Civil War in NE North Carolina

Burnside's Expedition and beyond

The Civil War in North Carolina is a well-documented and often written about period of the state's
history.  In the past few years the historiography of the Civil War in North Carolina has undergone revision.  Books and articles detail both new and well-known aspects of the story of the war. 
However, these books and articles fail to engage directly the area of northeastern North Carolina,
usually containing only an oblique view of the region and yielding little useful information on the war in this old and fertile region of the state.  The area of focus for this thesis is the section of North Carolina east of the Chowan River and north of the Albemarle Sound, with particular attention to events in Elizabeth City.  No work exists covering the area and the events there during the Civil
War.  The goal of this thesis is to detail events and developments in that region, thereby revealing the
multifaceted role that area served in the Civil War.  Three major themes emerge from this study: a
strong element of Unionism; emancipation and the decline of the plantation system; and illegal trade through the lines. Each of these themes inter-meshes with the other two to produce a
startling image of northeastern North Carolina during the Civil War, an image that has been
misplaced or ignored in the ensuing years.

             Most post-Civil War and Reconstruction North Carolinians perceived North Carolina as a strong Confederate state, with dissenters mainly in the mountain
region.  Many of the early works written about the state's role in the Civil War reflected that perception.  Modern scholarship continued to support this view by failing to examine events in the northeastern corner of the Old North State.  A paucity of primary records added to the problem scholars confronted when researching the area.  Through willful suppression, as in the case of the early chroniclers, and neglect and/or accidental misinformation, as in most of modern scholarship, the historical narrative of northeastern North Carolina in the Civil War was silenced.

            Silencing is the intentional or unintentional suppression of events or  information at any of four key moments in the historical record.  In Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that the occurrence of an event and the recording of an event can actually diverge rather than converge.  When divergence takes place, whether by intention or by accident, a silencing occurs.  Trouillot believes there are four key moments when silence can enter into the record of an event: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).[1]  People are actively engaged in the process at all four of these moments and can therefore obscure the event with their own prejudices.  In some instances silencing is a deliberate choice of the author.  Although this is a very simple reduction of Trouillot's book, it suggests the multiple ways that silencing occurred in the study of Civil War North Carolina. 

Deliberate silencing occurs in almost all of the literature prior to John Gilcrest Barrett's Civil War in North Carolina.  Most of the literature prior to that work was written either by an ex-Confederate, with the aide of an ex-Confederate, or by a Lost Cause apologist.  In these works, such as John W. Moore's Roster of Troops in the War Between the States, Daniel Harvey Hill Jr. 's Bethel to Sharpsburg, Walter Clark's Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, and Richard Benbury Creecy's Grandfather's Tales, a narrative that holds a favorable view of unionist or union activity is all but impossible.  Other works, such as the United States government's Official Records, army and navy, the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts' Operations on the Atlantic Coast 1861-1865, and Barrett's Civil War in North Carolina, silence events by failing to include the events in their respective narratives.  Trouillot acknowledges that these forms of silencing differ in intent but argues that the end result is the same.  I agree.

The story of Joseph T. McCabe will illustrate how prejudice can affect silencing.  Joseph T. McCabe was born in 1839 in northeastern North Carolina.  In 1860 he lived in Elizabeth City, in the house next to his father's.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was a twenty-two year old painter with a new bride, Margaret, of less than two years.[2]  He enlisted in Company A, the "Independent Greys," of the 17th Regiment N.C. Troops (1st Organization, Confederate) on April 23, 1861, as a musician.[3]  Joseph's company fought in the first Civil War engagement on the North
Carolina coast, Hatteras Inlet.  The majority of the "Independent Greys" were captured when the commander at Fort Hatteras surrendered to Federal forces on August 29, 1861.[4]  Evidently, young Joseph managed to escape capture because the records indicate that he was enrolled in Company I of the same regiment in October 1861.[5]  This company would be no more successful against the Federal juggernaut than his previous company.  Company I surrendered to Federal forces at Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862.[6]  Miraculously, not only did young Joseph
manage to escape capture again, but he also made his way back to Elizabeth City
where, after a two week period, the rest of Company I were sent after receiving
a parole.[7]

According to muster rolls, Joseph T. McCabe remained a member of this company until it was disbanded on May 1, 1863.  However, this was not actually the case.  McCabe could not have served in the Confederate Army for the first five months of 1863 because he was dead.  The service record became what could be noted as a silence at the point of fact creation.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy further compounded the clerical error, and added to the silencing, by marking young Joseph's grave with a gravestone honoring his Confederate service.  His gravestone read, "Joseph T. McCabe, age 24 years, Co. I 7th Regt., N.C. Vol."[8]  Joseph's service as a loyal Confederate soldier was secured.  The United
Daughters of the Confederacy marker's inscription itself was silent on one point: what day did Joseph T. McCabe die? By not answering that seemingly minor question the tombstone became a silence at the point of fact retrieval, creating a false narrative for Joseph.[9] 

