For Union or Secession
by: Bennett Moss and Dr. James Manney
(published in the Spring ’00 Ramparts)
It was March, 1861, and Sergeant Alexander was getting nervous. William Alexander was a U.S. Army Ordinance Sergeant at Fort Macon, North Carolina. The Fort did not have an active garrison, and Alexander was the sole caretaker of the Fort. The sergeant had just received a message from the Chief of Ordinance that his request for a pistol had been denied.
In recent months the nation had been in turmoil following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated, seven southern states had seceded from the Union. There was talk of war. Would North Carolina also secede? If so, what would happen to Fort Macon? What would happen to Sergeant Alexander and his young wife?
North Carolina, along with neighboring states Virginia and Tennessee, did not rush to join the Confederacy. The people of North Carolina were sharply divided over the issue. There were many pro Union sympathizers in the coastal area and also in the western mountains of the state. By contrast, the plantation owners and other large slave owners of the central part of the state were strongly in favor of secession. As in most states, the state legislature was dominated by wealthy property owners. In North Carolina most of these men were slave owners.
Ever since the ratification of the Constitution, there had been strongly divided factions, usually along regional lines, that threatened to tear the Union apart. From the very beginning the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, pushed hard for a powerful central government. On the other side, the Jeffersonian Republicans fought to retain a greater share of power for the individual states. This issue of States Rights was not resolved for 75 years.
One especially heated aspect of the States Rights argument was the theory of Nullification. Its proponents held that if the Federal government passed a law that any state felt was in violation of the letter or spirit of the Constitution, the legislature of that state could declare the law to be without effect in that state. Most notable among the Nullifiers was John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina.
Other issues continued to divide the nation. Often the divisions coincided with the Mason-Dixon line. The Northern economy was based upon commerce and industry, while the wealth of the South was in land and slaves. Thus the North wanted high protective tariffs and centralized banking, which did not correspond to the interests of the southern planters. But most of the antagonism between North and South centered upon the South’s peculiar institution of slavery.
Because of its greater voting population, the North usually had majority control of the House of Representatives. Thus in order to safeguard its position on slavery, it was critical for the South to at least maintain a balance in the Senate. During the great national expansion of the early 18th century, every time a new territory applied for statehood, a heated debate would ensue over whether the new state would come into the Union as a slave state or as a free state, thereby affecting the balance of power in the Senate.
Even though slavery was the perennial hot issue in the country, the first organized movement for secession was not to defend slavery, nor did it occur in the South. In December 1814, representatives from most of the New England states held a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss secession from the Union. The New England states had opposed the declaration of war against England in 1812 because of its devastating impact on New England’s important shipping industry. Neither the Madison administration nor the preceding Jefferson administration had made any military preparation for a conflict with England. The result was a series of humiliating military defeats. For some of the New England states, which had opposed Mr. Madison’s War from the beginning, this was too much to bear. However, the Hartford Convention failed to produce an agreement on secession, and as delegates returned home, word of Andrew Jackson’s stunning victory at New Orleans in January 1815, and a peace treaty with England stilled any further talk of secession for several years.
Later, in the 1840s and 1850s, the Abolitionist movement in the North grew larger and more strident, generating more heated calls for secession in the South, especially in South Carolina. The issue of Secession vs. Union, was also on everybody’s mind in North Carolina. There were strong opinions expressed throughout the state.
Among the most outspoken was Dr. James Manney of Beaufort, North Carolina. Dr. Manney had a close connection with Fort Macon. He was one of two major suppliers of brick for the construction of the Fort. He was also the contract provider of medical support for the fort’s construction workers. Dr. Manney was a tireless letter writer about the big issues of the day. Here is a letter that he wrote to the editor of The Republic, which he later followed with a similar letter to the Raleigh Register. These letters were written near the end of November, 1849:
It is time for every friend of our glorious union to speak out fearlessly in its defense. The crazy abolitionists at the North and the crazy pro-slavery men of the South are striving with all their strength to rend asunder the bonds which unite us as one people and made us the greatest and most prosperous Republic which has ever existed. The hoary years of age have arrived – I am old enough to give good advice to those just entering upon the stage of action – if wise enough, others must judge.
I can recollect the latter years of Gen. Washington’s Administration and that even the father of his country did not easily escape the virulence of the Red-Republican of that day. An elder and beloved brother wrote an able and patriotic article in his defense for the public press. Washington’s Administration ended after two terms of 4 years each and John Adams succeeded him. He recommended some very unpopular measures, of which a majority of the people disapproved, and at the end of four years his administration terminated. Thomas Jefferson was then inaugurated and served two terms. No president was ever more furiously assailed by the newspapers than Thomas Jefferson – but a great majority of the people sustained him. And I believe that he faithfully and honestly discharged the duties of his high trust. He was succeeded by James Madison, one of the purest, ablest and best of men. During his administration war was declared against Great Britain and, notwithstanding it is the duty of every patriot to defend his country against all and every foe – thousands were found who denounced every measure – and a Hartford Convention met and threatened to destroy the Union. I lived to see that effort end in smoke. Now portentous clouds are gathering in the South-West and we are occasionally threatened with a dissolution of the Union by some crazy pro-slavery man. Tread lightly upon the ashes of your immortal sires who poured out their blood like water upon a hundred battlefields for liberty, independence and Union. If you persist in such madness and folly, they will rise up from their graves to rebuke you.
