April 11, 1861 was America’s last day of peace.
On April 8th, President Lincoln’s envoy to the Governor of South Carolina announced the President’s intention to resupply the besieged garrison at Fort Sumner with food and water, threatening to prolong indefinitely the stalemate that had begun the previous December 26th. The implication of Lincoln’s action was that, if war was to come, then the Southern firebrands who had advocated for a state’s right to leave the Union would have to turn push into shove.
The cascade of fear and anger that had begun with Lincoln’s election in November had almost run out of steam by April, 1861. South Carolina, ever fast to take offense, led the way on December 20th, followed by Mississippi (Jan. 9), Florida (Jan. 10), Alabama (Jan. 11), Georgia (Jan. 19), Louisiana (Jan. 26), and Texas (Feb. 1). But there the flood tide had run out, and in the months since it seemed that overwrought tempers and heated words had cooled and even begun to recede.
The rock on which the initial secession wave broke was the Upper South, the border states possessing a majority of the southern populace, natural resources and industry. Even there the vocal minority of men of property and power had advocated for secession. But Unionists held back the flood, pointing out that the United States had been created by state constitutional conventions, authorized by a vote of the people, which then ratified (or not, in the case of North Carolina), the U.S. Constitution. They argued that secession, more simply known as “Disunion,’ could only be achieved by following a similar process. They hoped this delaying tactic would provide time to think, consider the consequences, and allow the possibility of compromise and new understanding.
On February 9, 1861, Tennessee voted on whether to send delegates to a State Convention to decide on secession. 88,803 votes were cast for pro-Union candidates and 22,749 votes were cast for Secession candidates, but the actual proposal for a secession convention was defeated by a vote of 69,675 to 57,798.
On February 13th a convention assembled in Richmond to determine whether Virginia should secede from the Union. More than two thirds of the delegates refused to vote for secession.
On Feb. 18th, the day that Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States, the citizens of Arkansas approved holding a convention to consider the question, but when an ordinance of secession was put to a vote on March 16th, it was rejected by a vote of 39 to 35.
Anyone reading the returns of the election of 1860 could have discerned the pro-Union sentiments of the voters of North Carolina. When the final vote totals were published in the Greensboro Patriot on February 14, 1861, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the Southern Democratic candidate, had received the most votes (48,533); second was John Bell of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union nominee (44,039); and far behind was the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (just 2,690 votes). When their totals are combined, more than 97% of North Carolina voters arguably approved the pro-Union positions of Bell and Breckinridge. (Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t get a single vote in Randolph County during the election of 1860; the new Republican Party had not garnered enough votes in the previous election to even be allowed on the North Carolina ballot.)
On January 29th the North Carolina General Assembly scheduled a referendum on whether to call a secession convention. “Whereas, the present perilous condition of the country demands… that the sovereign people of this State should assemble in Convention to effect an honorable adjustment of existing difficulties whereby the Federal Union is endangered, or otherwise preserve the honor and promote the interests of North Carolina; and Whereas, this General Assembly, on matters of such grave import, involving the relation of North Carolina to her sisters in the Confederacy, is reluctant to adopt any settled policy without the sense of the people in whom, under our governance, all sovereignty resides, being first ascertained.” [The act was published in the Feb. 14th edition of the Greensboro Patriot. The Yoda-like sentence structure of its preamble is a potent combination of florid Victorian language and turgid legalese.]
The act required the Governor “to issue a proclamation commanding the Sheriffs of the respective counties… to open polls… on the 28th day of February, A.D. 1861, when and where all persons qualified to vote… may vote for or against a State Convention: those who wish a convention, voting with a printed or written ticket, ‘Convention,’ and those who do not wish a convention, voting in the same way, ‘No Convention.’”
At the same time, potential delegates were to be elected in case the Convention was approved. Further complicating the process, even if the Convention met and approved an Ordinance of Secession, the bill still would require ratification by yet another vote of the people before it could take effect.
Campaigning against the Convention- against “Disunion”- began immediately in The Patriot, the old-line Whig newspaper serving Randolph and Guilford counties. On Thursday, February 6th, the editor wrote “TO THE POLLS! The bill calling a Convention, having provided that it shall be left to the people to say, through the ballot-box, whether or not they desire said Convention, we hope and trust that every man who loves his country, who desires the perpetuity of this Union, will resolve, if possible, to be at the polls and record his vote against a Convention. Let no one be deceived: The real question is Union or Disunion…. Let no one say, that it is useless to vote… It may be, and we think it probably that a majority will be cast for a ‘Convention,’ yet it is of the utmost importance, that as large a vote as possible should be cast against a Convention, for every vote so cast will be a vote for the Union…”
On January 31st, Jonathan Worth, leader of the Randolph Whigs and newly-elected to represent the county in the state House of Commons, issued “a circular to his constituents” which took a strong stand against the Convention. “Every artifice will be employed to make you believe that the Convention is to be called to save the Union. Believe it not…. If war begins, it will probably be brought on during the sitting of the Convention. It is now the policy of the disunionists to postpone hostilities till President Buchanan goes out and President Lincoln comes in. They will probably court a fight as soon as Lincoln takes the reins…. Believe not those who may tell you this Convention is called to save the Union. It is called to destroy it. If you desire to preserve the Union, vote ‘No Convention.’” [Worth’s Circular was excerpted in the Patriot of Feb. 6, 1861, and printed in full in the Feb. 14th issue.]