The tombstone also left unchallenged the conviction that the area was completely loyal to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet, not only was the date of Joseph T. McCabe's death left unanswered but also the manner of his death was not addressed.  The innocuous inscription on his tombstone suggested that young Joseph died a member of the Seventh Regiment, a reasonable assumption given that the young age was juxtaposed to the military service record.  However, although implied, the inscription did not state the manner of his death.  It could not, for by revealing how he died it would indicate that McCabe was not a Confederate soldier at the time of his death. 

            On January 5, 1863, Confederate-guerrillas gunned down McCabe on the Main Street of Elizabeth City.  Young Joseph and a group of men returned on that evening from the outskirts of Elizabeth City, where they had attended a party hosted by African Americans.  Confederate guerrilla fighters ambushed the group as they walked south through town, headed toward Federal headquarters on Shepperd Street (Federal forces set up winter quarters in Elizabeth City in November 1862).  Lieutenant Nathaniel Sanders of the First North Carolina Union Volunteers (white) was also killed in the attack.[10]  In a letter to her husband, a Confederate soldier, published in a newspaper, an unidentified but nonetheless "Sesech" woman called McCabe a "miscreant," hardly words she would have used to describe a loyal Confederate soldier.[11]  The Parish Record book of the Church of Christ of Elizabeth City confirmed McCabe's death date.  An entry, dated January 9, 1863, indicated Joseph was buried in the Old Episcopal Cemetery, the cemetery of the Church of Christ.  Maurice Vaughan, who had served one Confederate regiment as chaplain and would soon serve in another in the same capacity, performed the funeral service.  The space next to Joseph's name in the Parish Record book was left blank, giving no details of his service and offering more silence.[12]

            The guerrillas killed McCabe while he was in the presence of Union soldiers.  A local contemporary, rather than venerating him (as the United Daughters of the Confederacy did in marking his grave with a service stone), labeled him a "miscreant."  The clues to Joseph and his loyalties remained masked behind silences that contributed to the image of him as a North Carolinian loyal to the Confederacy.  Any attempt to address the events surrounding McCabe's death would have produced an account of the local men who joined the Union army.  McCabe's story revealed how silencing occurs within the construct of the narrative.  The service record of McCabe was an example of Trouillot's silence at the moment of fact  creation.  So too was the record of his burial in the Christ Episcopal Parish Book.  Both of these records were preserved in the State Archives of North Carolina and
therefore represent Trouillot's moment of fact assembly.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy marker served to illustrate both the moment of fact creation and the moment of fact retrieval.

            Another illustration of silencing comes from Jesse Pugh's Three Hundred Years Along The Pasquotank. Pugh should be given credit that he explores,
in 1957, most things "Unionist" in Camden County.  Yet he retained a need for moral authority to be on the side of the Confederate sympathizers.  This leads him to state that first blood was drawn by Unionist when they bushwhacked Benjamin Franklin McPherson.  Pugh does not record the date of the killing of McPherson but only that
it is first blood.  B.F. McPherson is killed in October 1862 (the 13th if memory serves – do not hold me to that, please).  Pugh could not include this date because he had already told his readers about the Guerrilla (Confederate sympathizers) attack on the outpost at Shiloh which occurred on 17 September 1862  and resulted in the
deaths of Wilson Jones, Elijah Palmer, and William Harrison.  To maintain the Guerrilla claim to moral certitude Pugh silenced the narrative.


The above is part of the opening chapter to my thesis.  In it we see how memory of the Civil War plays an important role in the history of the Civil War.  In my thesis I
tried to challenge assumptions about the historical narrative and fill in the silence with a new narrative.  Often I challenged much loved stories – trying to strip them of any moral suasion and merely present them in a straightforward manner.  My intent was not to promote either of the political positions but to show how over time everyone lost any moral suasion they may have had at the start – when tit for that rules the day there can be little that is moral in it.  I would hold, however, that George Washington
Brooks is an exception and his actions, always in concert with his beliefs of the supremacy of the Constitution and Law, came as close to laying constant claim to moral high ground.  He slipped now and then (calling some men "unprincipled" [and rightly so] is about the extent of his slippage) but on the balance is about as solid morally as there was in the city at the time.


Can you think of examples where historians, local or otherwise, silenced the history of the area for the glory of their story?

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26.

[2] Eighth Census of the United States, 1860: Pasquotank County, North Carolina, Population Schedule, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (microfilm, State
Archives, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina).

