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The May 22, 1861, New Bern Daily Progress announces North Carolina's secession from the Union
The May 22, 1861, New Bern Daily Progress announces North Carolina's secession from the Union
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"A Free and Independent State": North Carolina Secedes from the Union

On May 1, 1861, the North Carolina legislature voted that counties should elect delegates who would determine whether North Carolina would remain in the Union. On May 20, 150 years ago this week, the delegates, convening in Raleigh, voted unanimously that the state would no longer be a part of the United States of America. The Ordinance of Secession states:

"We do further declare and ordain, That the union now subsisting between the State of North Carolina and the other States under the title of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of North Carolina is in the full possession and exercise of all those rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State" (p. 3).

The resolution goes on to give the Confederate central government jurisdiction over some North Carolina land for military use, as well as to ratify the Constitution of the Confederate States of America and change all references in the state constitution from United States to Confederate States.

North Carolina was the last Southern state to join the Confederacy. William Boyd's (1879-1938) North Carolina on the Eve of Secession (1912) discusses the factors and events that led the state to secede from the Union. These factors included social structure, intra-state sectionalism, and industrial organization, in addition to the influence of national debates over slavery and states' rights. As the national debate over slavery heated up with the Compromise of 1850, the state's political parties began to factionalize, and North Carolina legislators debated secession. When the 1851 Congressional election's campaign platforms brought the issue to the people, however, pro-secession candidates were defeated soundly. Nevertheless, Boyd labels these candidates "a strong, active States-rights minority" of "extremists" that survived by feeding off of the state's "radical spirit," which until 1861 steadily intensified, manifesting itself in increasing arrests of abolitionists and public violence against Republicans (p. 172).

In 1860, during the presidential election, further discord between the pro-Union and pro-secession Democrats and successful Whig appeals to North Carolinians' patriotism deepened divisions in the state, thereby preventing any group from gaining enough power to enact their proposed platforms. The state thus did not act on the secession question until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Even then, Boyd asserts, North Carolina only grudgingly left the Union to avoid "fighting against the South" (p.177).

In the long and bloody conflict that followed, North Carolina lost more troops than any other Confederate state. On October 18, 1865, six months after the war's end, the legislature repealed the articles of secession, and the state passed the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, on December 18. As part of the federal Reconstruction plan, North Carolina became part of the second military district. In 1866, the state failed to ratify a new, reorganized state constitution. Another Constitutional Convention was held January-March 1868, and this new constitution was quickly ratified by the people. The following July, the state passed the 14th Amendment and was readmitted to the Union.

All of the documents featured here are part of "The North Carolina Experience: Beginnings to 1940", a collection that includes books, letters, reports, posters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history. Readers interested in military history and wartime life will also enjoy "The Southern Homefront: 1861-1865", which offers documents related to all aspects of Southern life during the Civil War.

Jennifer L. Larson