and which promised to approach the Goldsboro meeting in size and enthusiasm. They also urged the Governor (John Ellis) to convene the legislature at an early date in order that a convention might be called. Meanwhile plans were being made for the Charlotte meeting, May 20th. At a Southern Rights meeting in Raleigh, April 3, Senators Clingman and Bragg and Representative L. O’B. Branch urged the secession of North Carolina. All three speakers pointed out that there were other causes for apprehension besides slavery. The Morrill Tariff, the Pacific Railroad Bill, and the Homestead Bill were pointed to as measures which were inimical to the interests of the South [Interestingly, here all of these ‘other interests’ impact heavily on the slave-based economy and its extension into the territories.]
The radical press was aggressively advocating the separation of North Carolina. The people were asked to choose between the abolition North and people of the Southern Confederacy who were “waiting with open arms and willing hearts” to receive them. “Freemen of North Carolina,” exclaimed the NORTH CAROLINA WHIG, “awake! arise! And throw off the yoke of the oppressor [from the 9 April 1861 edition] THE CONCORD FLAG was sure tha, should a vote be taken now on the question of calling a convention, North Carolina would ‘dissolve all and every connection now and forever from the vile, rotten, infidelic, puritanic, negor-worshipping, negro-stealing, negro-equality and Yankee-Union.’ [as quoted in THE STATE JOURNAL, 3 April 1861]. THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL wrote that if Virginia was no longer ‘the Old Virginia of which her children had once so many reasons to be proud, let not North Carolina. . .be. . .her servile follower,’ but rather ‘assert her independence, take thelead’ and Virginia would soon follow’ [from the 4 April 1861 issue].
The Unionists attempted to stem the secession tide, but with little success. Lacking a definite program, forced to defend the Union on the basis of its past glories only, and unable to point to anything but an uncertain future for North Carolina in the Union, they were at a distinct disadvantage. Moreover, the uncertainty of Lincoln’s policy toward the forts in the South played into the hands of their opponents and made the task of the conservatives (Union supporters) doubly difficult.
In the first few days of April rumors were rife that Lincoln intended sending reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s announcement, April 8, that he was sending provisions to the grrison at Fort Sumter occasioned speculations on the part of the secessionists as to his intentions. THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL announced that Lincoln had changed his policy in regard to Fort Sumter as a result of pressure from his party in the North. THE STATE JOURNAL noted the rumor hat Lincoln was preparing for war on e seceded staes and declared that it had no doub but that ‘some unlooked for scheme is being worked out.’ (Sitterson, pages 237 – 239)]. On April 12, the attack, by Confederates, on Ft. Sumner started the war.
Of course, the heavy blame of the Democratic party, the party of secession of which the leaders listed above were members, by the people of North Carolina in only two short years must have been a bitter pill for them to swallow. After a Herculean effort by the Democratic party to take North Carolina out of the Union, the heavy toll of the killing and dying by an increasing number of North Carolinians, made it just about impossible for any Democrat to win an elective office. The Democratic Party was forced to absorb the full blame for starting the war. After Gettysburg, early July, 1863, matters became worse for them, for in August and September, 1863 over 100 demonstrations in the counties throughout the state cried for peace. These rallies attacked the incompetence of Confederate leaders and their government pressuring the governments in Raleigh and Richmond to negotiate more aggressively a peace settlement. Unlike the one-party lower South, North Carolina had two political parties in competition for power and horrors of war fell heaviest on the Democratic Party. Essentially, by mid-1863, Confederate leaders were trapped. When Lincoln selectively freed slaves on January 1, 1863 and the chances for the Confederacy to prevent a Union victory were fading, an unconditional surrender losing everything became a certainty. While the fighting men of the South, and the North, wanted nothing more than the earliest possible negotiated ceasefire and a peace settlement, increasingly desperate Confederate leaders believed they had to fight to the bitter end primarily to keep from losing all of their slaves. Of course, all of their promises about the benefits of secession and the certainty of Confederate victory could only feed their desperation while rendering their day-to-day judgments impractical as well as increasingly deadly for their own men and their families. They were entrenched on not surrendering rather than voluntarily lose their most valuable property in an unconditional surrender. The importance of their personal sense of honor in shaping their fact-denying, uncompromising style of leadership is a murky domain of almost bottomless speculation, however, it is obvious after reading their correspondences, especially with each other, plus their self justifying memoirs, that it was a factor of considerable significance.. After Gettysburg, their individual, personal vanity is directly related to their blindness on the inevitability of Confederate defeat. The peace movement in North Carolina from August, 1863, the increasing rates of desertion, and the defeats in the fighting, in all theaters of war, would have combined to convince more level-headed, courageous leaders to seek peace, even if it had to be unconditional. Yet, Raleigh and Richmond were willing to take military action that must have felt humiliating to them by sending vitally needed soldiers to put down peace protests in various counties of North Carolina. As it became clear that the peace movement in the state had failed one Confederate officer, with much sadness, said, “I guess we will just wade deeper into the crimson sea!” Did they ever!