[3] Louis H. Manarin and Weymouth T. Jordan Jr., comps., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, 14 vols. to date (Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, Department
of Cultural Resources, 1966 - ), 4: 124 [hereafter cited as Manarin , North Carolina Troops].

[4] Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 4: 120.

[5] Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 4: 184.

[6] Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 4: 180.

[7] Instead of being imprisoned, the men were paroled, which meant they could go home but not take up arms against the Federal forces until they were exchanged
for Federal soldiers who had been captured by Confederate forces.

[8] Because of the way North Carolina Troops were first organized, this unit was renumbered and designated the 17th; originally it was the 7th.  For headstone information see Wilma
Cartwright Spence, Tombstones and
Epitaphs of Northeastern North Carolina: Consisting of Beaufort, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank,
Perquimans, and Washington
Gateway Press, Inc., 1973), 177[hereafter cited as Spence, Tombstones and

[9] Subsequent to writing my thesis I discovered that McCabe's widow also received a NC Confederate pension.  The affidavits
and testimony in the pension are yet another silencing at the point of fact
retrieval and also at fact assembly as it is preserved as records of the State
Auditor's office.

[10] The North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), January 30, 1863; Compiled Service Record of Enos Cook Sanders, Compiled Military Service Records of Union Soldiers of North Carolina, Record Group 94,
National Archives, Washington, D.C. [hereafter cited as Enos Sanders, Service

[11] The North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), January 30, 1863.

[12] Joseph McCabe entry, Parish Record Book, Christ Episcopal Church, Elizabeth City, North Carolina (microfilmed copy, State Archives, Archives and History,
Raleigh), 172.

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Replies to This Discussion

Some of the Unionist feelings were genuine; some had other motives. Anti-Confederacy or anti existing power structure or personal self-interests might be better descriptions for some of the "Unionist feelings" in the area. Poor whites weren't in love with the war. (The old rich man's war/poor man's fight argument.) They resented the competition for jobs slaves represented in some cases. Union pay was better than Confederate pay, a factor for some that joined the Union army. Some slave-owners were Unionists in the sense that they felt supporting the Union would allow them to keep their slaves if the rebellion failed, hedging their bets so to speak.
One must also remember that Whigs tended to support local wealth such as canals and that kind of infrastructure. Another aspect that should not be forgotten is that a good number of those lower Camden County men were in the little Weslyan Methodist church there at Old Trap. That particular strain of religion cared little for slavery. In Pasquotank and particularly Perquimans Quaker elements would play into religious reasons for non-combat. Trade was an inducement to remain at least neutral.
To counter the often quoted poor mans war one need only look at such men as Hollowell, Brooks, and James C. Johnston. Granted they did not join Union forces but they were wealthy Unionists from the get go. I would agree they understood that moving outside the protection of the US Constitution almost ensured the loss of slave property and wealth and so wealth is a consideration. But had they felt secessionist sympathies they would have cast their lot to preserve their wealth under a new government. That they did not speaks to loyalty to the Union as a motive - indeed Johnston stated he could not rebuke the direct actions of his father who was instrumental in bringing NC into the Union (Samuel Johnston). There was no hedge to it. They pledged their fate with a political doctrine they supported.
Trade would sway more than pay - after all you could hardly expect to spend Confederate script in Norfolk and the Confederate government was doing little to make goods available (in fact they were stripping the counties as hard as they could). Both armed forces were offering bounties. At some point these men had to choose a political side. Brass tacks is brass tacks. We should not forget the myriad reasons that might lead to choices but neither should we forgo acknowledging that it was ultimately a political choice. With consequences.
The winter and spring rebel movements on New Bern, Plymouth, and other eastern areas were indeed part of official policy to procure supplies for the army. They weren't interested in liberating the east; they were just foraging during the lull in fighting in northern Virginia.

I still think some of the rich Unionist's sympathies were purely for themselves and preserving their wealth, sort of like early versions of modern multi-national corporations. (Sort of like " I pledge allegiance to myself, and to preserving and increasing my capital by the best means available.")

Some "Unionists", such as Jack Farliss of Gates County, were more interesting in profiteering under the guise of supporting the northern cause rather than supporting the cause itself. There were about as many reasons as there were Unionists, it seems.

