News from Carolina

Rebel or loyalist? Sometimes it was hard to tell.

On the surface, wealthy Lincolnton businessman and slaveholder John Phifer may have appeared loyal to Dixie.

His textile mill on the South Fork River cranked out products much needed in the embattled South. His three sons were officers in the Confederate Army, and two died fighting at Chickamauga and Petersburg.

In a small town that produced five Confederate generals, Phifer was related to the most famous – Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a favorite of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

But after the war, Phifer told a federal commission that he never supported the rebel cause. Abe Lincoln was his president, not Jeff Davis.

Newly discovered documents in the National Archives show that Phifer applied to the Southern Claims Commission after the war for compensation. They also show the extent of Union looting:

Phifer told the commission that on April 17, 1865, the 15th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry Volunteers took $1,060 worth of his property. The list included 200 bushels of corn, two horses and a mule. A Michigan regiment made off with six hogs.

In other NC news, there is an effort to pardon Reconstruction-era governor William Holden, a Republican who was impeached by resurgent Democrats in 1871. But the question lingers—was he a brave politician who stood up the Klan or just another corrupt Scalawag? Even now the question brings up painful memories.

Holden declared Caswell and Alamance counties to be in a state of insurrection. Because most local law enforcement was controlled by Conservatives/Democrats, Holden recruited a special 670-member militia from the pro-union western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee area headed by Col. George W. Kirk, who during the war led a band of Federal raiders with a fierce reputation.

Kirk’s men arrested 19 men in Caswell County and 82 men in Alamance County. Holden suspended habeas corpus, which allows prisoners the right to petition the court for release from unlawful imprisonment, because he thought the prisoners would just be released by sympathetic local courts. The dragnet rounded up a number of prominent political leaders.

One of the men behind Holden’s fall was former governor Zebulon Vance, who led the Democratic takeover of the state that lasted a hundred years.

Local history writer Rob Neufeld has a look at the Vance family and their slaves, including a house slave named Venus who took a large part in raising young Zebulon. His father had given his two slave families “full liberty”, which made them free in all but name.

“Full liberty” meant, in that time and place, freedom to choose their households, to travel, and to not worry about losing their children.  The alternative, emancipation, would have required, the state slave codes dictated, approval by a county court.

The slave codes also required African Americans to carry papers—either a ticket from their owner or freedman’s documents—when they were away from their homes.  Plus, all white men were allowed to capture or shoot runaways.  The Vances’ relaxed ownership may have provided their slaves their safest option.

They didn’t call it “the peculiar institution” for nothing.

UPDATE: More news, not necessarily from Carolina.

Vicksburg is under siege again—this time from the Mississippi. Civil War buffs need not be concerned about the battlefield as it is up on some bluffs, but the town is a different story.

The New York Times has an interesting article on Confederates who thought they were white, but under some later interpretations would have been black.

The Gibsons were hardly alone in their journey from black to white. Hundreds of families of color had gained their freedom in the colonial era because they had English mothers, and within a generation or two, they could claim to be white. Their claims were supported by law, which never drew the color line at “one drop” of African ancestry in the antebellum era. Most Southern states followed a one-quarter or one-eighth rule: anyone with a black grandparent or great-grandparent was legally black, and those with more remote ancestry were legally white. Antebellum South Carolina, though, never had a legal definition of race. “It may be well and proper,” a state judge and leading defender of slavery wrote in 1835, “that a man of worth, honesty, industry and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.”

The color line was a lot more fluid than is often realized in the 1860s, and certainly more so than it later became. Most of the rigid interpretations came near the turn of the century, including the “one drop” rule. When we talk about Black Confederates, many men who served as white in the 1860s would not have been recognized as such in, say, 1900. There were many local variations also—Virginia followed the so-called Pocahontas Exception, which effectively discounted Indian ancestry. Peculiar, indeed.


One response to “News from Carolina”

  1. CE Patrick Avatar

    Interesting. I never knew that the mountaineers were specifically pro-union during the war (referring to George Kirk and others like him). Was there a specific reason?

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