On February 28, 1861, there was a state-wide referendum in North Carolina on whether to hold a secession convention and, in the event it was held, the election of delegates for that convention. This was a limited poll, of course, in which the only voters were white male taxpayers.
At the end of the day, those particular men narrowly defeated secessionism by a vote of 47,323 to 46,672. Unionist support, however, was actually stronger than those numbers suggest. That’s because there were also Unionists who voted in favor of holding that convention for the purpose of sending Unionist delegates there to control it. Out of 120 total seats at the convention, Unionist delegates would have had about 80 of them. Most of these Unionists were like my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., who was an as-it-was-with-slavery Unionist, not an as-it-might-be-without-slavery Unionist. The North Carolina Standard newspaper described Hackney, a former state politician, as “a constitutional Union man” in a report about a Union meeting that was held in Chatham County on December 27, 1860.
The ten counties listed above and to the right are part of the election results that were published in the North Carolina Standard on March 6, 1861. Chatham County, where Hackney lived, elected three Unionist delegates and overwhelmingly opposed holding a convention by a vote of 1795-283. (“Chatham has covered herself with glory.”) Forsyth County, where I was raised, elected two Unionist delegates who ran unopposed and overwhelmingly rejected the convention too. Alamance County, where my mother grew up, also elected two Unionist delegates and voted down the convention. (“Three cheers for Alamance for electing straight out Union delegates!”) And the same story was repeated in Guilford County, where my father was raised, with the election of three Unionist delegates, 2771 votes against holding a convention, and only 113 votes for it. Five of those counties are in the “Quaker Belt” of the central piedmont, where Quakers, Moravians, and Wesleyan Methodists would provide fertile soil for disaffection with a pro-slavery rebellion to take root.
Some of the other counties listed there, where the convention vote was much closer, are further east, near the coast. Generally speaking, that tracked with popular support for secession across the Old North State, with less enthusiasm the further west one traveled (i.e., toward the Blue Ridge Mountains) and more enthusiasm the further east one traveled (i.e., toward the “inner banks” along the coastal sounds).
This pro-Union verse, sung to the tune of Dixie’s Land, was published in the North Carolina Standard on February 6, 1861. It reflects a mood that remained popular as late as April 3, 1861, when the following editorial appeared in the same newspaper, together with other reminders that “the disunionists were voted down on the 28th of February” and that Unionists like my great-great-great-grandfather were “not unsound on the question of slavery.” Alas, “not unsound” here means pro-slavery:
North Carolina will not secede from the Union for existing causes. Nearly all the Union candidates in this State advocated a Convention; if they had opposed it, it would have been voted down by 30,000 majority. We state this as one of the strongest evidences that the State is not disposed at this time to secede. It will not do to say that the people of North Carolina are submissionists. They are just as brave as other people, and because they are, they are not ready to fight shadows. . . .
We repeat, North Carolina will not secede. Virginia will not secede. The late action of her Convention shows that she is watching and waiting. She sees no good cause just now to join the war dance of secession. Our disunion friends may as well hang up their fiddles. The people will keep step to no tune of their playing.
Nine days after those words were published, on April 12, 1861, South Carolina batteries opened fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The fort was surrendered the next day. Then, on April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation asking for 75,000 troops collectively from the states that remained loyal to the Union for the purpose of suppressing this rebellion by South Carolina and the other states of the Lower South. Listed in order of secession, those six states were Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.