Monday, June 6, 2011

Slavery As A Cause Of War: Facts Shatter Romantic Notions

Continued from June 1: (Go to Archives at right of page to read last week’s blog.)

Background: To learn more about my ancestor, Lyndon McGee Welborn, who volunteered for the Confederate army right after North Carolina seceded, I visited Warrenton, N.C. In this picturesque town just below the Virginia border, Lyndon’s First Regiment of North Carolina Troops prepared for war. I talked with the Honorable Richard E. Hunter, Jr., Warren County’s superior court clerk and keeper of Warrenton’s historical flame.  Hunter, spry and white-haired, invited me into his office.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn; all rights reserved.):

Cherry Hill, built in 1858, was one
of Warren County's largest
antebellum plantations. Go to
County Clerk Hunter suggested I might find information about my ancestors at the Warren Public Library, which huddled beside the courthouse like a meek nephew bearing a strong family resemblance.  Hunter said the library housed rare Civil War records. He volunteered to escort me. As we walked across the grassy rise, I asked why Warren County served as a launching point for North Carolina’s first regiments.
            “The state’s largest tobacco plantations were here at the time,” Hunter answered.  “We had some very wealthy people here in Warren County.”  
             I understood:  Elite planters and slave-owning tobacco magnates called Warrenton home. In 1861, local planter Weldon Edwards served as president of the North Carolina Secession Convention.
            The idea of huge, slave-driven plantations in my home state surprised me.  Although nearly a third of North Carolina’s population was enslaved at the outbreak of the Civil War, most slave owners were farmers working mid-sized farms, as was my ancestor, Joseph Welborn, Lyndon’s father. They usually owned ten or fewer slaves. The state didn’t have the concentration of immense plantations that characterized Deep South states, including South Carolina.
Defending slavery wasn’t a top priority in moderately pro-Union North Carolina, and you’d be hard-pressed today to find a North Carolinian who admits his ancestors fought to defend slavery.  Most swear their families never owned slaves, but how would they know?  Not everyone had a relatives who revered the Daughters of the American Revolution and researched family history, as I did. 
Warren County, N.C., at the Virginia
border, now has about 21,000 residents.
            According to the 1860 U.S. Census, the last census to list slaves, Warren County had about ten and a half thousand slaves, more than twice the number of white residents in the county, a South Carolina-like statistic. In the mid-19th century, South Carolina had more slaves within its borders than free whites.  Eight plantations in the state had more than five hundred slaves each; several had thousands. Seven plantations in Warren County listed more than one hundred slaves but only by a few digits. 
            By 1860, slaves made up one-eighth of the U.S. population, and slavery existed almost entirely as a Southern phenomenon.  In 1783, Massachusetts became the first state to outlaw slavery with a judicial decision clarifying the state’s constitution.  By 1804, all northern states had abolished slavery, though almost all of them had slave populations during the nation’s early years.  
The biggest book I could find about the Civil War, a compendium edited by Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, claims that slavery was the issue that polarized 19th-century America and brought about civil war.  The book asserts slavery poisoned any chance to address regional differences through a democratic process. Compromises between Northern free-soilers and Southern slave holders about slavery’s being permitted in new states acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico poured gasoline onto hot coals.           
“The antagonism between the sections came finally and tragically to express itself through the slavery issue,” the big Civil War book intoned.           
             I once thought statements like that were nonsense. Most modern Southerners, with the exception of fossils, Luddites and red necks, find slavery so repulsive that we pretend the institution couldn’t possibly have been a cause of secession and war. Facts, however, tell a different story.
Continued Next Week.