By 1864, the war is going badly for the Confederate cause. The Army of Northern Virginia finds itself in desperate straits in Petersburg, starved for food, ammunition, and supplies. Gen. William T. Sherman has taken Atlanta and is poised to march to the sea. Union Gen. Philip Sheridan has routed Gen. Jubal Early’s army at Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley. Union forces occupy Knoxville and eastern Tennessee, just across the mountains.
Privation and ruin afflict much of the South, including North Carolina — which has endured partial occupation for more than two years and has become a haven for deserters.
At the center of the conflict are the slave owners, who agitated for war and now find their way of life threatened by it.
As early as February 1861, the Raleigh’s Weekly Standard warns that if war comes, “the negroes will know, too, that the war is waged on their account,” making them “become restless and difficult to manage.” The whole economic system will begin to break down.
Four of the 40 largest slaveholders in North Carolina’s western counties die violently during the course of the war — not on distant battlefields, but on home ground.
In 1863, John W. Woodfin is shot from the saddle while leading a contingent of North Carolina cavalry into Warm Springs in an attempt to dislodge Union cavalry raiders.
The next year, another, William Waightstill Avery, the most prominent advocate of secession in Burke County, is killed in a skirmish with Col. George W. Kirk’s cavalry raiders at Brown Mountain, 14 miles west of Morganton.
In June 1864, Andrew Johnstone, a wealthy rice planter, allows a gang of six deserters into his home, a stone estate called Beaumont. After he gives them food and drink, one shoots him dead in front of his young son, who picks up his father’s pistol and shoots three of the bushwhackers, killing two and wounding one.
The first of the four slavers to die, Col. George Bower of Ashe County, drowns when his carriage overturns in the rain-swollen Yadkin River. A slave driving the carriage warned the colonel not to attempt the crossing. The slave survives. But as the story appears in the Standard, the slave becomes the cause of the fatal accident, which provides him the opportunity to escape to freedom.
This is the contradiction. For certain rich owners and the economy they support, the slaves are essential — but the fear of betrayal and attack, even uprising, pervades the culture.
It might seem obvious from outside events that slavery’s days are numbered, yet in the western counties, from the Piedmont into the mountains, the slave trade flourishes. Since 1808, U.S. law has made it illegal to import slaves, but an uncounted number, likely in the tens of thousands, were smuggled into the South between then and the outbreak of war.
But the trade has mainly been interstate, conducted from auction houses in large cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, or between local owners.
Demand for slaves grows
By 1864, with U.S. troops occupying the swath of coastal counties, and the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke becoming a magnet for runaways and recruits for the new Negro Union regiments, Gov. Zebulon Vance declares “it is the duty of all slaveowners immediately to remove their slaves able to bear arms.”
And so begins a forced exodus of slaves into the interior counties. One consequence is that families are broken up — able-bodied men removed temporarily or sold outright to owners and dealers from the Piedmont to the west, while their wives and children remain behind.
John W. Woodfin’s brother, Nicholas Washington Woodfin — a lawyer and planter from Asheville, and the largest slave owner in Buncombe County — sees an opportunity for profit in this upheaval. Before the war, he recruited slave labor from owners across the state to build the Western North Carolina Railroad. By 1862, he and his consortium have hired 150 “able-bodied negroes.”
Woodfin, a handsome, likable man with a shock of upswept graying hair and a thick, well-groomed beard, sets himself up as a slave broker, arranging work-for-hire for idle slaves — wages to be paid to the owner, minus his commission — or outright sale. He propositions David L. Swain, former governor and president of the University of North Carolina: “Now upon the subject of your negroes; If you will send them up to this country, I can yet hire them to advantage for the rest of the year. The men especially will command high prices, particularly before harvest commences. There is a great demand for labor indeed. … It won’t be as easy to place women & children, but it can be done.”
With the shortage of men lost to the ranks of the army, the slave labor market becomes lucrative. Calvin Cowles of Wilkes County casts his net even farther afield, writing to slave owners as far away as Mississippi, promising them he can hire out adult males for up to $150 per year — $18 more than the wage earned by a private soldier.
