North Carolina

Ian McDowell on the true historical heritage of Civil War North Carolina

by Vikki Bynum

Politics is a particularly nasty business these days at the state as well as national level. Take North Carolina, a state I dearly love. In recent years, the right-wing swing of that state’s government provided the impetus for the Reverend William Barber’s courageous “Moral Monday” movement, which in turn fueled the nail-biting gubernatorial election of Attorney General Roy Cooper, a moderate Democrat. Now, however, the Republican state legislature has passed laws to severely limit the power of the new governor. North Carolina is at the breaking point, politically, socially and constitutionally.

The state’s current crisis is not unprecedented. Author Ian McDowell’s recent article, The Triad’s Real Civil War Heritage, transports us back in time to Civil War North Carolina, providing instructive examples of how political hubris, outright lies, and historical illiteracy have long served up a combustible brew. Reactionary anger replaces reasoned debate, with much of that anger based on a false understanding of the past as well as the present. Tragically, “fake news” has exploded with the advent of electronic social media. It is not a new phenomenon, however.

The “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, with its cardinal tenet that slavery did not cause the war, is one of our longest lasting fake stories. In fact, like a number of Southern states, North Carolina has a fiercer history of support for the Union than does The Free State of Jones in Mississippi. Drawing on the work of Civil War historian William Auman, McDowell notes that

In William Owens, North Carolina had its own version of Newton Knight, the Mississippi Unionist recently played by Matthew McConaughey in the film The Free State of Jones. Owens may not have shared Knight’s belief in the equality of men, and his story ended less happily, but he opposed the Confederacy just as violently. When the conscription age was raised to fifty, Owens organized a band of armed guerillas and declared de facto war on the Confederacy.

Many folks in North Carolina ignore this history, particularly those opposed to recent efforts to remove Confederate flags from state buildings. Those who revere the Confederacy are loath to believe they just might have descended from staunch defenders of the U.S. government—that is, from plain folks who concluded that southern secession from the Union and the creation of the Confederacy were all about maintaining slavery—amid a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” that brought death on the Civil War’s battlefields and starvation on its home fronts.

One of the leading opponents of secession from Moore County was Bryan Tyson, author of The Southern States . . . . Our Sectional Troubles

One of the leading opponents of secession from Moore County was Bryan Tyson, author of The Southern States . . . . Our Sectional Troubles

Shaded area, including upper Moore County, NC, was a principle area of Unionist activity.

Shaded area shows principle area of Unionist activity in North Carolina

While attending a “Southern values” rally organized by a notable heritage group, “Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County” (ACTBAC), Ian McDowell had no luck in appealing to participants to consider the fact that

during the Civil War, many Triad Southerners felt themselves to be under attack, not from Union forces, but from Confederate troops.

Gary Williamson, founder of ACTBAC, dismissed Ian McDowell’s remarks about North Carolina’s Civil War Unionist past with the following words:

You have what you think your history books say, but I have the heritage in my heart.

And there you have it. Time and again, we hear such words. Not history, but emotions, anger, and Lost Cause sentimentality drive much of today’s reverence for Southern ancestors—ancestors who I like to imagine rising up, if only they could, to bellow “I fought for the Union you damned fool!”

And so I urge you: read Ian’s article; discuss it with friends, post it on Facebook and Twitter. Because if there’s anything the past seventy-five years have shown us, it’s that all the well-researched books on the Civil War, and all the dedicated teachers of the world, are not enough to defeat the mythology of a noble Confederate cause. As ACTBAC flies the Confederate flag in its movement to “take back” Alamance County, McDowell reminds us that the same county

in 1861 voted 1,114 to 254 against secession (the only time they were allowed to vote on the subject), and where peace rallies were held in 1864 advocating a return to the Union.


NOTE: If you wish to learn more about anti-Confederate and Unionist activism by white men and women, slaves, and people of color in Civil War North Carolina, Renegade South is a great place to start. Just click on the following essays of your choice:

  1. Documents on the Shelton Laurel Massacre from the North Carolin1.a State Archives
  2. Civil War Letters from North Carolina: John A. Beaman to Governor Vance
  3. Southerners Against Slavery: Wesleyan Methodists in Montgomery County, NC
  4. White Farm Women Protest Confederate Abuse: The NC Home Front
  5. Kill or be Killed: Bill Owens’s Guerrilla War
  6. Hiram Hulin seeks Justice for his Murdered Sons
  7. A North Carolina Community in Crisis, 1868-1869 (the Ku Klux Klan)
  8. Thomas P. Maness, Civil War Dissenter from Moore County, NC.
  9. Phebe Crook and the Inner Civil War in North Carolina
  10. The Chowan Discovery Group: Documenting the Mixed-Race history of North Carolina’s Winton Triangle

7 replies »

  1. Vicky, thank you for addressing the current politics in our southern states as well as in areas of our nation. Literacy plays a big role in a person’s view of the other. My wish for the 2017 is that literate folks will take a stand and come together to protect, fund, and demand excellence in public education.


    • You make an important point. The neglect of wage-earners in this nation and the conditions under which they work are a disgrace. Public education is also suffering, and ignorance is an increasing problem in a society that depends on an educated citizenry to make informed decisions.



  2. I enjoy the revelations about the division within the South over secession. Too many people have been fed a false narrative about secession and I think that may be more important to learn about than the war itself. There was never a united front in the South for secession. I strive to explain this to my students so they can realize that this conflict was one where the nation fractured along many different fault lines which enabled a minority faction to ram through their agenda.


    • I agree, Jimmy! Thank you for joining me in this conversation. So much of what we see in Civil War North Carolina in terms of political “fault lines” and the advantage they gave to that “minority faction” resonates with what’s happening today. Exposing divisions within the South during the Civil War hopefully will spark greater critical thinking among people willing to question conventional popular thought.



  3. Thank you! Since I wrote a booklet about 20 years ago on Alleghany Co NC and the Unionist families there, I have felt in my heart that the history we were taught is all wrong. The HOA “Heroes of America” was a secret society of Unionist people in the region. Have you heard of it? It was founded in either Randolph Co. or around Raleigh. There is/was a big cave near Stone Mountain in Wilkes Co NC that was supposed to be a stop on the secret railway out of the area to join Union forces at TN and KY. My booklet is at, Mountain Mourning, by Cyrus Stoneman.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Carolyn,

      Thank you for this information about Alleghany County, NC, and its history of Unionism! In my research on Unionism in the Randolph County area of the state (Unruly Women and Long Shadow of the Civil War) I found many references and descriptions of the Heroes of America—who were sometimes called the “Red Strings.” I also found great material on the Heroes in the works of the late historian William Auman, and his co-author, David Scarboro. You are right, until recently much of this history was buried, and I’m glad that you have contributed to uncovering it!



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