Wilmington Massacre was Confederacy’s revenge
The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre, was North Carolina’s most brutal contribution to the former Confederacy’s long postwar campaign of terror and oppression against emancipated black Americans.
Philip Gerard’s 1994 novel Cape Fear Rising is based on the true story of how white supremacists overthrew Wilmington’s elected multiracial government in what singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens has called “the only successful coup d’état on American soil.” Gerard’s latest, The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina, is a collection of historical essays originally published in Our State Magazine.
In North Carolina, memories of the massacre and the Civil War have both been subject to collective cultural amnesia. The history of the massacre was erased by its perpetrators, who murdered between 60 and 300 black citizens for exercising their voting rights. And that of the Civil War was rewritten by the losers, with white Tarheels conveniently forgetting just how few of the state’s wartime residents actually supported the Confederacy.
“About half of NC’s white population did,” wrote Gerard in a recent email. “The other half were Unionists. Fully a third of the total population were enslaved and free blacks. So, the ‘heritage’ is a myth.”
And not every North Carolinian who fought for the Confederacy did so eagerly or for long. Many deserted, especially after the appalling slaughter at Gettysburg, which was borne disproportionately by North Carolina troops.
“The casualty reports were like stunning hammer blows to many communities, who lost large numbers of their young men, each death resonating out in a web of grief and loss,” Gerard wrote. “And the appalling way NC troops were often used by their Virginian officers caused continuing friction. It was a common complaint that North Carolinians, with few exceptions, were never promoted to general. Unlike the Virginians, they were usually fighting far from home, and the letters from wives and families were increasingly desperate pleas to abandon the army and come home to take care of starving children and women harassed by debt and the Home Guard.”
That all would be largely forgotten a few decades later when the defeated states won the propaganda aftermath with the lie that “the war was not about slavery, that slaves were happy and grateful to their white masters, that men of the South were especially honorable and chivalrous.”
Gerard wrote that the pernicious myth was largely the work of two influential organizations, the Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He quoted former UDC chapter president Heidi Christensen, who in 2012 described the UDC as the Klan’s “more feminine, genteel sister,” and cited the monument to the Klan the UDC erected outside of Charlotte in 1926.
While The Last Battleground chronicles tragedy on both sides of the conflict, the worst atrocities were done by Confederate troops committing “what we would call war crimes: routinely killing black prisoners and their white officers after they had surrendered; cutting the throats or bashing in the brains of captured soldiers from Sherman’s army 19 and 20 at a time; torturing women and noncombatants; murdering POWs; and of course, the notorious Shelton Laurel Massacre of 13 men and boys carried out by Heth’s troops—not to mention Pickett’s hanging of 22 captured Union soldiers at Kinston.” These were not done by guerillas or deserters, “but by regular troops acting under order of men like Wade Hampton. I found no such pattern of atrocity in the U.S. Army.”
When I called the Wilmington Insurrection a direct response to the black liberation and enfranchisement that the North had not gone to war to bring about, but the South had seceded to prevent, Gerard agreed.
“The coup was deliberately planned by the state Democratic Party, and Charles Aycock [who would become NC’s 50th governor] was certainly a major player in that. Wilmington was targeted because it was so economically and politically important and because it had an African American majority—in part due to General Sherman’s sending 25,000 liberated slaves to Wilmington when his army reached Fayetteville.”
Ian McDowell wrote about the Piedmont’s often violent resistance to the Confederacy in the Dec. 14, 2016, YES! Weekly cover story “The Triad’s real Civil War heritage.”
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.
The Last Battleground was published in March by the University of North Carolina Press. The 25th-anniversary edition of Cape Fear Rising was published in April by Winston-Salem’s John F. Blair Publishing. Author Philip Gerard, professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, will be at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8. The event is free and open to the public.