On April 12, 1861, South Carolina artillery fired on Fort Sumter, which was surrendered the next day. On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops collectively from states that remained loyal to the Union to suppress the rebellion. The Governor of North Carolina, John Ellis, refused to send any troops for what he envisioned as a military invasion. In his response to the U.S. Secretary of War, Governor Ellis described the President’s request as a “violation of the Constitution and a gross usurpation of power.” On April 17, 1861, he issued his own proclamation, calling for the General Assembly of North Carolina to meet in a special session on May 1, 1861, for the purpose of “[united] action in defense of the sovereignty of North Carolina.” Governor Ellis also ordered the seizure of all Federal property in the state.
On the first day of that special session, legislation was passed to hold an election on May 13, 1861, to select 120 delegates to a convention of the people of North Carolina. Unlike the earlier vote in March, this was not about whether to hold a convention but only about whom to send. The General Assembly had already made the decision on behalf of the people that the convention would meet in Raleigh on May 20, 1861. Furthermore, there would be no restrictions on its scope and no popular referendum on its decisions. The mistakes of the past wouldn’t be repeated this time.
Above and to the right is a partial list of counties in North Carolina and the delegates from those counties who were elected to serve at that convention. The list was published in Raleigh on the front page of the North Carolina Standard newspaper on May 22, 1861. In several places, the names of the entire slate are given along with the actual vote count, including the results from Chatham County. That’s where my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., a former state politician and the owner of 14 slaves, lived. Note that his name appears on the list of eight candidates in Chatham County. Three of those candidates were elected as delegates. Hackney came in sixth. Also on the front page that day was a defense of “the old Union men,” like Hackney, “who exhausted all honorable means to save the Union.”
The delegates who were elected to that convention owned an average of 30.5 slaves each and came with opinions that had been shaped by the President’s request for troops. More than half of them belonged to the elite planter class based on the total number of slaves that they owned. The convention voted unanimously to secede from the Union on the first day that it convened, May 20, 1861. But that is not to say that everyone in the room was equally enthusiastic about it. The editor of the North Carolina Standard was there as a delegate and later recalled the scene in this way:
I remember well that when the act of Secession was consummated the body looked like a sea, partly in storm, partly calm, the Secessionists shouting and throwing up their hats and rejoicing, and the Conservatives sitting quietly, calm, and depressed.
My great-great-great-grandfather would have been in the latter group if he had been elected as a delegate. But it’s important to remember the embarrassing truth that he and most of the other slave-owning, pro-slavery Unionists were only reluctant secessionists because they believed it would eventually lead to the destruction of the institution of slavery. They, of course, were right about that. Yet they would not remain in the Union if it required them to bear arms against South Carolinians.
One of those Unionists-turned-secessionists was Zebulon Vance, who would later become the wartime Governor of North Carolina. In some of his correspondence before he had concluded his term as a U.S. Representative, he wrote that it would be suicidal for North Carolina and the other states of the Upper South (i.e., Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, Arkansas, and Missouri) to join forces with the Lower South. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what half of them did. Listed in order of secession, those four states were Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Zeb Vance’s private fears, shared by many, would prove to be prophetic.
This is how secession was announced in Raleigh’s State Journal newspaper on May 22, 1861, including a sick and twisted use of the biblical story of the Exodus (i.e., the suffering of the children of Israel in bondage in Egypt, their deliverance by the hand of God, and their arrival in the Promised Land) to describe the imagined suffering of secessionists and their liberation in this moment. There is no mention, of course, of the enslaved Africans who were actually in bondage and comprised 33% of the total population of North Carolina, according to the 1860 United States Federal Census:
1 BACK TO POST Yes, I am aware of the debate over different ways to order this list. North Carolina had the last state convention to pass an ordinance of secession on May 20, 1861, while the earlier ordinances passed in Virginia and Tennessee were ratified by popular referendums in each of those states on May 23 and June 8, 1861, respectively. However, the only debate that matters here is about the sin of slavery.