WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The attack on Fort Sumter, less than 200 miles down the coast, stirred up mixed emotions among the citizens of Wilmington on that historic day.
“People were nervous. People were anxious,” area historian Chris Fonvielle said. “People were excited.”
Fonvielle literally wrote the book on Wilmington’s role in the Civil War. He said, in 1861, the city was very cosmopolitan and evenly split between Unionists and Southern Secessionists.
“Depending on who you asked, they were glad that the war had finally begun after years and years of acrimony with the Northern States and radical abolitionists,” Fonvielle said. “On the other hand, those solid Union supporters were very sad to see the dark clouds of war finally arrive.”
After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called on the Union states to send 75,000 troops to help protect the Union. Fonvielle and historian Jim McKee say that request changed the thoughts of Wilmingtonians and North Carolinians.
“He just could not fathom firing on his own people,” Civil War buff McKee said. “And his own people being Americans.”
“Almost to a person, they said, ‘We knew we could not fight against our fellow southern states’,” Fonvielle added.
At the time of the war, Wilmington was the state’s largest city and home to powerful plantation owners. Although many in Wilmington could not afford slaves and did not feel the need to secede, the wealthy slave owners influenced the city, which in turn influenced the entire state.
“’If we just go quietly, they’ll take everything we have away from us.’ This is what a lot of them are thinking,” McKee said. “Others thought, ‘You’re not going to tell me what I can do with my property, and you’re not going to take my property away from me,’ because unfortunately that’s what the slaves were. They were property.”
McKee said right, wrong or indifferent, the war united our state and our country. He said prior to April 12th, 1861, people said “the United States are” but after the war, it became “the United States is.”
Also on this day in 1776, the Halifax Resolves were adopted in North Carolina. That resolution paved the road to the Declaration of Independence.