So desperate is he for slave labor that he enjoins his brother in the eastern part of the state: “Can’t you catch me a Negro or two and send them up?” He can get a premium for skilled craftsmen — carpenters and blacksmiths — but is willing to take any slaves he can get. During a trip to Charleston, he buys Nancy, a 40-year-old “cook, washer, and house servant,” for his wife at a price of $805, but is disappointed that he can’t find a suitable “boy” for himself. For, as he confides to his sister, “prices rule high here.”
And so it goes. From middle Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and the coast, slaves are transported to the highlands of North Carolina in a lucrative trade that goes on vigorously until the spring of 1865.
Slavery in the mountains
One irony is that the mountain counties, which had relatively few slaves at the start of the war, relying mostly on a wage and subsistence economy, now become a region heavily dependent on slave labor. And as the number of slaves increases, so, too, does fear of “Negro Ravages.” An Asheville man, reflecting the general concern, writes Governor Vance requesting protection from the growing population of black slaves working for hire.
But the numbers only increase, because the shortage of free labor grows ever more severe. An adult male slave owned by Joseph Corpening of Caldwell County fetches a yearly rate of just $28 in 1861. By 1865, the slave is worth $525 per year to his owner.
Part of the increase is due to the depreciation of Confederate currency, but speculators focus only on the dollar value. Cowles, always a dealer with a cold eye for the main chance, advises his sister how to dispose of two of her slaves, recaptured runaways. “Robert could have been sold in Charleston for $2,500,” he writes, “but I presume you allowed your philanthropy to influence you in marketing him — he is with old friends. In Wash’s case, I advise you that you put him on the block in Richmond … get the most you can for him.”
Financial matters also weigh on the minds of the Lenoir brothers, Thomas, Walter, and Rufus. When their prominent father, Col. Thomas Lenoir, dies just before secession, they inherit Fort Defiance plantation in Caldwell County, a large farm in Haywood County called “the Den,” a considerable sum of money, and 61 slaves.
As eldest brother, Thomas becomes a productive citizen and opts to serve his family at “the Den” while his youngest brother, Rufus, stays at home to manage the plantation. The middle brother, Walter, goes off to war. It takes two years to settle the estate, and by then, the war is already a catalog of slaughter: Big Bethel, First Manassas, First Winchester, Seven Pines, the Seven Days Battles, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg.
And President Abraham Lincoln has issued his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves residing in states in rebellion to be free.
People as property
But the buying and selling of slaves goes on, a matter of shrewd investment.
From Kinston, in April 1862, Walter advises Rufus to be wary of investing in property that is overpriced on account of the war: “But there are two kinds of personal property which form exceptions in this respect, negroes and cotton.” So, “for long investment and in a mere pecuniary point of view, I would prefer buying negroes or cotton near the point where they are in the greatest present danger & removing them to the mountains to any other investment in personal property.”
Indeed, when he returns home — having lost a leg — he finds that his own slaves have doubled in value.
Like many slave owners, Walter is torn between his zeal for profit and his ambivalence about the means. Before the war, he confided to his eldest brother, Thomas, an attitude shared by his wife, Nealy: “I feel determined at present never to own another slave. Both Nealy and I have concluded after our limited experience with slaves that the evil of being a master and mistress of slaves is greater than we are willing to bear unless imposed upon us by some sterner necessity belonging to our lot.”
He does not favor secession, but when war comes, he ardently embraces the Confederate cause, including slavery. He dutifully bears his inheritance of more slaves, but like his brothers, increasingly chafes under what they all come to recognize as a burden as much as an investment.
They share their inheritance with their sister Julia’s husband, James Gwynn, who wants as much of his share in slaves as possible, especially young slaves, which he considers a capital long-term investment. He purchases two additional slaves from a widow, crowing about the bargain price he pays.
Gwynn complains that he sold off one slave, only to see her market value go up dramatically after the sale: “I had to sell one of Byram’s and Betsey’s children (Polly), which I disliked very much but she got too far along in the sleight of hand to keep; I only got $1250 for her — could now get $1800. I also sold Lark a few weeks ago for $2000 which I then thought an exorbitant price but it seems there is no telling what property will go for.”
From now on, he holds out for top dollar and increasingly distrusts the Confederate currency. “I have had several persons to see me to buy George and his family,” he writes, “but I have not sold them yet and I hardly think I will for awhile at least, altho’ I do not think I will keep them, but maybe they are as safe as the money I would get for them.”
