EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Our State.
Wilmington, December 20, 1860
At last from Charleston has come the news that Dr. John D. Bellamy has been wishing for: South Carolina has seceded from the Union.
For 20 years, Bellamy has been the head of the regional Democratic Party, a fierce supporter of secessionist John D. Calhoun. At age 43, he is in the prime of his life. Bellamy is not a handsome man but rather an imposing one, with fierce eyes and a thick, dark beard. He is willful, self-assured, convinced of the rightness of his politics and moral stance. He is a strict temperance man and will not serve spirits in his house.
He has abandoned medicine for the lucrative career of a planter.
Bellamy owns the plantation he was born on near Georgetown, South Carolina, and two others: Grovely, consisting of 10,000 acres on Town Creek, a western tributary of the Cape Fear River; and Grist, a turpentine plantation farther west in Columbus County. In Wilmington, he owns a store, and nearby what will soon be the grandest home in the city, situated on a half-acre of prime real estate on Market Street five blocks up from the river.
Bellamy will not be pushed around by Yankees who do not understand the more genteel ways of the South. He descends from one of the original settlers of Charles Town in 1669. He is probably the wealthiest man in North Carolina, perhaps in the region.
His wealth is the fruit of slave labor.
• • •
When his father died, Bellamy inherited 750 slaves. Now he owns nearly 1,000. Most of the slaves work in gangs harvesting crops, such as corn, rice, and peanuts. Others operate the dairy, raise livestock, build barrels, make shoes and clothes, and drive teams of mules and horses. At Grovely alone, Bellamy has 2,400 acres under cultivation.
A lucky few slaves work indoors cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, and tending the younger of Bellamy’s eight — soon to be nine — children. The unlucky slaves are assigned to remote camps in the pine woods of Grist, later to be known as Chadbourne, where they box longleaf pine trees with special axes to collect turpentine gum. It’s hazardous work that exposes the slaves to asthma, dizziness, “griping” of the bowels, “dead” limbs, mental impairment, skin rashes, even blindness from the fumes, in addition to snakebite, heat stroke, malaria, drowning in bogs, tick fever, and being burned in the makeshift kilns. The men live in crude shacks or lean-tos without women or families.
Some of the most skilled — carpenters, stone masons, plasterers — are at work on Bellamy’s new home, carving the elaborate scrollwork and filigree, finishing the ornamental cornices and moldings, fabricating the Italian marble fireplace mantels in the two great parlors.
• • •
When the news of secession arrives, Bellamy is vexed that his fellow Wilmingtonians receive it in such a subdued manner. Businessmen fear the consequences of secession, how it might ruin commerce, which depends on a sea ruled by the federal Navy. To force a celebration, three days before Christmas 1860, Bellamy buys up every barrel of tar he can find and organizes a torchlight parade, complete with a brass band. The torches line Front Street paralleling the river and extend from the city limits at Ninth Street down Market to the open-air slave market on the river. There the parade rallies in front of a bonfire, and Bellamy proudly holds his 6-year-old son’s hand.
Early in the new year, Bellamy moves his family, complete with a retinue of nine house slaves, into the mansion and outbuildings on Market Street. In the two formal parlors hang oil paintings by his eldest daughter, named Mary Elizabeth but whom everyone calls Belle — romantic landscapes of mountain lakes and sentimental portraits, including one of a boy resting against a large, shaggy dog.
Belle drew the design for the house based on a home she admired in Columbia, South Carolina, where she was attending the Barhamville Academy, a finishing school. At 20, dark-haired and pretty, she is already an accomplished artist. The Bellamys’ new home is a grand structure, 22 rooms in four stories, capped by a belvedere or lookout room at the very top. The signature of its Greek Revival style is the 14 massive Corinthian pillars lining three sides of the white house. Only the rear, opening onto the four-room slave quarters and the carriage house, lacks them.
Bellamy boasts that he is paying the cost of this house, including the $4,500 lot, with just one year’s profits from the Grist turpentine plantation.
Wilmington is a booming port. On any given day, the harbor is crowded with ships from Greece, Russia, England, and Germany loading peanuts or cotton or naval stores — turpentine, tar, pitch, and rosin. Bellamy’s son and namesake, John Jr., will never forget the sight of a “million” barrels of turpentine stacked up on both sides of the river for nearly half a mile, awaiting shipment. The ships off-load cargoes of mahogany, molasses, bananas, oranges, and linens.
The molasses comes in hogsheads, and the bungs must be opened upon unloading to keep the casks from exploding in the fierce heat of a Carolina summer. Boys such as John Jr. catch the drippings of molasses and carry them home to the household cooks, to make peanut candy. Also in the summer, ships from New England bring ice, and the boys scrabble for the shards lying on the docks.
In this year of 1860, Eliza Bellamy is 14. She and three friends have been sewing and selling bibs and aprons to raise money to buy a Bible for the new First Presbyterian Church that will be dedicated next year. Like other young ladies of her class, including her own sisters, she is educated, courteous, morally upright, compassionate, and refined. Yet she exists in a strange moral bubble, oblivious to the bondage of so many others that makes their opulent way of life possible.
The city, like the Bellamy family, is on the verge of a very promising year — and also on the verge of calamity.
• • •
Not a democracy
Some 10,000 people reside in Wilmington, which is both the commercial capital and, in a practical sense, the political capital of the state. Like the rest of North Carolina, the city is divided on the question of secession. Despite the energetic efforts of Bellamy and others like him, such as Gov. John W. Ellis, North Carolina will stubbornly refuse to secede for another five months, until Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern insurrection.
