From Randolph County, square in the middle of the state, John A. Craven pens a letter of bitter complaint to Governor Zebulon Vance: “October 21, 1862. On Saturday night last an officer that lives within a mile of me arrested a conscript a neighbor of His. The Next Night the officers Barn with all its Contents Except His Horses was burned to the ground.”
North Carolina is in rebellion against the Union, but the heart of the Old North State is already edging toward rebellion against the Confederacy. Almost as soon as the church bells toll the hour of secession, a protest organization rises among the discontents in the northern Piedmont. The strong pacifist tradition of the Quaker and Moravian communities there, along with a moral abhorrence to slavery, create ripe ground for Unionists to organize.
The so-called Quaker Belt stretches 4,669 square miles across nine counties –– Alamance, Chatham, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Surry, and Yadkin — and includes such key cities as Salem, Asheboro, Lexington, and Greensboro. These counties form a kind of no-man’s-land, nearly the size of Connecticut located just west of Raleigh, effectively splitting the state in two. The Quaker Belt is hostile ground for Home Guards, dangerous territory for the conscription patrols sent to round up able-bodied men for the Cause.
The stealthy members of the new order call themselves the Heroes of America. Their goal is simple and audacious: to bring down the Confederacy. To that end, the Heroes harbor spies and guide escaping Yankee POWs over the Appalachians into Tennessee and Kentucky. They spirit runaway slaves and fellow Unionists alike to free states. Through pamphlets and clandestine meetings in cantonments, they convince Confederate soldiers to desert their units, and then help them hide out from the conscription patrols. Secret and effective, the Heroes of America are Jefferson Davis’ worst nightmare come true: a fifth column bent on destroying the Confederacy from within.
They style themselves after the Freemasons, adopting signs and countersigns, special handshakes and symbols, and above all, an oath of loyalty unto death to protect the secrets of the organization.
Their motto: “Truth, Virtue, Honor, Fidelity, Justice.”
Their password: “United we stand,” answered by, “Divided we fall.”
The Heroes take their inspiration from the Book of Joshua, the story of the two Israelite spies who infiltrate Jericho in advance of an attack. The king learns of their presence and sends agents to capture them. But a harlot named Rahab shields them, misdirects the king’s agents, and then lowers them from her window, down the face of the city wall, by a scarlet cord. Her only condition for saving their lives is that they spare her family when they return to sack the city. They assure her, “Behold when we come into the land, thou shalt bind this line of scarlet thread in the window which thou didst let us down by: and thou shalt bring they father, and thy mother, and thy brethren, and all thy father’s household home unto thee.”
Likewise, the Heroes display a red cord on a doorjamb or windowsill, or sew a red string into their lapels to signal initiates they have come to a safe haven. Upon meeting, they give the code word, “three,” and await the correct answer, “days,” signifying the length of time Rahab cautioned the Israelite spies to lie low in the mountains before returning to their camp.
Emulating the Freemasons, the Heroes first initiate a candidate into the lowest of three degrees –– progressing to increasing levels of responsibility and knowledge of the order. First degree Heroes might know only one other member, the best insurance against betrayal. The initiate swears to eight promises, “binding myself under no less penalty than to have my head shot through.” He finishes the initiation ceremony by kissing the Bible.
Underground and secret
The Heroes of America organize themselves into small bands and work with the traditional pacifists and “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad. One of the earliest bands operates in Davidson County and is led by John Hilton, a buggy maker from Thomasville. Hilton’s neighbor James H. Moore betrays him to Governor Clark, confiding that, “there are five hundred men in Davidson and other counties around ready to strike for the old Union.” What’s more, Moore tells the governor, Hilton has been bragging that “certain secessionists in the neighborhood … would ‘feel the rope’ in a short time.”
Clark dispatches the Trinity Guards to High Point to put down the incipient uprising. The Davidson County sheriff arrests Hilton near Thomasville for threatening violence. But the Heroes are not daunted, only driven deeper underground.
Out on bail, Hilton reappears on March 7, 1862, leading a peace rally at the Kennedy School House near Thomasville — one of many such Unionist “night meetings.” Hilton is hatching a scheme to rescue Yankee captives from Salisbury Prison. Alerted in advance to the rally and tipped off that Unionists are stockpiling arms and powder for an uprising, Governor Clark sends 300 troops to High Point and orders the entire 33rd Regiment of North Carolina Troops to converge on the rally. The troops take many prisoners, but Hilton eludes them, crosses the mountains into Tennessee, and eventually enlists in the Union Navy.
