North Carolina during the Civil War

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While the 1776-1783 Revolution created the United States, the Civil War, which occurred from 1861-1865 determined the type of nation the United States would be. The war started as a result of long-standing and unresolved sectional differences after the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789. Following the attack on Fort Sumter that was a Federal garrison, in April 1861 by the Confederate forces based in Charleston, South Carolina, the state of North Carolina dramatically changed its position regarding the war (Glatthaar, 2008). The attack officially marked the start of the American Civil War. When President Lincoln requested 75,000 men to volunteer as soldiers to resist against the rebellious southern states which had seceded, North Carolina chose to join ten other states of the Confederacy over fighting against its neighbor countries.

North Carolina’s Involvement in the Civil War

On May 20, 1861, the state of North Carolina, amid divided loyalty to both the Unionists and Confederates, formally joined the Confederacy and went ahead to become the second-to-last member state of the Confederacy (Lindsey & Alan, 1984). North Carolina joined Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas in initially opting to remain within the union when seven states from the Deep South chose to secede as a direct and immediate action following the election of the then president of the U.S, Abraham Lincoln (Harris, 1988). Because it’s geographically located way from major rivers and other strategic areas that could support the activities of war, North Carolina had little to do with American Civil War’s military battlefields. However, the state hosted some battlefields and played a significant role during the entire war by providing military men; it supplied more military men and materials than any other region did to the Confederate.

Despite officially joining the Confederacy in 1861, North Carolinians remained undecided on whom to support in the Union and the Confederate war efforts (Glatthaar, 2008). However, a majority of the state’s white population of over 125, 000 men aged between 15 and 49 years gave their loyalty to the Confederate Army but only at some point (Lindsey & Alan, 1984). As the war intensified, 24 000 of these military men abandoned their military units. These numbers partly revealed how loyal North Carolina was to the Confederate.

Following the passage of the first in a series of conscription acts by the Confederate national government, requiring physically able men of military age to serve in the army, a significant number of men volunteered for service to express their personal commitment to the Confederate cause. But many others joined the military for fear of imprisonment or death if they declined. But whether they were conscripted or volunteered, Confederate troops from North Carolina suffered heavily during the war (Harris, 1988). Approximately 35, 000 died during the battle, of diseases or wounds between 1861 and 1865.

However, there were also significant numbers of at least 10,000 whites and 5,000 black men from North Carolina, especially from the state’s mountain and coastal regions, who adamantly refused to recognize the Confederacy control over North Carolina. They ignored the conscription acts and remained faithful to the U.S government.  Besides, thousands more of other loyal North Carolinians stood against being conscripted to the military by the Confederate government and even refused to support the state’s involvement in the war through paying taxes or giving any material support.

Major Military Campaigns and Killings in North Carolina

In 1864, William Woods Holden vied to be governor of North Carolina on a peace platform that had proposed that the state abandons the Confederacy and instead, negotiate terms to completely bring to an end the region’s involvement in the civil war (Lindsey & Alan, 1984). In the meantime, North Carolina’s wartime governors, John W. Ellis, Zebulon Vance and Henry Toole Clark relentlessly struggled to subdue political dissent and outright resistance by the Confederacy.  The tension between Confederate and Unionist forces culminated in two infamous massacres as detailed below.

The first battle took place in the late January and early February 1863 in Madison County (Harris, 1988). This massacre saw thirteen North Carolinians suspected of being Unionists, and who had defected from the Confederate army, slain by the 64th North Carolina Infantry. The second massacre happened a year later in February 1863. Twenty-two North Carolinians were captured fighting against the Confederation government and supporting the Unionists. Major General George E. Pickett gave an order to hang the captured fighters.

Until the last year of the civil war, most of the military actions in North Carolina occurred along the coast of Atlantic Ocean. In the spring of 1862, a Unionist military force under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, landing from the sea, managed to capture Roanoke Island, Hatteras and New Bern. A year later, in the spring of 1863, forces belonging to the Confederates, led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet attacked garrisons belonging to Unionists in Washington (Glatthaar, 2008). The attack was part of their effort to gather provisions for both military men and horses to pave the way for their army from northern Virginia led Robert E. Lee, to begin their campaign in Gettysburg.

The eastern of the state bore the brunt of the war as well.  From April 17-20 1864, the Confederates attacked and captured the Unionist’s stronghold base at Plymouth (Lindsey & Alan, 1984). This victory by the Confederates ensured that they took full control of the port city of Wilmington, making it a vital center for them to link with Europe. Also, the Confederate ships seeking to check the activities of the Union blockade operated from this very city. As the Union forces overpowered the Confederates and captured the other main ports under the latter’s control, Wilmington remained the last major coastal city the Confederates had control over.

Later on February 22, 1865, Federal forces took control of Wilmington by conquering the Confederate fortresses. The conquest came after a combination of Union naval and land forces attacked Fort Fisher. As the advancing army subjugated the Confederate forces in other parts of the south in 1865, the state of North Carolina found itself on the front lines of the civil war’s major military activities (Glatthaar, 2008). Of all the battles that took place in North Carolina, the Bentonville attack on March 19, 1865, was the largest. In this struggle, the Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston launched an attack on Union troops under the command of General William T. Sherman. A month later, on April 26, 1865, the Confederacy’s last major field army, popularly known as the Army of Tennessee was disbanded after Johnston surrendered to General Sherman at Durham Station.

Even though North Carolina didn’t experience major battles, her soldiers were involved in all the significant military campaigns of the civil war (Harris, 1988). Interestingly, soldiers under the command of Robert E. Lee earned the reputation as determined and steady, though at improperly high cost. As the war came to an end, the state had lost more soldiers than any other American state.

The impacts of the war on North Carolinians

The lives and situation of more than 360, 000 African-Americans North Carolinians changed as a direct consequence of the war. When the war began, more than 330,000 African-American citizens of this state were in slavery. But as Union military troops entered the state’s coastal areas, many of these slaves fled their plantations and sought the protection of federal armies. The fleeing slaves built fortifications and served as domestic workers to the Union soldiers. Over 5000 of these slaves voluntarily joined the Union army.

Many former slaves utilized this lifetime opportunity and left North Carolina, moving towards the northern place; Worcester, Massachusetts, during the war. Besides, the Emancipation Proclamation made by Abraham Lincoln granted all slaves in the Confederate territories of North Carolina freedom, beginning January 1, 1863. In reality, however, most slaves in North Carolina were under the Confederates and didn’t receive their freedom until the war came to an end. But this did not last for long because the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865, permanently abolishing slavery in North Carolina and the entire United States of America.


North Carolina played a critical role in the Civil War. From providing military assistance to civilian support, the state found itself in the midst of a devastating war. War ravaged the state, bringing destruction to infrastructure and causing multiple deaths. However, the involvement of the region in the war bore fruits as it heralded a new dawn in the American civil rights and political movements.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Glatthaar, J. (2008). General Lee’s army: From victory to collapse. New York: Free Press.
  2. Harris, W. (1988). North Carolina and the coming of the Civil War. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
  3. Lindsey S. & Alan, D. (1984). The North Carolina experience: An interpretive and documentary history. Chapel Hill: North Carolina.
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