The last issue of The Patriot before the referendum (Feb. 21st) was full of articles and editorials seeking to get out the vote of faithful Whigs. “The 28th of February, the day which perhaps will decide the fate of the Union, is close at hand.… Let every man then who loves his country be at his post… There is a battle to be fought. A battle upon the result of which hang the destinies of this Nation. The enemies of our Union have been marshaling their forces. The hand is already uplifted to strike down the flag of our country! Union men, to the rescue! To the rescue! …Believe not those who tell you, that the question is, whether North Carolina shall go with the North, or the South. The issue, and the only issue, is Union, or disunion… If we are but true to ourselves, the stars and stripes will yet continue to wave over the freest and happiest people upon whom the sun ever shown.”
The editorial quotes multiple stanzas of a poem,
“Stand like an anvil, when the stroke
Of stalwart men falls fierce and fast,
Storms but more deeply root the oak
Whose brawny arms embrace the blast.
Stand like an anvil, when the sound
Of ponderous hammers pains the ear;
Thine, but the still and stern rebound
Of the great heart, that cannot fear.”
“The Convention will be the first step toward revolution…” another editorial blasted. “The vote…will be the most important ever polled in North Carolina. We hope and trust the people will follow the example set them by Tennessee… [and say] in a voice that cannot be misunderstood, that this Union ‘must and shall be preserved.’”
When the great day of battle arrived, the voters of North Carolina joined in electoral combat at the polling places, and the forces of Union achieved a narrow victory, rejecting the Convention by a vote of 47,705 (No Convention) to 47,611 (Convention). The traditional Piedmont Quaker counties overwhelming voted for the Union and against the Convention. Chatham County cast 283 votes for the Convention, but 1,795 against it. In Guilford County, the margin of victory was 25 to 1. And in Randolph, editor E.J. Hale exulted in the Asheboro Herald of March 3, 1861, “Listen to the thunder of Randolph!
“The honest democracy of this county have showed that they love their country better than their party; and the Whigs, who detest the accursed doctrine of secession, have made their action conform to their principles, by voting against convention—the instrument, solely relied upon by secessionists to make their heresy effectual, and impotent to do anything else.” [The Asheboro Herald is a newspaper which has not survived, except as copied in the Greensboro Patriot of March 14th]
Alongside the results of the referendum printed in the March 14th Greensboro Patriot was the inaugural address of President Lincoln, delivered on March 4th , and agreeing with the pro-Union sentiments of North Carolina voters in his assertion that “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”
The final canvass of the Randolph County vote was 2,570 to 45, a ratio of 57 pro-Union voters to every one pro-Confederate secessionist. That lop-sided proportion struck newspapers in eastern North Carolina as fishy… the New Bern Progress [quoted in the April 11, 1861 Greensboro Patriot], headed its editorial “Something Wrong.”
“There must be something wrong in the vote cast in Randolph county for and against Convention. In 1856 Randolph cast for Bragg and Gilmer 1842 votes, in 1860 for Ellis and Pool she gave 2015 votes; in November for President she gives 1589; and in February 1861, six months later, on the question of Convention, they run up to 2514, showing a clear gain since August last of 497 votes. Now when you consider that the vote in August last was by far the largest ever polled in the state and that every county strained its full strength, we come deliberately to the conclusion that there is something wrong about the Convention vote in Randolph… We hope the matter will be sifted and that we will have new light on the subject.”
The editor of the Fayetteville Observer, in a lengthy defense of the Randolph vote, replied [again, quoted in the Patriot of April 11th], “We have heard what perhaps the Progress has not– the county of Randolph was more thoroughly canvassed, and the people more thoroughly aroused, at the late elections, than ever before. They are attached to the Union, and they felt that the Union was in danger.”
The terrible irony of this rousing defense of the pro-Union vote in Randolph County is that it was published on the last day of peace. Early that next morning the hungry defenders of Fort Sumter saw their supply ship approach, and be turned away by the start of a two-day bombardment by the Army of South Carolina.
On April 15, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation, calling for as many as 75,000 troops to crush the rebellion. That call to bear arms against fellow Southerners was too much for the upper South states. On April 17th, Virginia’s Secession Convention (still in session since January) saw former Governor Wise seize the podium and announce that he had ordered the state militia to capture federal installations in the jurisdiction, and pulling out a pistol, dared the Convention to stop him. Within minutes the delegates had voted 88 to 55 to recommend disunion to the state’s voters.
Arkansas voted to leave the union on May 6th. The last state to join the Confederacy, on June 8th, was Tennessee, and even then eastern half of the state overwhelmingly voted against it.
On May 1, 1861, the North Carolina General Assembly bypassed the voters to call directly for a Convention. The Convention delegates passed an Ordinance of Secession on May 20th, but the eager Confederate Congress, already meeting in Richmond, had “provisionally” admitted the state to the Confederacy three days earlier.
This past February I told a group of local high school students that February 28th was the anniversary of one of the most important votes ever taken in Randolph County: to secede and join the Confederacy, or to stay with the Union. How did they thing their ancestors of 1861 voted? How would they have voted?
Without hesitation, they all voted to join the Confederacy, “of course.”
It is a huge loss when the modern residents of Randolph County have no idea of the true struggles of their forebears during the “Civil War” period. It is a terrible mis-use of history that teaches children some muddy “big picture” and completely loses the details.
We still fight a war of words over what to call the conflict that began April 12, 1861. The “winning” side prefers to call it “The Civil War;” unreconstructed Southerners insist it was “The War Between the States.” The poet Walt Whitman simply called it “The Secession War,” and that best describes what happened in North Carolina. One of the bravest battles of the war which would last 4 years and kill more than 600,000 Americans was the very nonviolent, yet very verbal battle for the Union which was fought in Randolph County in the spring of 1861. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the breakdown of peaceful conflict resolution, no finer memory of the Quaker heritage of our county can be found than in its struggle to preserve, not destroy, the United States of America.