History says state’s involvement in Civil War was an economic decision

History says state’s involvement in Civil War was an economic decision

Franklin is a stop on the Civil War Trails, a five-state trail system high-lighting significant events in the War Between the States. photo by Vickie Carpenter

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Franklin’s Confederate Memorial has stood in the middle of town since 1909.

“At the beginning of the year 1861, North Carolina was opposed to war and secession,” W.A. Curtis said in his address to the 1899 Reunion of the Confederate Veterans. The Charles L. Robinson Camp No. 947 of the United Confederate Veterans Association was organized in Franklin in 1897. The camp hosted the annual Confederate Veterans Reunions, which were a highlight of the decades that followed.  W.A. Curtis, who purchased The Franklin Press, Macon County’s oldest business (1886), from T.J Christy of Athens, Ga., played an instrumental role in shaping the history of Macon County as we know it today, and also did a great deal to preserve it. Because of works written by Curtis that are still available today,  Macon County’s history in the Civil War and its monument located in Rankin Square on Main Street in Franklin is well documented. 

“On the first day of January, the Legislature of North Carolina, in regular session, passed, by a large majority in each house, an act declaring that in its opinion, the condition of the country was so perilous that the sovereign people of the State should assemble in convention to affect an honorable adjustment of the difficulties, whereby the Federal Union is endangered, and calling for an election of delegates to a State convention,” said Curtis. “At the same time the delegates were to be elected, the act required that the sense of the people should be taken whether there should be a convention or not. The election was held on the 28th of February, 1861, and upon the question of convention or no convention, the State voted against secession by a majority of 30,000 votes.”

Despite neighboring states Georgia and Tennessee already joining the secession, and fear of economic turmoil if North Carolina didn’t follow, North Carolina stood strong in the sentiment that there was not a just cause for war. However, after President Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office in March, all of that changed. 

An information station at the Historical Museum on East Main Street explains the dynamics of Thomas’s Legion, a Confederate unit that had members from Macon County and two companies composed of 400 Cherokee.

“But there came a sudden and radical change in the sentiment of our people in the early spring. Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated on the 4th of March, and after that day, the conduct of the Federal government towards the people of the South was such as to rapidly crystalize sentiment against the policy that began to develop under his administration, and when he issued his proclamation on the 14th of April, calling for 75,000 militia to make war upon the seven states that had already seceded, making requisition upon North Carolina for her quota of 1,560 troops, a revolution of sentiment spread like wild fire on a prairie from one end of the State to the other.”

While there remains debate about the cause or reason for the Civil War, based on remarks made by Curtis, a Macon County businessman and Confederate veteran in 1899, North Carolina, therefore Macon County’s involvement in the war, was forced by what was deemed as a state’s rights battle and stance against overreach by the federal government. 

“When Governor Ellis received the demand, he promptly refused, and immediately convened the Legislature in special session, declaring the time for action had come, and he recommended that 20,000 volunteers be called for by the General Assembly to sustain North Carolina in her course,” wrote Curtis.

Then on May 20, the anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration, North Carolina passed the ordinance of secession immediately, which resulted in thousands of volunteers across the state – black, white, Native American, and others offering their services. 

In Curtis’ 16-page address given in 1899, not one mention of slavery was made. In any reference he made as to a cause or need for war, Curtis on more than one occasion referenced state’s rights or the no win situation North Carolina and those who lost their lives faced. 

“The main reason North Carolina, therefore Macon County, became involved in the Civil War is about money,” said Robert Shook, curator for the Macon County Historical Society Museum. “It has everything to do with the Morrill Tariff and how much it was damaging the southern economy.”

As Curtis recounts, North Carolina made the decision to secede from the Union after President Lincoln sent Federal Troops to invade South Carolina – Lincoln’s invasion was a direct implication of South Carolina refusing to comply with the increasing Morrill Tariff that was robbing southern farmers of their profits in order to fund the federal government. 

The Morrill Tariff was introduced in 1860 and arose as an unjust taxation that enriched Northern manufacturing while exploiting the agricultural South. Prior to the Civil War, there was no U.S. income tax and 95 percent of government revenue was generated by tariffs placed on imported goods. In May of 1860, U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Tariff Bill, raising the average tariff from 15 percent to 37 percent with increases to 47 percent within three years, which, out of 40 southern congressmen, only one voted in favor. The bill, which had been scrutinized and had been unable to gain momentum in Congress prior to its passage, was able to do so in large part due to many Southern states already seceding therefore withdrawing from Congress and not voting. 

U.S. tariff revenues were already primarily generated in Southern states, with 87 percent of all revenues coming from Southern states even prior to the Morrill Tariff being passed. The tariff raised cost of living and commerce in the South, while also reducing trade value of agricultural exports to Europe through things such as the South Carolina port to which Lincoln had sent troops. The crippling economic hardship the tariffs imposed on the South was for many, the tipping point that led to the Civil War. 