Then the abstract question of honor will give way to the stubborn, practical determination to defend home ground.
The Piedmont and western counties, along with a swatch of the northeastern part of the state, are firm Unionists; the southern and coastal counties, where slaves are kept in large numbers, are betting their future on secession, for a very practical reason, as expressed by the 169 delegates in South Carolina who initiated secession: The non-slaveholding states “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”
Of the 22,000 people residing in New Hanover County, more than half are slaves.
Slaves are expensive. A strong female useful in the kitchen might fetch $300, and a male field hand in good health might cost as much as $1,000. A slave trained in the arduous, skilled work of harvesting and distilling turpentine might cost more than $2,000. John Jr. will later recall being a spectator at the slave market: “An auctioneer would cry out the age, sex, and capability of the slave, just as they sold livestock, then and now.”
Bellamy, like other prominent Southern planters, rules an empire, and it is not a democracy. He belongs to a select group of fewer than 100 men in the state who own at least 100 slaves. He is known as hard-nosed but not cruel, and he expects toughness and resilience from slaves, hired workers, and family alike. In the cold months to come, he will insist that John Jr. go barefoot all winter, even in snow and sleet, to toughen him up for later life.
In March, the Bellamys hold a double wedding reception for Mrs. Bellamy’s brother, George Harriss, and his bride, Julia, and another relation, Hattie Taylor, and her husband, Dr. Edward S. Tennent, a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Ellen Bellamy will never forget the spectacle: “I can remember how beautiful everything was, especially the long table set in the dining room laden with everything conceivably good!”
Tennent is fated to die in battle in Marion, South Carolina.
• • •
A city transformed
Meanwhile, Wilmington is thrown into a tumult by the war. Soldiers encamp at Delgado Cotton Mills and at Camp Lamb. Sailors and speculators crowd the filthy wharves. Prostitutes suddenly appear in great numbers, along with gamblers, soldiers of fortune, and every kind of petty criminal. It’s no longer safe for women to walk the streets unescorted.
Bellamy volunteers the services of a contingent of male slaves to join the nearly 500 who will soon labor in the brutal heat to construct a chain of sand forts at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. As a patriotic gesture, he will accept no compensation from the Confederate government.
Sleek side-wheeler steamers with shallow bottoms — blockade runners — run the shoals at night to bring war material from the West Indies. They carry powder, cannons, muskets, all the industrial products the South cannot manufacture in necessary quantities. But they also bring in silks and champagne, among other luxuries, and the captains become both heroic and rich. They hold poker games and cockfights, and they trade currencies and gold.
And indeed there is a kind of gold-rush, frontier-boomtown feel to the port, raucous and violent, noisy and vulgar, time suspended in an eternal present tense while men scramble to make their fortunes not knowing how long the boom will last, how long it will take for the war that is brewing so far away to make it this far south.
But the improbable yet somehow inevitable war begins with the bombardment of the army garrison at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, on April 12. By summer, there is fighting up in Virginia. Marsden Bellamy, the eldest son, has enlisted in the Third North Carolina Cavalry. His younger brother William, just 17, has joined the 18th Regiment of North Carolina Infantry.
Still the war remains distant. The children cheer news of victories, and whenever they learn of setbacks or of friends or relatives killed in battle, they hide behind the house and weep into their caps.
• • •
Babe Sims, a school friend of Belle’s, writes from South Carolina inviting Belle to bring her whole family down to Columbia should they need refuge. She writes in a careful, small cursive with a minimum of loops and curlicues, “How many beloved ones have ‘fought their last battle and now sleep their last sleep.’ … Pa was in the Battle of Manassas. We have a good many trophies from the battle field.”
There are no Yankee invaders to repel, not yet. Then on August 6, 1862, a different enemy steals upriver aboard the blockade-runner Kate: yellow fever.
Almost overnight, a handful of infections becomes an epidemic. Five hundred cases. One thousand. More than 1,500. Wagonloads of corpses roll down Market Street to Oakdale Cemetery, the first of more than 600 who will die. One of them is the superintendent of the cemetery himself. Five of the city’s 10 doctors fall victim to the fever.
The Bellamy family has inhabited their new home for scarcely six months. Bellamy is a doctor and knows there is no cure for yellow fever. He will not stay to treat the sick. The only certain way to save his family is to get them out of the city in time. As they prepare for flight, Bellamy is hailed from the street by an old friend, James S. Green, fellow director of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.
“Dr. Bellamy, aren’t you afraid to be here while the fever is raging?”
“Yes, we are preparing to leave,” Bellamy replies. “Are you going to stay?”
“Yes, I am immune and not afraid,” Green says.
Leaving a trusted slave in charge of the house, the Bellamys take the rest of their household slaves with them more than 100 miles into the hinterland to Floral College.
Behind them, in the city they and some 6,000 of their fellow Wilmingtonians abandon, their first wholesale casualties of the war of secession are being lowered into a mass grave in Oakdale Cemetery. Bellamy’s old friend, James S. Green, does not live out the week.
Philip Gerard draws information and accounts from several sources for this series. The author is indebted to Dr. Chris Fonvielle and Jeff Bockert of the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and to William R. Trotter’s comprehensive work, Silk Flags and Cold Steel., as well as a variety of North Carolina county histories, most published under the auspices of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History. Thanks also to the staff of Special Collections at the William Madison Randall Library at UNC Wilmington for access to letters and diaries; The North Carolina State Museum of History; The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History; the Museum of the Confederacy; and Historic Cabarrus Association, Inc., Michael Eury, Executive Director.
To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series.