North Carolina in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, North Carolina joined the Confederacy with some reluctance, mainly because neighboring Virginia had done so, and it remained a divided state throughout the war, with much of the population of the Appalachian Mountains in the western part of the state retaining Union sentiment. Even so, North Carolina contributed more troops to the Confederacy than any other state (though it also raised Union regiments), and channeled many vital supplies through the major port of Wilmington, in defiance of the Union blockade.

State of North Carolina
Nickname(s): "Tar Heel State"

Map of the contiguous United States with North Carolina highlighted.
Largest CityWilmington
Admitted to the ConfederacyMay 20, 1861 (10th)
  • 992,622 total
  •   661,563 free
  •   331,059 slave
Forces supplied
  • 155,000 Confederate troops
    (40,000 killed)
    49,000 Union troops (25,000 Union regulars, 24,000 Confederate deserters) total
GovernorHenry Clark (1861–1862)
Zebulon Vance (1862–1865)
SenatorsGeorge Davis (1862–1864)
Edwin Reade (1864)
William Graham (1864–1865)
William Dortch (1862–1865)
Restored to the UnionJuly 4, 1868
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Fighting occurred sporadically in the state from September 1861, when Union Major General Ambrose Burnside set about capturing key ports and cities, notably Roanoke Island and New Bern. In 1864, the Confederates assumed the offensive, temporarily reconquering Plymouth, while the Union Army launched several attempts to seize Fort Fisher. The last remaining major Confederate army, under Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered at Bennett Place, near Durham, to William Tecumseh Sherman in April 1865.

Troops from North Carolina played major roles in dozens of battles in other states, including Gettysburg, where Tar Heels were prominent in Pickett's Charge. Troops also played a major role for the Union, with the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry taking part in the Battle of Bull's Gap, Battle of Red Banks, and Stoneman's 1864 and 1865 raids in western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. The Department of North Carolina, established in 1862, seized Wilmington in 1865, then the state's largest city. The North Carolina-based XVIII Corps was also among the largest in the Union Army.


In the mid-19th century, North Carolina was a picture of contrasts. On the Coastal Plain, it was largely a plantation state with a long history of slavery. In the more rural and mountainous western part of the state, there were no plantations and few slaves. These differing perspectives showed themselves in the fraught election of 1860 and its aftermath. North Carolina's electoral votes went to Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, an adamant supporter of slavery who hoped to extend the "peculiar institution" to the United States' western territories, rather than to the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, who carried much of the Upper South. North Carolina (in marked contrast to most of the states that Breckinridge carried) was reluctant to secede from the Union when it became clear that Republican Abraham Lincoln had won the presidential election. In fact, North Carolina did not secede until May 20, 1861, after the fall of Fort Sumter and the secession of the Upper South's bellwether, Virginia.

Some white North Carolinians, especially yeoman farmers who owned few or no slaves, felt ambivalently about the Confederacy; draft-dodging, desertion, and tax evasion were common during the Civil War years, especially in the Union-friendly western part of the state. North Carolinians, often in disagreement with the aristocracy of eastern planters, raised about 25,000 troops from the western counties to fight and occupy territory in the mountainous regions of North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as the coastal plains of North Carolina, sometimes with troops from other states. Central and Eastern white North Carolinians were more enthusiastic about the Confederate cause; North Carolina contributed more troops to the Confederacy than any other single state.[1]

Initially, the policy of the Confederate populace was to embargo cotton shipments to Europe in hope of forcing them to recognize the Confederacy's independence, thereby allowing trade to resume. The plan failed, and furthermore the Union's naval blockade of Southern ports drastically shrunk North Carolina's international commerce via shipping. Internally, the Confederacy had far fewer railroads than the Union. The breakdown of the Confederate transportation system took a heavy toll on North Carolina residents, as did the runaway inflation of the war years and food shortages in the cities. In the spring of 1863, there were food riots in Salisbury.[2]

Although there was little military combat in the Western districts, the psychological tensions grew greater and greater. Historians John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney argue that in the western mountains "differing ideologies turned into opposing loyalties, and those divisions eventually proved as disruptive as anything imposed by outside armies....As the mountains came to serve as refuges and hiding places for deserters, draft dodgers, escaped slaves, and escaped prisoners of war, the conflict became even more localized and internalized, and at the same time became far messier, less rational, and more mean-spirited, vindictive, and personal.[3]

Campaigns in North Carolina

From September 1861 until July 1862, Union Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of North Carolina, formed the North Carolina Expeditionary Corps and set about capturing key ports and cities. His successes at the Battle of Roanoke Island and the Battle of New Bern helped cement Federal control of a part of coastal Carolina.

Fighting continued in North Carolina sporadically throughout the war. In 1864, the Confederates assumed the offensive in North Carolina, trying to recover some of the territory lost to Burnside's expedition. They failed to retake New Bern, but reconquered Plymouth and held it for six months. Moreover, the Union Army launched several attempts to seize Fort Fisher and finally did in 1865. In the war's closing days, a large Federal force under General William Tecumseh Sherman marched into North Carolina, and in a series of movements that became known as the Carolinas Campaign, occupied much of the state and defeated the Confederates in several key battles, including Averasborough and Bentonville. The surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army at Bennett Place in April 1865 essentially ended the war in the Eastern Theater.