Some groups of men armed themselves around Plymouth and worked their farms together, disappearing into the swamps to avoid either side. They were on their own side and wanted no part of the war.
One little known tidbit I found while assisting the Archives in recovery of the Bill of Rights (NC Copy) is that in a secret meeting of the General Assembly in July 1863 NC voted to abandon the entire occupied coast - believing they could not recapture it. The GA authorized the governor to order all county records removed from the area. In the 1865 bridge government (after the collapse of the Confederacy) it was ordered that all proceedings of the GA during the war be published. Minutes of the secret sessions are not to be found but in those printed laws from 1865 one can find the law abandoning the coastal area. Simply amazing.
Jack Fairless was no doubt the hard drinking man he was described as being. In Pasquotank County that position of ruthlessness and using the war to settle scores was filled by John Cook. Self interest no doubt appears in some cases.
Yes, men who had wealth, particularly in slaves, understood what Secession and loss of the battle meant - once outside the authority of the Constitution you have no hope of its protection. Its why GW Brooks asked for his slave back from the Union forces when he went to town and discovered his slave there. But at this point the Federal army and Navy were at loggerheads - Army would return a slave to a true Unionist, Navy claimed once a man was in the Navy he was there for the duration.
You know as well as I do that several African Americans joined the navy at first chance in Feb 1862 - probably for just that reason (among others).
I would argue that Fairless and Cook were the exception rather than the norm. We should not be so jaded that we fail to accept the political motivation of these folks, tied to their wealth yes but nonetheless political. 19th century folk lived and breathed politics - Lincoln is a great example of this. John Pool was a few thousand votes short of being governor and perhaps altering NC's course in the war - hard to imagine him suggesting that Lincoln's call for troops was illegal. NC might have been a major battleground had Pool been at the helm and not Ellis.
I would say be cautious about not only where but when folks exhibited these tactics of swamp hiding. The longer the war wore on the more likely it is that they would do so - in my opinion and research. Its like the Who song - no body wished to be fooled again, old boss, same as the new boss.
I presume you will have these defenses included in your thesis to counter any questions such as mine that might be posed.
Some of its in the thesis, some of it is post thesis work in the records. A smidgen might be in my article about the term Buffalo.
The 1865 secret law publication is not anywhere except in the law books and on this webpage - its an exclusive just for your page. I can certainly get the exact citation if you wish.
Senator John Pool (who became senator in the reconstruction era of NC when it was necessary to have good Union credentials) is another post-thesis idea. But I am a firm believer that the Pools (George Decatur Pool, William Gaskins Pool, Solomon Pool and John Pool) are one of the most important Unionists families in the area. I know John went to the Roanoke River area to maintain a plantation but he is still a key Unionist.
I wish I had more information about the Union meeting at Hayes plantation in 1864 - its mentioned in my work but I could not find out as much as I wished.
In other words, in answer to your question - yes and no. :o)
A small minority of the southern political leaders took the Republicans at their word that they didn't have designs on abolishing slavery. These moderates argued that the Republicans could only abolish slavery by a constitutional amendment, a practical impossibility. This would seem to be the general drift of the Unionists in eastern NC. They trusted the federal government not to interfere with their right to hold slaves. Have you seen any such evidence in letters you have seen?

The Republicans and Democrats both seemed to agree that slavery was a state issue over which the federal government had no control, hence the passing Ohio Rep. Thomas Corwin's amendment passing both the House and Senate in 1860. Throughout the 1860 campaign, the Republicans defended the right of each state to preserve and manage slavery. (This is a loose summary of Dwight Pitcaithley's take on the situation in an article appearing on pages 14-19 of the Feb 2010 issue of North & South Magazine.) Even after Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion, many eastern NC Unionists seemed to place their faith in the federal government recognizing their property rights.
Lincoln always maintained that he did not wish to touch slavery in the states where it existed but he did wish to end the spread of slavery into territories. He ran on that platform and won. He proposed a 13th amendment, we have a copy at the Archives, to keep slavery in the states in perpetuity where it already existed.
Alas, we never will know how that would have turned out.
In the end it was thought that by containing slavery would die a natural, if prolonged, death. But even in the 1850 and 60s slave labor was being used in urban settings, in industrial urban settings. So, hard to say what might have been. What we do know is that the tug came in 1861 and Lincoln maintained his platform of no expansion.
Have you ever read "Lincoln's Loyalists" by Richard Current? Good stuff that.

Chris, I remember my father telling a story, passed to him my his parents and others, that did not paint former confederate sympathizers in a good light.  Of course, he had left Old Trap and seen the world at a young age, so he most likely skewed the original version to highlight the brutality of the some of their actions.  It involves a guerilla named Peter, I believe, who was particularly evil.  I heard the story at a young age and the image I recorded in my mind was graphic enough to stay with me for over 50 years. My point is, I agree with your thesis as stated, but tend to think it evolves from a tight knit group who wanted to only focus on the "Lost Cause" and southern valor.  To admit that some of the atrocities that took place were inflicted by good southern boys undermines the chivalrous picture many want to use to portray the confederate past.


Anyway, good to see you on this web site.  Take care, hope to see you at a future event.  If you are ever in our area, let me know so I can work you into a presentation for the Hampton Roads Civil War Round Table.  Check out our Facebook Page.





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