William C. Harris,
North Carolina & the
Coming of the Civil War

(It, 1988)

This is essentially a booklet published by the North Carolina Division of Archives & History. At 63 pages including endnotes, it is a little book meant to provide a summary of the events leading up to North Carolina's secession from the Union.

Personally, I think it does more harm than good. There are many contradictions in the text, often between one sentence and the next. The author uses pejorative terms to describe the pro-secessionists (e.g., fire-eaters, zealots); while these terms can be found in historical studies, the connotation associated with them deserves no place in objective writing.

My main objection to the book is the author's stated belief that slavery alone led to the state's secession. The events, ideas and actions leading up to the War Between the States are varied and complex; this is especially the case in North Carolina. Oddly, several of Harris's own facts belie his simplistic model of history. There were significant numbers of slaves in North Carolina, but a majority of whites owned no slaves and the number of plantations featuring more than 50 slaves was miniscule at best. The political economy and way of life varied greatly between the coastal plain, piedmont and mountain sections of the state. White yeoman farmers were a significant force in North Carolina politics by 1860. Significant class issues are passed over by Harris in this book, which is a great weakness of the text.

Surprisingly, Harris goes to great lengths to note the fact that votes for the conventions considering secession had no correlation at all to the number of slaves held in each area of the state -- this alone chops the legs out from under his monolithic slavery thesis. After citing the fact that several thousand pro-Unionists gathered in Salisbury in 1860, he makes the unbelievably broad statement that North Carolina was all but united in its opposition to leaving the Union. He argues that local issues were still predominant in the politics of the 1850s and '60, yet he still asserts that slavery overruled all other concerns in North Carolina politics and virtually mandated that the state secede.

Finally, in the final paragraph he steps back and admits that secession was a difficult decision for North Carolinians and was only made in the wake of Lincoln's coercive action in Fort Sumter. The sense of rationality he accidentally assigns North Carolinians here is insufficient to resurrect the practicality of a book built upon a simplistic thesis that the author refuses to give up despite the fact that his own arguments often disprove its very validity.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 4 June 2005

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