Reflecting on North Carolina secession

Civil War battle. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay.


By Gregory DL Morris

May 20 is the anniversary of North Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession from the United States in 1861. It is particularly appropriate for Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, and the surrounding communities to reflect on that date given the university and town leaders’ role in the rebellion.

It is all the more timely this year, given the troubling recent rise in Confederate recidivism across the region. Just two weeks ago a school board in Shenandoah County, Virginia voted 5-1 to change the names of two schools back to those of Confederate generals.

The most notable local name is “university trustee Paul Cameron was North Carolina’s largest slaveholder in 1860 and one of the wealthiest men in the South,” according to The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History. “He owned 12,675 acres of land and 470 slaves in Orange County and more plantations in Alabama and Mississippi. Cameron was a political ally of [university] President David Swain, who contributed funds to reopen the university after the Civil War and then to construct Memorial Hall. A street named for [Cameron] runs through the central historic campus.”

Image: “Paul C. Cameron (1808-1891),” Carolina Story Virtual Museum of University History.

Early in March, some residents petitioned the Chapel Hill town council to change the name Cameron Avenue and Cameron Court.

Lesser known was UNC trustee Thomas Ruffin who “served on the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he wrote one of the most important decisions in the law of American slavery,” according to The Carolina Story. “In the case of State v. Mann (1829), he banned the prosecution of masters for mistreating slaves by ruling that ‘the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.’ Harriet Beecher Stowe used this decision as a centerpiece in her attack on slavery in the abolitionist novel Dred (1856). Ruffin served on the board of trustees from 1813 to 1831 and again from 1842 to 1868. In 1922, the university named a residence hall for him and his son.”

Image: “Thomas Ruffin (1787-1870),” Carolina Story Virtual Museum of University History.

In 2020, the university removed Ruffin Senior’s name from the building. The same sleight of hand was used two years earlier when the university renamed its football stadium after its donor. Kenan Stadium was built in 1927 with money from William Rand Kenan, Jr. (UNC Class of 1894), and dedicated to his father. William Rand Kenan, Sr. (attended UNC 1860-63) was a captain in the Wilmington Light Infantry in command of a machine gun squad that was central to the violent overthrow of that city’s government on November 10, 1898.

North Carolina was among the last states to leave the union. South Carolina was first, late in December 1660, after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Six states of the deep South seceded in January 1661. Those seven adopted the Confederate Constitution on March 12. That document overall was patterned after the United States Constitution, with several notable exceptions.

The most abominable of those differences was Article 1, Section IX, Number 4, almost banal in its evil: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

Lest there ever be any question of what cession was about, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was explicit in his March 21, 1861 address, which has become known as The Cornerstone Speech:

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution….Our new government is founded upon …its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The four states of the upper south – Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee – did not secede until after hostilities had been opened by Confederate forces in Charleston bombarding Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession specifically stated the defense of slavery as the cause, as did most of the other seceding states. But North Carolina did not.

“We, the people of the State of North Carolina, in Convention assembled, do declare and ordain …That the ordinance adopted by the State of North Carolina in the Convention of 1789, whereby the Constitution of the United States was ratified and adopted, and also, all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly, ratifying and adopting amendments to the said Constitution, are hereby repealed, rescinded and abrogated.

”We do further declare and ordain, That the union now subsisting between the State of North Carolina and the other States under the title of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved, and …. That the jurisdiction of the State of North Carolina is hereby ceded to the Confederate States of America[.]”

By late June 1861 the North Carolina legislature had ratified the Confederate Constitution. Some histories of the period state that North Carolina only seceded so it did not have to fight against other Southerners. But by joining the Confederacy 31,000 North Carolinians died fighting in defense of the indefensible, the explicitly stated concept that some human beings could own other human beings as property.

Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.

This reporter can be reached at

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