Most newspapers are reluctant to report the lively Unionist activity for fear of demoralizing troops fighting far from home. Only in 1864 will the Heroes of America be publicly revealed as a complex, secret organization with more than 10,000 sworn members.
Among the founders is Dr. John Lewis Johnson, a native Philadelphian who moved to North Carolina as a boy, studied medicine in Lexington, and practices in Forsyth County. He enlists in the Confederate Army –– probably under threat by Confederate agents — is captured under suspicious circumstances during the Sharpsburg Campaign, and returns south on parole. He now becomes an apostle of the Heroes, proselytizing for the order all over the state.
Another — surprisingly — is Henderson Adams of Davidson County, who will serve as state senator from 1862 till the end of the war.
Poor man’s war
The appeal of the Heroes is greatest among small farmers and working-class whites who feel pushed into war by the plantation class. In April 1862, this resentment turns to outrage in some quarters when the Confederate government passes the Conscription Act. Under its terms, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 must serve in the army when called, and men who volunteered for a year now are required to serve two additional years. But the act makes an important exception: Any man who owns at least 20 slaves — and later, the qualifying number is reduced to 15 slaves –– is exempt from service.
A soldier named O. Goddin writes the governor, “The Govt. has made a distinction between the rich man (who has something to fight for) and the poor man who fights for what he will never have. … Now Govt. do tell me how we soldiers who fight for the ‘rich mans negro’ can support our families on $11 month?”
The effect on troops in the field is immediate and devastating — especially North Carolina troops, fierce fighters but also among the most ambivalent in the Confederate Army. Jefferson Davis and his senior advisors are so dubious about the loyalty of North Carolina troops that they consistently bypass their talented officers for promotion — a source of bitter tension for the duration of the war. Many of the troops consider themselves pro-Union and volunteer only out of loyalty to the honor of their home state. Now the rate of desertion becomes a crisis.
Not only do the desertions weaken the fighting army, but also other units and companies of Home Guards must be dispatched to round them up and bring them back.
Gathering strength from their founding base west of Raleigh, the Heroes move into Raleigh itself and establish the Grand Council of the Heroes of America practically on the front lawn of the capitol. After the initial fervor of secession dies down, the city is so pro-Union that the garrison troops there remain on guard as much against attacks from their fellow citizens as from the Yankees.
From the Quaker Belt, the Heroes spread out east to Kinston, Goldsboro, and the coast. They create chapters in Charlotte, Greensboro, and even Salisbury, which houses the notorious prison camp. They gain a foothold in the openly pro-Union mountain counties. They recruit in Virginia, South Carolina, and Maryland, and establish a satellite headquarters in Washington, D.C.
When the state builds a saltworks on Masonboro Sound near Wilmington, Unionists and Quakers from the Piedmont, nearly all Heroes of America, fill the jobs. Gen. William H.C. Whiting, in command of the Wilmington District, complains openly to Governor Vance, “I have at length positive information that at least two thirds of the conscripts at the State Salt Works belong to the treasonable organization called the ‘H.O.A.’ … I recommend strongly that the whole force be turned over to the conscript camp for distribution in the Army and their places be supplied by free negro or slave labor.”
While the Heroes foment a rebellion within a rebellion, the war comes to North Carolina.
By the end of August 1861, Hatteras falls. Citizens on the Outer Banks line up to swear a loyalty oath to the United States of America, forsaking the Confederacy. The governor responds by sending the 7th Regiment of North Carolina State Troops to Hyde County to forestall the “evil influence” of Unionism and stem Yankee infiltration.
Six months later, Roanoke Island is captured and occupied by Union troops. They establish a Freedmen’s Colony that becomes a magnet for runaway and emancipated slaves, as well as a staging ground for Union spies. The settlement flourishes, with its own schools and churches. Soon, it will provide fertile ground for recruiting black troops to fight for the Union.
All along the northern Coastal Plain, the Yankees press local militia troops.
In Richmond, Jefferson Davis will not assign enough troops to hold the crucial seaports, a policy that will come to haunt him. By spring of 1862, Union forces seize New Bern, Beaufort, Morehead City, Havelock Station, and Carolina City. Former slaves, acting as pilots, guide Union forces in a daring amphibious attack against Fort Macon, and the besieged rebel stronghold is taken. By the end of the year, the Yankees win a fierce battle at Kinston.
Of the nine significant battles fought during the first two years on North Carolina soil, seven are Union victories, and the other two are draws.
The Yankees have come, and they do not intend to leave.
