Writing the Unexpected: North Carolina Unionists and the Fight Over Secession

By Steven Miller | Arcadia Author
As an author, Steven Miller knows that sometimes, researching a book will bring some unique and surprising information. That’s how his new book, North Carolina Unionists and the Fight Over Secession came to be. Steven dropped in this week to tell us about his new book, and reveal how he came across the information that led him to his new book!
Not too many people, especially in the South, expect to find out that secession was actually opposed by a large section of a given state’s population. However, that was the case in North Carolina in 1861, while many Southern states had seceded and were seceding. It is the unexpected that quite often is the most fun to research and write about.

I began stumbling into North Carolina Unionists when Dr. J. Timothy Allen and I were researching for another book, Slave Escapes and the Underground Railroad in North Carolina, also published by the History Press. While Unionists were not part of the story in that book, it was interesting to find that as the state was debating secession, there had been a statewide referendum concerning whether to hold a secession convention.

As an author is looking for people, places, and events to include in a book, it isn’t unusual at all to come across extraneous information. In many cases, the people I was garnering information on as Unionists were state leaders I had heard about before. Certainly, Jonathan Worth was familiar to me since I reside in Asheboro, NC, and he lived here also for some twenty-five years before he moved to Raleigh to become the state’s Treasurer. John Gilmer, from Guilford County, was another such person whom I knew about, but not necessarily as a Unionist. North Carolina’s Civil War governor, Zebulon B. Vance had taken every available opportunity to encourage the people of North Carolina to remain in the United States before secession in May 1861.

Zebulon B. Vance, the wartime governor of North Carolina during the Civil War.
As a result, although they really had little or nothing to do with Slaves Escapes, I made note of them and did not give them a lot more thought until after that book had been published and I began to consider a topic for another book. It was then that I remembered the men, who in most cases, fought Secession until a building wave of secession fever finally engulfed the state when President Lincoln called for troops following the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor.

I believe many people in North Carolina will be surprised to find out how adamant the wish to stay in the Union was across the Piedmont and Mountain regions of the Tar Heel State. Secession was not a strong desire in the Mountains because it was an area where large farms were far from the norm, so a slave economy never gripped that region like the it did in the east. Although there were many slaves to be found in the Piedmont section of the state, it paled in comparison to the east also.

One of the strongest anti-secession areas of North Carolina before the Civil War were a few counties in and around Randolph and Guilford Counties. That section had a large population of Quakers, who were theologically opposed to slavery. However, those counties were also populated with small farmers and their families, who did not have the land and crops which necessitated slave labor. Interestingly, Randolph County alone voted against a secession convention something on the order of 50 to 1!

Yet, on the backroads of Randolph County, it isn’t unusual to run across a flagpole with a Confederate battle flag hoisted and waving defiantly in the breeze. Plates attached to the front of vehicles are often replicas of that same flag. So, ultimately, a visitor or a resident could be forgiven if a swell of Tar Heel Unionist sentiment prior to secession and war is a bit unexpected.