Governor Ellis and Building Confederate Sentiment

On April 15, 1861, North Carolina governor John Ellis responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops with the often quoted statement: “You can get no troops from North Carolina.”

Although North Carolina as a state had seemed moderate during the Secession Crisis of 1861, Ellis had worked behind the scenes to align North Carolina with the budding Confederate government. In February 1861, citizens of the Old North State rejected a call for a Constitutional Convention to even consider the secession question.

Southern state after southern state declared for secession in early 1861 following South Carolina’s declaration in December 1860. President Lincoln inherited a nation at the breaking point, and he ordered the federal fort in Charleston harbor to be resupplied. South Carolina forces prevented the effort and fired on Fort Sumter. Lincoln then issued a call for troops to put down the rebellion.

Ellis considered Lincoln’s call to arms an unacceptable power grab, and he immediately ordered state troops to seize the federal forts in North Carolina as well as the federal arsenal at Fayetteville. He called the General Assembly into session two weeks later and rushed through a bill that called for a secession convention and authorized Ellis to send troops to Virginia. North Carolina left the Union just a few weeks later.

Though Ellis’ pithy last sentence is often quoted, the full text of his reply to Lincoln lays out a number of Constitutional justifications for secession that were popular at the outset of the war.

Noted Politician W. Kerr Scott

On April 16, 1958, Governor, United States senator and state commissioner of agriculture W. Kerr Scott died. He was born in the Haw River community of Alamance County. Scott remained a farmer and dairyman with close ties to his home and church for all of his life.

After working as an agricultural agent in Alamance County and serving as master of the North Carolina State Grange, Scott fulfilled a promise made to his father by successfully running for state agriculture commissioner in 1936. As commissioner, Scott was a leading proponent of rural electrification and led the successful fight to rid the state of Bangs disease among cattle. He forced manufacturers of feed and fertilizer to eliminate sawdust and sand from their products.

Scott was elected governor in 1948. During his four-year administration, the state paved more roads than had been paved up to 1949. Scott also directed the utilities commission to extend electricity and telephone service to rural areas.

In 1953, Scott left Raleigh to return to his farm at Haw River. The following year he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served on the Agriculture Committee and helped frame legislation to finance the Interstate Highway System.

Startling News at Initial Bennett Place Meeting

On April 17, 1865, Gen. William Sherman met with Gen. Joseph Johnston to discuss terms of surrender for Johnston’s forces. They met at the home of James Bennett near what was then a rail stop, Durham Station. Once alone, Sherman handed Johnston a telegram that bore the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Accounts differ on the Confederate general’s reaction. Sherman later said that Johnston broke out in large beads of sweat and expressed hope that the Union officer did not suspect the assassination plot to have been organized by the Confederate government. Johnston later recalled saying to Sherman that Lincoln’s death “was the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

Remarkably, Sherman managed to keep the news in the telegram from his own men. Only the telegraph officer knew of the information, and Sherman swore him to silence. Sherman had just returned from a meeting with Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant where the topic was the terms of peace.

With the news, Sherman offered Johnston what he thought was Lincoln’s terms for peace. Those terms, in the wake of the assassination, were deemed too generous and rejected. Sherman and Johnston would meet again on April 26 to complete the surrender process.

Battle of South Mills, April 1862

On April 18, 1862, Federal forces landed in Camden County to begin a two-day march and fight directed at finding and destroying the locks on the Dismal Swamp canal system. Closing that system would prevent Confederate naval forces from sending ships from a shipyard in Virginia to the Albemarle Sound.

The landing action, now known as the Battle of South Mills, involved about 3,000 Union soldiers commanded by General Jesse L. Reno and 900 Confederates commanded by General Ambrose R. Wright. The battle was part of the Burnside Expedition, which had the wider goal of reclaiming northeastern North Carolina for the Union.

After the federal troops landed and moved toward locks on the canal, one group of men took a wrong road on the advice of their guide. That misstep led to an unplanned 10-mile march, and by the time the stray group reunited with the larger force, they found their fellow soldiers hotly engaged by entrenched Confederates.