Battles in North Carolina

The following are some of the major battles of the Civil War that were fought in North Carolina:[4][5]

Battle of Albemarle SoundMay 5, 1864Albermarle Soundinconclusive
Battle of AverasboroughMay 16, 1865Harnett and Cumberland Countiesinconclusive
Battle of BentonvilleMay 19–21, 1865Johnston CountyUnion victory
Battle of Fort AndersonMarch 13–16, 1863Craven CountyUnion victory
Battle of Fort Fisher IDecember 23–27, 1864New Hanover CountyConfederate victory
Battle of Fort Fisher IIJanuary 13–15, 1865New Hanover CountyUnion victory
Siege of Fort MaconMarch 23, 1862 - Apr 26, 1862Carteret CountyUnion victory
Battle of Goldsboro BridgeDecember 17, 1862Wayne CountyUnion victory
Battle of Hatteras Inlet BatteriesAugust 28, 1861 – August 29, 1861Outer BanksUnion victory
Battle of KinstonDecember 14, 1862Lenoir CountyUnion victory
Battle of Monroe's Cross RoadsMarch 10, 1865Hoke Countyinconclusive
Battle of MorrisvilleApril 13–15, 1865Wake CountyUnion victory
Battle of New BernMarch 14, 1862Craven CountyUnion victory
Battle of PlymouthApril 17, 1864 – April 20, 1864Washington CountyConfederate victory
Battle of Roanoke IslandFebruary 7, 1862 - February 8, 1862Dare CountyUnion victory
Battle of South MillsApril 19, 1862Camden CountyConfederate victory
Battle of Tranter's CreekJune 5, 1862Pitt CountyUnion victory
Battle of WashingtonMarch 30, 1863 – April 20, 1863Beaufort Countyinconclusive
Battle of White HallDecember 16, 1862Wayne Countydraw
Battle of WilmingtonFebruary 11–22, 1865New Hanover CountyUnion victory
Battle of Wyse ForkMarch 7, 1865 – March 10, 1865Lenoir CountyTactical Union victory, Strategic Confederate victory
Campaign of the CarolinasJanuary 1 – April 26, 1865North and South CarolinaDecisive Union Victory

Government and politics

Henry Toole Clark served as the state's governor from July 1861 to September 1862. Clark founded a Confederate prison in North Carolina, set up European purchasing connections, and built a successful gunpowder mill. His successor Zebulon Vance further increased state assistance for the soldiers in the field.

As the war went on, William Woods Holden became a quiet critic of the Confederate government, and a leader of the North Carolina peace movement. In 1864, he was the unsuccessful "peace candidate" against incumbent Governor Vance.[6] Unionists in North Carolina formed a group called the "Heroes of America" that was allied with the United States. Numbering nearly 10,000 men, a few of them possibly black, they helped Southern Unionists escape to U.S. lines.[7]

The North Carolina General Assembly of 1868–1869 ratified the Fourteenth Amendment on July 4, 1868, which readmitted North Carolina to the Union.[8]

Notable Confederate leaders from North Carolina

See also


  1. John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney (2003). The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 9.
  2. Brooks D. Simpson (2013). The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It: (Library of America #234). Library of America. p. 193.
  3. John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney (2003). The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 9.
  4. "North Carolina Civil War Battles". National Park Service. Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  5. Dyer, Frederick H. (2016). The War of the Rebellion a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Official Records of the Civil War). THA New Media LLC/Compiler.
  6. R. Matthew Poteat (2009). Henry Toole Clark: Civil War Governor of North Carolina. McFarland. pp. 90–118.
  7. Foner, Eric (March 1989). "The South's Inner Civil War: The more fiercely the Confederacy fought for its independence, the more bitterly divided it became. To fully understand the vast changes the war unleashed on the country, you must first understand the plight of the Southerners who didn't want secession". American Heritage. Vol. 40 no. 2. American Heritage Publishing Company. p. 3. Archived from the original on January 3, 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2013.
  8. Release, Allen W. (2006). "Reconstruction". NCPEDIA. Retrieved November 26, 2019.

Further reading

  • Barrett, John G. (1963). The Civil War in North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Barrett, John Gilcrest (1984). The Civil War in North Carolina. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
  • Carbone, John S. (2001). The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina. North Carolina Division of Archives and History.
  • Clinard, Karen L. and Richard Russell, eds. (2008). Fear in North Carolina: The Civil War Journals and Letters of the Henry Family. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publishing.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  • Erslev, Major Brit K. (2015). Taming the Tar Heel Department: DH Hill and the Challenges of Operational-Level Command during the American Civil War. Pickle Partners Publishing.
  • Hardy, Michael C. (2011). North Carolina in the Civil War. The History Press.
  • Inscoe, John C. and Gordon B. McKinney (2000). The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War. University of North Carolina Press.
  • McSween, Murdoch John (2012). Confederate Incognito: The Civil War Reports of "Long Grabs", aka Murdoch John McSween, 26th and 35th North Carolina Infantry. McFarland.
  • Mobley, Joe A. (2012). Confederate Generals of North Carolina: Tar Heels in Command. Arcadia Publishing.
  • Myers, Barton A. (2014). Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina's Unionists. Cambridge University Press.
  • Poteat, R. Matthew (2009). Henry Toole Clark: Civil War Governor of North Carolina. McFarland. pp. 90–118.
  • Reid, Richard M. (2008). Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Smith, Blanche Lucas (1941). North Carolina's Confederate monuments and memorials. North Carolina Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Preceded by
List of C.S. states by date of admission to the Confederacy
Admitted on May 20, 1861 (10th)
Succeeded by

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