In September 1860, it was reported that Thaddeus Stevens, arguably the most powerful Republican in Congress at the time, told an audience in New York that the two most important issues of the presidential campaign were preventing the extension of slavery to new states; and increasing the tariff, but that the most important of the two was increasing the tariff.  

Charles Dickens, the well known English author, wrote in a London Weekly in December 1861 saying, “The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.”

Shook says that although he believes based on historical documents available to the public at the museum, the main reason for North Carolina and Macon County getting involved in the war was a result of the tariffs; the issue of slavery was a cause of the war in general. Slavery was a very real plague across the south. Cotton plantations throughout states such as in South Carolina were notorious for the mistreatment of slaves and their support of the slave trade.

Shook noted that very few people in Macon County owned slaves, so the issue of slavery wasn’t an issue locally that would send fathers and sons into battle. The 1860 census counted around 500 slaves in Macon County and out of those 500 slaves, about 50 families owned them all.  Unlike slave owners in other states, in Macon County, there are historical accounts of slave owners deeding property and helping to build homes for slaves. Similar stories were recorded during the Federal Writer’s Project during the Great Depression when the Roosevelt Administration employed journalists to interview former slaves and record verbatim their memories of slavery. The real life accounts of 2,300 slaves were recorded as part of the project and published in a series called “The Slave Narratives.” 

“It wasn’t like what you see in the movies. At least it wasn’t like that here,” Shook said. “Here if someone owned a slave it was for their small family farm. They worked in the fields alongside the slaves and did the same work themselves they were asking the slaves to do.”

Shook recounts a recorded event that occurred in Macon County during the Civil War when Nathanael Parrish’s life was saved by two of his slaves. 

“Parrish had finished up his time in the war and had retired and was done serving, but he came across a Union soldier out on [highway] 28. The Union soldier hung him from a tree on his own property and it was two of his slaves who found him and saved him,” Shook said. 

Even before the war, there were freed slaves who remained in Macon County, according to the census. Several of the freed slaves signed up to volunteer to fight for the confederacy alongside white soldiers. 

History recounts an Alabama soldier by the name of Zeb Thompson standing with a rifle by his side within a stone’s throw of General Robert E. Lee when he yielded to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. While history records him being there, he is often identified solely as a Confederate soldier from Alabama. It is not always noted, and often left out, that Zeb Thompson was a black soldier who participated in many of the greatest battles of the war and had been wounded and had recovered on three different occasions. Also present for Lee’s surrender was Private John P. Leach, one of two blacks, and 10 whites surviving in Company C of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment for the Confederate Army. 

During his 1899 address, Curtis spoke to the magnitude of North Carolina’s role in the war by noting, “The military population of North Carolina in 1860 was 115,369; yet the State furnished the Confederate army 125,000 soldiers. The total number of soldiers who served in the Confederate Army, according to the best authenticated reports, was 600,000. Thus, North Carolina furnished considerably over one-fifth of the whole number. Of these, 40,000 died either in battle, from wounds, in prison, or in hospitals, and North Carolina’s dead heroes sleep on almost every battlefield of any magnitude of the war.”

Out of the more than 889 volunteers to fight for the Confederacy, 300 men didn’t return home. Shook has a three ring binder which lists the name, regiment, company, age and rank of every Macon County native who died during the way. Shook’s records also includes three Native Americans who fought in the war as part of William Holland Thomas’ Native American Unit. 

Macon County’s history in the Civil War extends beyond white and black soldiers and encompasses the history of more than 400 Cherokee soldiers who pledged their loyalty to the Confederacy. Confederate Col. William H. Thomas organized Thomas’s Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers in Western North Carolina who were largely responsible in preventing the Union being able to occupy Western North Carolina during the war. 

The names of the Cherokee soldiers who died during the War have been added to a comprehensive list of names of Macon County residents who died even though Thomas’s Legion is recorded as being from “Quallatown” due to being comprised of Native American Soldiers. Several Cherokee who volunteered to fight in the war hailed from Sandtown, a village just west of Franklin in the Cartoogechaye area. Thomas plays further significance in local history as being the first and only white man to serve as Cherokee Chief. As a State Senator, he played a tremendous role in Macon County’s history and is honored just a few steps away from Rankin Square in Franklin.

Curtis’ remarks regarding North Carolina’s role in the Civil War in 1899 manifested into the construction of the Confederate Monument that now stands in Rankin Square. Three years after Curtis spoke during The Charles L Robinson Camp No. 947 of the United Confederate Veterans Association reunion, it was at the 1903 reunion where the decision was made by members of the camp, to construct a monument to honor the men who lost their lives during the War.

Next week: How Franklin’s Rankin Square got its monument.


  1. Just… no. It is Artcle IV, and it states:
    “(2) The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make allneedful rules and regulations concerning the property of the Confederate States, including the lands thereof.

    (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

    The civil war was about slavery.