After the carnage at Gettysburg and the forced retreat of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, some slave owners begin to doubt the durability of the institution. “I have never thought that the Yankees would succeed in liberating our slaves,” Walter Lenoir writes his brother Rufus. He always believed that “God will not suffer the Yankees to perpetrate so great a crime as that against us and our species.”
But recent events have changed his mind. Slavery may well be doomed, and this will not necessarily lead to the “horrid massacre and butchery” he and the slave-holding class have long feared would come hand-in-hand with emancipation. He goes on, “There will be no rising upon the non-combatant men, women, or children. Those of us who live to see it will see their Yankee masters set the negroes free and then govern them and their fellow citizens, their late masters and mistresses, as well as subjugated peoples are governed by other enlightened nations.”
In the final months of the war, sales are brisk — with families like the Cowleses selling off slaves in a market that is peaking. But this is no reflection that they fear either imminent invasion by U.S. troops or forced emancipation. They sell off “troublesome” slaves, of whom there seem to be more and more — the runaways, those caught stealing, the unruly, the slackers, the malcontents — with no notion that these individual cases of rebellious behavior indicate a more general belief among slaves that salvation is near. And it will arrive dressed in a blue coat and carrying a musket.
Strongholds give way
The owners are aware of a growing agitation and defiance among the slaves now crowded into the mountain region. Rufus Patterson writes in late 1864, “A general spirit of devilment is thro’ the country. I deem it best to be constantly on the lookout. Our negros need watching.”
And indeed, one of the most subversive activities of all is taking place right under the slave owners’ noses — aiding and abetting fugitive slaves, deserters, and escaping Union prisoners of war, many of them trekking over the mountains toward the safety of the Union strongholds in Tennessee. One U.S. cavalry captain calls the enterprise “an underground railway, as systematic and as well arranged as that which existed in Ohio before the war.” Unionists and local blacks act as “conductors.”
Albert Richardson, a correspondent for the New York Tribune, escapes from the hellish Salisbury prison and makes his way with other escapees through Wilkes County. He observes, “By this time we had learned that every black face was a friendly face. So far as fidelity was concerned, we felt just as safe among the negroes as if in our Northern homes. Male or female, old or young, intelligent or simple, we were fully assured they would never betray us.”
Richardson’s faith is rewarded. He and his companions, including fellow Tribune correspondent J.H. Browne, are guided safely into the Union lines in Tennessee.
Other escaping prisoners express their gratitude to the slaves who helped them find their way home. Writes one, “It would have been impossible … to make an escape without the aid of negroes.”
So by importing slaves into the west to safeguard them from being liberated, slave owners and speculators have unwittingly strengthened a subversive network that undermines the Confederate war effort.
For the western counties, the end comes not gradually but in a storm of Yankee cavalry. One day they are wealthy in slaves. The next, their “investment” has walked away and they are ruined.
Some owners bow to the inevitable, but only at the eleventh hour. Mary Anderson is a slave child on the plantation of Sam Brodie in Wake County, which features a big house of 12 rooms and slave cabins of two rooms each. One day she hears a distant booming. She recalls, “Next day I heard it again, boom, boom, boom. I went and asked missus, ‘Is it going to rain?’ ”
Of course it isn’t thunder she’s hearing, but the concussions of cannonfire as General Sherman’s army advances. Brodie summons all the slaves on the plantation. Anderson has a clear memory of what happens next: “At nine o’clock all the slaves gathered at the great house and marster and missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet. Then martser said, ‘Good morning,’ and missus said, ‘Good morning, children.’ They were both crying. Then marster said, ‘Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.”
Brodie and his wife then sit on the porch and wait for the Yankees, who gallop into the yard in a cloud of dust and camp there, taking hams from the smokehouse and brandy from the storeroom and setting out a feast for themselves and the freed slaves.
Anderson recounts, “The Yankees stayed there, cooked, eat, drank and played music until about night, then a bugle began to blow and you never saw such getting on horses and lining up in your life. In a few minutes they began to march, leaving the grove which was soon as silent as a grave yard.”
In a single day, life has forever changed for Mary Anderson and the other former slaves — and for the slave owners who imagined that their privileged way of life could survive such a shattering passage of arms.
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