As the war becomes ever more calamitous to the state, the Peace Movement gains momentum. Neither government notifies relatives when a loved one is killed, wounded, or missing in action, so it is up to newspapers, such as the North Carolina Standard of Raleigh, to report casualty figures. Editor William Woods Holden, once a staunch ally of Governor Vance, is now the acknowledged leader of the Peace Movement. Holden is a balding, earnest man of iron convictions who tends to speak his mind in plain terms. He is not a Hero of America, but they support him. He makes no secret of his plan: to negotiate a separate peace with the government in Washington before the state is totally devastated.
In July 1863 comes the news that breaks the back of Confederate loyalty in North Carolina: Gettysburg.
More than simply shocked that the great battle was lost, people are staggered by the casualty figures. Of the nearly 20,000 killed and wounded on the Confederate side, one in four is from North Carolina. Many die on the last day of battle in Gen. George Pickett’s valorous, suicidal charge.
In the following months, Holden mounts an all-out attack on Vance’s government in Raleigh, preparing to challenge him, on the Peace platform, for the governorship in 1864.
Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke, a North Carolina native, is released from the Virginia front to push the Union forces out of Plymouth and to tamp down growing Unionist activity on the northeastern coast. So-called “Buffaloes” — working-class Unionists without the Quaker disdain for violence — have been doing the work of the Heroes, and the state is fracturing. For the first time, a Confederate army invades a Southern state not only to fight Yankees, but also to fight Southerners.
On July 2, 1864, in the run-up to the August election, one of Vance’s supporters reveals information calculated to discredit Holden: A secret order calling itself the Heroes of America has been subverting both Vance and the Confederacy all along.
More revelations follow. Duncan K. MacRae, coeditor of the Daily Confederate, infiltrates the organization and turns one of its members, The Rev. Orrin Churchill. Churchill publicly confesses. Other coerced confessions and “outings” of H.O.A. militia officers and justices of the peace are recorded in the Daily Conservative, The Fayetteville Observer, and the Salisbury Watchman.
The Heroes are now in the crosshairs. In one blow, they are paralyzed.
A young sailor named Richard J. Bacot, stationed at Kinston aboard the C.S.S. Neuse, writes his sister on July 18, 1864: “Every one expects a lively time about here, when the elections come off in August. A secret, treasonable league has been discovered by the state called the H.O.A.’s — [Heroes of America] are all in league with the enemy & are all Holdenites. Since the disclosures, made by some members who became disgusted with the society, the remainder have kept remarkably quiet. I wish President Davis would have Holden & his entire clan taken up and hung; that would stop such radicals quicker than any conciliatory measures.”
On August 22, incensed that Vance did not crush the Peace Movement and imprison Holden, Jefferson Davis writes to him in a careful, cursive hand that barely conceals his fury:
I send you here with a sheet of the New York Herald which has been brought to my attention containing allusions to a recent article of the Raleigh Standard.
It is apparent what encouragement such publications afford to the enemy, how they tend to cause our situation to be misunderstood to our prejudice abroad, and how they are calculated to mislead a portion of our own people.
As you have been specially named as approving this publication of the Standard, I have thought it proper to bring the matter to your notice that you may take such action in regard to it as your judgment may suggest.
On September 9, Davis gets his wish. Georgia troops disembarking at the railroad station march upon the office of the Standard and wreck it. Their vandalism incites retaliation.
The following morning, a mob of citizens — Tories, as they are called disparagingly — destroys the office of the rival State Journal, a stalwart Confederate newspaper.
One citizen reports: “The city is quiet but fire smolders underneath the exterior. An immense majority of the population are more anxious to fight for Holden than for the Southern Confederacy.”
Holden spends the remaining days of the campaign season hunkered down with friends, sleeping in a succession of different homes, guarded by trusted men bearing loaded pistols.
With the Heroes set back on their heels, Holden buried under fear of arrest or assassination, and peace rallies shuttered by troops, Vance wins a crushing victory.
But the Heroes of America are not finished — only dormant. And Holden will fight another day.
The author is grateful for the assistance of Dennis Daniels and A. Christopher Meekins of the North Carolina Office of Archives and State History for their guidance in locating primary sources in the archives and published secondary sources, which include “The Heroes of America in Civil War North Carolina” by William T. Auman and David D. Scarboro (The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, Oct. 1981); “The War Within the Confederacy: White Unionist of North Carolina” by Michael K. Honey (Journal of the National Archives, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 1986); and Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader by Gordon B. McKinney (UNC Press, 2004).
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at Wilmington, and his book Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life is standard in college classrooms across the country.
To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series