69. “Raleigh was logically the place for the meeting, but was unionist in sentiment, while Goldsboro was strongly secessionist.
70. FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER, March 18, 1861.
71 In Wilmington a number of new delegates were elected March 20. The proceedings were less regular in other places. WILMINGTON DAILY JOURNAL, March 20, 1861.
72. The STATE JOURNAL, March 27, 1861, contains a list of the delegations and a full report of the proceedings of this convention.
73. Moses’ speech is published in the WILMINGTON DAILY JOURNAL, March 25, 1861. This speech, viewed from a calmer distance, cannot but appear presumptive and demagogical. He addressed his hearers as “fellow-citizens,” saying that it was not an inadvertance, as they would soon be in the Southern Confederacy.
74. The convention adopted the name, “Southern Rights,” in lieu of state rights, which had been used in the campaign for the convention.
75. WILMINGTON DAILY JOURNAL, March 30, 1861. New Hanover formed its association March 29, 1861.
76. CAROLINA WATCHMAN, Carolina March 26, 1861.
77. Ibid., April 2, 1861.
78. Early in January Hinton R. Helper’s book, “The Impending Crisis,” brought a number of abolitionists into trouble in Guilford, Randolph, and neighboring counties where the Quaker influence was very strong. This book was classed under “incendiary literature,” against the circulation of which a state law existed.
79. STANDARD, March 20, 1861.
80. RALEIGH REGISTER, aApril 10, 1861.
81. A train bearing a large number of secession delegates on their return from the Goldsboro convention made a stop at the Raleigh depot where a large crowd of citizens were collected Sunday morning, March 24. The secessionists, fresh from the enthusiasm of their meeting, singing “Dixie” and otherwise giving vent to their feelings, were incautious enough to yell from the waiting train that Raleigh was “a d—d abolition hole,” whereupon they were invited by the citizens to alight and prepare to defend their assertions. Promptitude was not lacking on the part of the delegates. .A free-for-all fight was averted only by the timely departure of the train. See STANDARD, April 3, and RALEIGH REGISTER, March 27, 1861, for accounts of this incident. The Register expressed a fear of civil war within the state.
* the views of Sitterson on the Goldsboro Convention of March, 1861, included in the above narrative, are from: Joseph C. Sitterson, THE SECESSION MOVEMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA [Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939]: 230 – 249.
From the South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes’ for her secession from the Union:
“. . . . an increasing hostility on the part of the nonslaveholding States to the institution of slavery” had led the North to assume “the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions.” Now that the free states had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and encouraged slave runaways as well as “servile insurrection”, they have released South Carolina from her obligation to the Union. [as cited in Sean Wilentz, THE RISE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, p. 774]
THE SECESSIONIST CONVENTION HELD IN GOLDSBORO ENDED ON 23 MARCH 1861, SUBSEQUENTLY, THE CITY WAS FIRST OCCUPIED BY UNION TROOPS ON THE 17 December 1862, TWENTY MONTHS AFTER THE SECESSIONIST ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING ADJOURNED.
“You know perfectly well it was the wealthy men of the South who dragooned the people into Secession.”
President Andrew Johnson speaking to a delegation of Virginians in 1865.