Most quarrels and battles among individuals and nations may arise from a neglect of what H. Niles called the 11th Commandment: Let every man mind his own business. Slavery is a State institution, it was recognized by the non slave holding states in the Constitution which created us a Nation. It is none of their business to interfere in our local state affairs. Thousands in the Southern States consider the institution of slavery an evil – yet we insist that this evil be removed in such manner, and such time as the sovereign power in each State may deem best. The fanatical Abolitionists at the North have rooted more strongly the chains of the slaves, and greatly retarded their emancipation. The Empire State was once a slave state. In my early youth I lived in the State of New York, when my father and several of his neighbors were slave holders, upon a small scale. Now suppose our neighbors in Canada or Vermont had in the fervor of their zeal for emancipation, come down among us and insisted that we free our slaves immediately, or they would instigate them to attack us and cut our throats and burn our houses. Most assuredly such incendiaries would have been punished in so exemplary a manner as to prevent a repetition of the crime. One of the best moral maxims ever delivered to man is: Do unto all men as you wish they should do unto you.
I am etc.
Dr. Manney, who was then 65 years old, did not restrict his observations and advice to newspaper editors. On February 18, 1850, he sent the following letter to the White House:
To His Excellency, Zachary Taylor,
President of the United States
This is not an application for office.
It is a duty which I owe to my country to apprise you that there is a great excitement in the public mind in some parts of this State, against the integrity of the Union. In some parts of the State they are getting up meetings, and appointing delegates to a Hartford Convention, which is to meet in June at Nashville, Ten.
In 1832 while Genl. Jackson was President, the South Carolina Nullification Convention was performed. At that time I only saw a furious, foaming Nullifier now and then, well I had some plain talks with them – they never walked over this child rough shod. I told them that under our mild system of government, men might think treason, talk treason – but beware if they committed the overt act of Treason, I would assist President Jackson to have them hung by the neck, like sheep stealing dogs.
I lost ten thousand dollars some years ago on bricks, when Fort Macon was built, and I should think this the best investment I ever made if I had about fifty Nullifiers and Abolitionists like Clingman, Lloyd Garrison, Giddings and others like them in the powder magazine, I’d put fire to it – and then there would be peace for a time. And it would be a salutary example to such scoundrels. I am willing to lay down my life at any hour, rather than see our stripes torn or one star blotted from our glorious banner – at sight of which, tyrants tremble on their thrones! Greater love than this no man can show.
It is my duty to apprise you that the malign influences, acting against the integrity of the Union, are greater at this time than I have ever known before. The crazy abolitionists at the North are trying to dissolve the Union – the crazy pro-slavery men at the South are trying to dissolve the Union. Aspiring demagogues who would rather be President of 3 or 4 states, than have the second station in a Republic of 30 states, are trying to dissolve the Union.
A great deal of the excitement about slavery is a Humbug! Kept up to embitter the feelings of the North against the South – the South against the North. The Methodist Church have quarreled about slavery and separated on Mason & Dixon’s line – it is M. E. Church North, and M. E. Church South. This is a very large and influential Society. I have been a student of History, Ancient & Modern, for fifty years. I know that religious fanatics are the most dangerous and cruel in the world. These great churches are striving with all their talent, and influence, to divide the Union on Mason & Dixon’s line. You will now perceive that mighty influences are directed against the Union. A Northern Convention of Dissensionists is to be held at the same time of the Convention at Nashville. Then the Black Flag of Nullification is to be unfurled.
I should think it will be prudent to garrison the Forts and guard the arsenals, before the first of June, in the disaffected states.
May the Almighty Creator and Governor of the Universe give you the strength and wisdom to conduct the Ship of State safely through this portentous storm.
With the most profound respect, your devoted friend and servant,
Dr. Manney did not live to see his beloved Union shattered by secession and the resulting War Between the States. He died in 1852, at the age of 67. Ironically, his own son, Dr. James Lente Manney, was part of the secessionist militia force that seized Fort Macon from the unarmed Sgt. William Alexander. It was on April 14, 1861 that the Fort’s flag was hauled down and replaced with an improvised Confederate flag. The seizure took place without the Governor’s knowledge, while the State was still in the Union. North Carolina was the last state to secede, and finally did so on May 20, 1861.
Sgt. Alexander and his wife were unharmed, and allowed to pack up their possessions. They took a boat across the sound to Beaufort, where they resided until the Fort was recaptured by Federal troops a year later.
Many southerners had mixed feelings about leaving the Union, especially if a father or grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War. Among these was Robert E. Lee, the son of the Patriot hero, Henry Light Horse Harry Lee. Robert E. Lee was strongly pro Union, but his first loyalty was to his native Virginia.
His ambivalent feelings were expressed in a letter he wrote to one of his sons in January 1861:
Secession is nothing but revolution… the framers would not have devoted so much care to the formation of the Constitution if it was intended to be broken by any member of the Confederacy at will… In 1808 when New England states resisted Mr. Jefferson’s embargo law, and when the Hartford Convention assembled, secession was termed treason by Virginian statesmen; what can it be now? Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more.
Bennett Moss is the president of the Friends of Fort Macon. Dr. Manney’s letters can be found in the collection of the Beaufort Historical Association.