Battling Ballots: Should we stay or should we go now? North Carolina votes on secession.

A photo collage of images. A man in period clothing wearing a vest with arms crossed, one hand pinching his nose between his eyes in frustration holding a pair of glasses in the other. He's leaning on a road sign pointing in different directions saying: Union, Secession, Republican, Democrat, Slavery and Abolition. Blue Ridge Mountains in the backround.

Perhaps it was like candidate endorsements from advocacy organizations or newspaper editorial boards today.

But in 1861, voters in North Carolina themselves announced their preferences just before (and just after) a momentous election. Two months later, they changed their minds. 

In the winter that spanned 1860 and 1861, right after South Carolina and seven other states seceded, thousands of North Carolinians gathered in community meetings to figure out where they stood. John Ellis, their secessionist governor, had called for a convention that would consider leaving the Union. An election in February would decide if the convention was to be held. Everyone knew that voting for the convention meant voting for secession, and voting against the convention meant voting to remain the United States. 

The state had given a slight edge to southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge, whom secessionists supported, over the third party candidate, John Bell in the presidential contest that elevated Republican Abraham Lincoln to the executive seat. Still, secessionism in the Old North State remained unpopular. 

Voters, then, gathered in community meetings to determine their positions on the convention and the secession that it implied. These meetings published their resolutions, and in them we can get a view into the conflicted minds of men caught in the middle: thoroughly proslavery and anti-Lincoln, but firmly against secession. 

North Carolina (1856), Courtesy of the Rumsey Collection

The paper reported the resolutions of five meetings from Rowan, Catawba, Caldwell, and Lincoln counties. Snug in the western piedmont, this region later gained a reputation for ambivalence about—and disaffection from—the Confederate States over the course of the war. Indeed, the people there held few slaves and claimed a steadfast loyalty to the Constitution. 

Four of the meetings advanced anti-secessionist resolutions. One wanted out of the Union right away. None agreed on a proper course of action. All agreed on the cause of the troubles: the Republican party’s anti-slavery agitation. They spoke of no other.

The first meeting from Rowan county declared that the personal liberty laws, passed by several free states that allowed their citizens to disregard the Fugitive Slave Act, were unconstitutional, and demanded their repeal. Still, the Rowan citizens did not deem secession a solution, even if Lincoln had expressed hostility to slavery. Instead, they looked to legislation and constitutional amendments to secure the safety of slavery. But they remained determined to be vigilant about any “encroachments, if any shall be attempted by him, on the rights and interests of slavery.” They took a parting shot at South Carolina for acting in a dangerous fashion. They haggled over the need for a convention, but ended up not endorsing one. 

Further west, in Caldwell county in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, another group of citizens pledged their loyalty to the Constitution, and also declared personal liberty laws to be unconstitutional. The Republican ascendency, they maintained, meant a “direct conflict with the safety and honor of the slaveholding States.” These men demanded a constitutional solution, but agreed that they should be allowed to secede if they determined to do so. They called for a convention. 

Catawba county’s voters condemned secession and South Carolina. They also condemned Lincoln with just as much fervor, but claimed that his election did not warrant disunion. They resolved that “we are in favor of exhausting all honorable means for obtaining our rights peaceably, but failing to obtain them peaceably, we are determined and hereby pledge ourselves to do it forcibly.” Just in case it came to that, they favored a convention. 

Back in Rowan county, at another meeting, participants very succinctly stated that they opposed a convention (and thereby, secession) but also that free states should repeal their personal liberty laws. 

The only dissenters from the anti-secessionist trend in western North Carolina came from Lincoln county. Their fiery resolutions began, “Several of the Northern States have nullified the Constitution by their personal liberty bills; and whereas, Abraham Lincoln, a Black Republican and the author of the ‘irrepressible conflict’ has been elected to the Presidency by a purely sectional vote and stands on a platform whose fundamental principle is war against the institutions of the south.” These men claimed to be unable to abide submission to “the practical effects of an Administration which seeks to degrade us in the Union and deprive us of the dearest rights of freemen” and reported that they would rather secede than “be a contemptible minority in an Abolition Republic.” Of course, they called for a convention. 

Anti-secessionist Unionists voting for a convention suggests that their Unionism had limits, and they knew it. 

Interestingly, we see a region with few slaveholders attaching itself firmly to a proslavery view of national politics. Proslavery and anti-secession remained a consistent position across most upper south regions before Fort Sumter. This political faction felt the U.S. Constitution sufficient enough to protect slavery and found no reason to abandon it, even if they hated and feared a Republican president’s abolitionist leanings. 

Of course, most of these men soon changed their minds. Where they had put their faith in the constitution and conservative men in Congress to restrain Lincoln; Lincoln smashed that faith—in their minds—when he called for volunteers to suppress the burgeoning rebellion after Confederates attacked Fort Sumter. To them, it was proof that the founding documents could no longer contain “an Abolition Republic.” 

North Carolina seceded on May 20, 1861, and White people in the western part of the state—at least for the moment—fully mobilized to support the Confederate cause.

The 2020 Presidential election season is momentous. It turns not only on generation-defining issues, but also on the pure mechanics of voting. Will voters in a pandemic show up to potentially crowded polling places? Will the United States Postal Service deliver mail-in ballots in time? In some states, who is even an eligible voter is disputed.

The American Civil War has proven to be the pivotal moment in the transformation of American voting rights, if not the actual mechanics of voting. The 14th and 15th Amendments changed everything. Yet in some ways, nothing changed at all. Still, the United States that approached the presidential election of 1860 differed remarkably from that which elected a president in 1872.

To appreciate the changes, the American Civil War Museum is introducing a series about voting in the era of America’s greatest conflict.

This series will highlight key electoral moments, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and will illuminate how deeply passionate Americans have been about political participation, about who gets to participate at all, and who gets to decide. In the spirit of voting, we would like to invite you to have your say. Cast your questions at ask@acwm.org or message us at @ACWMuseum on Twitter or Facebook!