North Carolina Unionists examines opposition to secession
“One of the deep ironies of the Civil War is that the new Confederate government gave its states less autonomy than the one they were rebelling against,” said historian Steve M. Miller when he spoke at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books on Sunday. “As one can tell from his letters to the Richmond government, this drove Zeb Vance to distraction.”
The Asheboro-born Miller, adjunct history instructor at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and Randolph Community College in Asheboro, was at Scuppernong to sign and answer questions about his second (and first solo) book, North Carolina Unionists and the Fight Over Secession, published by the History Press in February. His first, Slave Escapes & The Underground Railroad In North Carolina, was written with J. Timothy Allen and published in 2016.
Miller was referring to Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894), the (initially) anti-secession congressman who became NC’s 37th and 43rd governor, first from 1862 to 1865, when his support of individual (white male) rights and local self-government often put him at odds with Jefferson Davis, and then again from 1877 to 1879. “To put it mildly, Jeff Davis and Zeb Vance were not friends,” said Miller in answer to a question I asked him from the audience on Sunday about the relationship between the president of the Confederate States of America and the governor of North Carolina for three of the four years it took the North to defeat the South just as crushingly as Unionists like Vance had dreaded.
Vance is one of the major figures examined in Miller’s book, which describes how North Carolina was divided by the battle over secession, and how some state leaders remained loyal to the Union, both due to their fear that the war would prove a disaster and their belief that compromise with the North was possible.
Another of these is NC senator William Alexander Graham, who helped broker the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a Free State and abolished the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia, but also created the Fugitive Slave Act that required all escaped slaves, when captured, to be returned to their masters. In 1865, Graham personally led a delegation to ask General Sherman for a truce so that the state’s capital, Raleigh, might be spared violence and destruction.
Two more are John Motley Morehead, the Tarheel State’s 29th governor, whose Blandwood Mansion remains a historic site in downtown Greensboro, and Jonathan Worth, who would become the 39th NC governor in the early days of Reconstruction. In early 1861, 16 years after Morehead was governor and four years before Worth was elected to the office, both men led the campaign against secession. Another is John A. Gilmer, the lawyer and congressman from Guilford County who owned slaves and prosecuted abolitionists, but was regarded as “little better” than one by secessionists because of his desire to keep North Carolina part of the Union, and who was briefly considered for a role in Lincoln’s cabinet.
In an email interview, Miller told me that growing up in Asheboro gave him firsthand experience of the mythology of the Lost Cause.
“I was indoctrinated on Confederate battle flags, ‘the South Shall Rise Again,’ things of that nature. I did not get much of that at home, but I was surrounded by that culture simply living in Randolph County.”
He first became intrigued by the story of North Carolina’s Unionists while doing research on another Slave Escapes and the Underground Railroad in North Carolina. “Researching the influence of the Quaker community on slave escapes, I periodically stumbled into names like John A. Gilmer, John Motley Morehead, and Jonathan Worth; certainly not as abolitionists, but as people from our section of North Carolina who were resistant to secession.”
My Dec. 14, 2016 article “The Triad’s Real Civil War Heritage” opened with a description of a then-recent “Southern Rights” rally by the organization Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC. I asked Miller about the irony of an organization that tried (and has so far miserably failed) to line I-40 with the Confederate Battle Flag being named after a county that voted overwhelmingly against secession.
“That is certainly in keeping with an area in which Guilford, Randolph, Davidson, and Forsyth Counties were decidedly pro-Union. The margin in Randolph County alone was something on the order of 50-1 against the secession convention! When you stop to consider the number of Quakers and Moravians in our region, two abolitionist groups of worshipers, the vote totals are not surprising!”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.