The confusion prevented Union troops from reaching the locks, so the federal forces broke off the engagement allowing the Confederate troops to retreat from the scene. Both sides claimed victory—Union forces for retaining the field of battle and the Confederates for preventing the locks’ destruction.

Purportedly, Federal forces executed the guide who took the circuitous road.

Wanchese and Manteo Conclude Visit to London, 1585

On April 19, 1585, Algonquian Indians Wanchese and Manteo set sail aboard the English vessel The Tyger to return to the Roanoke Island region. The Indians had sailed to England in 1584 with Arthur Barlowe and Thomas Harriot. They caused a sensation when they were presented at the English Court.

While in England they were hosted by Sir Walter Raleigh at the Durham House. There they met with Thomas Harriot and, over the course of several visits, taught him the Algonquian language. Wanchese, unlike Manteo, was not curious to learn English.

Wanchese remained suspicious of English motives and the English in general and eventually thought of himself as a captive rather than a guest. These ill feelings would cause trouble for the colonists once he returned to Roanoke.

The Tyger raided Spanish shipping lines during the voyage to America and forcibly exchanged goods with Spanish traders on Puerto Rico, where the ship waited to reunite with its fleet. From there the vessel continued on to Roanoke, arriving near Ocracoke Inlet in June 1585.

Wanchese slipped away from English control in early July. He urged resistance to the settlers, setting himself at odds with the English and Manteo.

Warm Welcome in New Bern for President Washington

On April 20, 1791, George Washington visited Tryon Palace in New Bern during his Southern Tour.

In 1791, the federal government was new and so was the presidency. Washington had been elected only two years before in February 1789, and North Carolina had become part of the Union in November of the same year.

Like any political move, the formation of the United States was seen with much skepticism from both citizens and government leaders. Washington’s tour of the Southern states allowed him to explore the nation he led, giving him the opportunity to promote national unity among its people. In his diary, Washington reported details about the geography of the states, exports such as tobacco and the attitudes of the citizens.

Washington’s visit was warmly received by New Bernians. During his two-day stay, the president dined at Tryon Palace and attended a “dancing assembly” with about 70 ladies. He also visited many of New Bern’s well-known citizens including John Wright Stanly, John Sitgreaves and Richard Dobbs Spaight.

Leaving New Bern on April 22, Washington headed south toward Wilmington.

The Beginnings of Busing

On April 20, 1971, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case, allowing for school desegregation by busing.

In 1965, attorney Julius L. Chambers filed suit on behalf of 10 pairs of African American parents who contended that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education’s assignment plan did not sufficiently eliminate the inequalities of the formerly segregated system. The board tried to redo the assignment plan, but the plaintiffs argued decades of discrimination could only be undone through extensive busing. Federal district court judge James B. McMillan agreed.

Disagreements between the board and McMillan on the specifics of the plan landed the case in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reaffirmed McMillian’s decision with qualifications. The school board and plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously reaffirmed the ruling in April 1971.

Though initially quite divisive in the community, many Mecklenburg residents eventually began to take pride in their new schools, and some observers have linked the city’s growth and prosperity in the 1980s to the school board’s continued commitment to full integration.

The Confederate Cabinet Meets in Charlotte

On April 22, 1865, the Confederate Cabinet held the first of a series of meetings in Charlotte to determine their final official actions as an organized government. The Confederate Cabinet began its journey south on April 2 , when Confederate General Robert E. Lee recommended that the Confederate Capitol, Richmond, should be evacuated due to the advance of Lieutenant General U.S. Grant’s Spring Offensive.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his fellow cabinet members traveled first by rail to Greensboro. On April 12, President Davis conferred with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and other officials concerning potential surrender negotiations with Major General William T. Sherman. The Cabinet then moved south to Charlotte, and arrived there on April 19.

Davis and his cabinet held their final meetings in the Branch office of the Bank of North Carolina on Tryon Street, which served as the final center of the Confederate government. Faced with the inevitability of defeat, Davis adjourned his government, and planned to escape southwest overland to Mexico, where he could establish a government in exile. On May 10, Davis and his wife, Varina, were captured near Irwinville, Georgia.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com