A series of technical problems have caused a long delay in this series. For that, I apologize. To get caught up, we will be going pretty fast in the next couple of updates. This one will cover from mid-January to the first week of March, 1861. The next one, sometime next week, will bring us up to the beginning of May, 1861. To read the series in order, go back to the first entry, dated  January 13, 2011.

Following the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860 there was a lot of talk, but little action, over the next three weeks. The unanimous Union vote at the Forsyth County courthouse on December 29, 1860, and many others across the state and in other southern states made it seem as if matters might be settled amicably after all. The Palmetto State stood alone.

But those who were determined to leave the Union were hard at work throughout the South, arguing, pleading, planting rumors, making promises. On January 9, the telegraph lines across the nation sprang to frantic life. Mississippi had seceded. The next day, Florida went out. And the next day, the 11th, Alabama.

The disunionists ratcheted up their pressure. On January 19, Georgia seceded. A week later, Louisiana followed suit. And on February 1, Texas, which had been a part of the United States of America for barely 15 years, voted to leave.

So seven were out. Those who had been planning and promoting secession for years had made certain calculations. They needed the seven already out and and a few more, specifically North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas.

That was based on simple demographics, combined with current military theory. If the disunionists could get what they sought, the Union would have about a 2 ½ or 3 to one advantage populationwise. If war was on the horizon, the secessionists had no intention of doing anything other than defending. And current military thinking required a better than 3-1 advantage for the attacking side. So if all the “projected” states joined the disunionist cause, the unionists would have to think twice or more before attacking.

Following the huge meeting at the courthouse in December, with its unanimous unionist vote, the Winston based Western Sentinel, supporter of the local and national Democratic Party, had muted its disunion leanings. But this surge in secessionist momentum encouraged the Sentinel to speak out more strongly. Unfortunately, the Sentinels for this period are missing, but we know pretty much what they were writing, at least in tone, based on the response from the Whig oriented Salem People’s Press.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
John W. Alspaugh, publisher, The Western Sentinel 
 

The two newspapers descended to petty sniping. The Sentinel published its first openly secessionist article, then crowed that the People’s Press had not even responded. The Press replied that the “gentleman’s exchange” had broken down and that they had had to make considerable effort just to get a copy of the Sentinel. The Sentinel said that they had delivered a copy to the Press. The Press said that they had not. Did! Did not! Did! Did not! Now boys, stop that!

But the focus of real attention was on the Peace Congress in Washington, which was struggling desperately to find a last minute compromise, and the state conventions, a prerequisite for secession. There was little hope that the Peace Congress would succeed, so the strategy of the Unionists was to forestall, or at least, delay, a statewide convention on secession.

Note that the Peace Congress was doomed from the start, because the seven states that had already seceded were not present. The best that the Peace Congress could come up with was to draw an east-west line at 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude that would preserve the current laws on each side of the line regarding slavery from coast to coast in perpetuity. So the focus on preventing a state convention was the only reasonable alternative.

For a moment, the Unionists thought that they had won, but that turned out not to be the case, because rumors and threats set in motion by the disunionists were beginning to have an effect.

In reality, the legislature had voted to hold a statewide referendum on whether or not to hold a convention to consider secession. And just in case the referendum called for a convention, the legislature had instructed each county to designate two representatives to such a convention by January 28, 1861.

At this point, local relationships began to become a bit strained. The local Unionists suspected that the disunionists…the “courthouse crowd”…were up to some hijinks.

The courthouse was, of course, in Winston, home of the secessionist Western Sentinel. And even though the Winston courthouse and the square in Salem were less than a mile apart, information did not flow as freely between those two points as one might imagine. Was someone in Winston giving out false information about the date of the meetings in hopes that the Unionists who read the People’s Press might not show up for the crucial meeting that would select Forsyth County’s delegates to a possible secession convention?

They need not have worried. At the second countywide mass meeting, two men were selected by an overwhelming majority to represent Forsyth County at any such convention that might occur. One was Rufus Patterson, who had so ably chaired the original mass meeting. The other was Thomas J. Wilson, the first non-Moravian to be allowed to live on Salem property. Both were strong Unionists.

T.J. Wilson, elected along with Rufus Patterson to represent Forsyth County in any future secession convention. A lawyer, he later served as mayor of Winston and in many other roles of civic responsibility.

In the end, all the angst was for nothing. Because on February 28 North Carolina held a referendum on whether or not to call a convention to consider secession. But the vote was not really about a convention. Everyone understood that approval of a convention would have been an automatic vote for secession. The result was a margin of 651 out of 96,000 cast against the convention. In New Hanover county, the vote was 4-1 in favor of a convention. In some other eastern counties , the margin was as high as eight to one. But moving west from Raleigh, the vote shifted to no convention. And the farther west you went, the stronger the no convention vote became. The Salem People’s Press jubilantly published the results, beginning with Forsyth County:

Even more important was the election of representatives who would have attended a convention had such an event been approved. There, the vote statewide showed 74 Unionist delegates and only 46 for disunion.

In his monumental TV series, Ken Burns used the song “The Battlecry of Freedom” throughout. That song was not written until 1862, but if it had been around in 1861, the anti-secessionists in North Carolina would have been singing its best line “The Union forever, hoorah boys, hoorah.”

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