Onslow County Citizens Request Help from Governor Vance
by Bernie Rosage, Jr.
During the War Between the States, North Carolina furnished the Confederacy with more than 125,000 men, of which, over 40,000 gave their lives for a cause they held dear. Onslow County did its' share to contribute men to the sum totals of both figures.
By Autumn 1862 the county had sent more than 700 soldiers to the field out of a voting population of 1000. Before the terrible struggle ended in 1865, Onslow County furnished the Confederate cause with more than 1300 brave, bright, young men, of whom, many never returned to their loved ones and the land of their birth. Their bravery, perseverance, and courage under overwhelming odds is worthy of volumes but with almost every able bodied man off to war --what became of the folks left at home?
Governor Zebulon Vance was bombarded with letters and resolutions from concerned citizens of North Carolina feeling the awful effects of war on the homefront. "I ame a pore woman with a pasel of little children and I will have to starve or go naked," wrote one Tarheel woman. A gentleman asking for the governor's help wrote, "In a short distance of where I now write there are seven families, living on adjoining lands, and the only man to be left for them all is ninety years old."
Onslow County was not omitted from the hardships and horrors of war. On September 29, 1862 the good citizens of Onslow County sent the governor a resolution pleading for aid to protect the families, homes, and property of the absent soldier or the domiciled citizen by levying 8000 to 10,000 troops to the area.
The resolution listed several legitimate reasons for their requests. Onslow being washed by the Atlantic Ocean for a distance of 40 miles with her valuable salt-works was one reason for her defense. A valued commodity both to the state and to the Confederacy.
Another reason was that the county was only surpassed by few in the state in wealth, soil, and products produced. Independent of her vast quantities of naval stores, fish, oysters, and salt, her average crop of corn averaged 60,000 barrels at five bushels each. At last assessment, 3,538 slaves, valued at a low rate of $300 each, totaling $1,061,400 and an area of 297,281 acres of land valued at $714,759, added to her wealth.
Last and probably foremost on the minds of Onslow natives was protection from incursions of the enemy. Most of 1862, and throughout the war, found the people of Eastern North Carolina under constant fear of Yankee movements in the area. The Outer Banks, Hatteras Inlet, Fort Macon, Beaufort, and New Bern had fallen to the enemy who was now on their doorstep. "It is better to defend the porch than the altar, the door than the hearthstone," proclaimed the citizens of Onslow.
New Bern soon became the headquarters for the Union army in the south and garrisoned a large force there throughout the remainder of the war. The Yankee troops brought with them a new spelling for the town (Newberne) and raiding parties that foraged for food in nearby areas. Onslow County soon became a no-man's land between the Union stronghold at New Bern and the Confederate stronghold at Wilmington. Reconnaissance expeditions, foraging details, constant troop movements, and battles throughout the county brought the war, that was supposed to be fought by the husbands, sons, and sweethearts in some far away place, home to the mothers, fathers, sisters, wives, and children left at home.
The lives of those left behind, especially the women, would never be the same. Southern women, black and white, rich and poor, faced new challenges, dangers, and deprivations.
Release from basic household chores was the foundation of a Southern lady's sense of status which soon eroded away as the war went on. Rich women soon found themselves without slave nursemaids and facing the difficult task of raising children; young ladies regretted having been taught to play the piano instead of to cook; and women adept at embroidery and fancy needle work for the first time attempted more practical sewing.
Those women in the poorer and working classes had to take on hard physical labor -- labor that had previously been done by men. Added to the job of raising their children was the sole responsibility of tending the crops and livestock. They found their exertions too often produced meager harvests. Meat disappeared from many tables; families lived on drab diets of greens, field peas, and fatty cakes.
In addition to all these changes, Onslow citizens lived in constant fear of the Federal army, often seen throughout the county, and were thus justified in their resolutions to the governor.
On October 10, 1862, Governor Vance informed the county citizens about their concern, saying, "The within resolutions of the citizens of Onslow County, N.C., are respectfully referred to President Davis, with the hope that he will earnestly consider our condition in Eastern North Carolina and do all that can be done to avoid such a result."
Confederate President Jefferson Davis replied to Governor Vance in a letter dated October 17, 1862. The president, mentioning that he had thoroughly examined the resolutions and letter forwarded to him, stated, "Efforts are industriously made to organize and instruct the new levies of mounted troops, that force being most relied on to protect your exposed districts, and may be assured that the Government will do everything in its power to defend the citizens of Onslow against the depredations of the enemy." The president also noted that the large and increasing numbers of the enemy at Suffolk threatening North Carolina, Virginia, as well as the Confederacy's principle line of communication rendering it necessary to concentrate his forces there for the most effective resistance. He added. " In the success of that resistance I am sure that the intelligent citizens of Onslow County, as well as the rest of North Carolina, will perceive how deeply they are interested." He greatly acknowledged their patriotic manner and thanked them for their labors in filling the south's battle-thinned regiments.
The large number of troops Onslow County had requested never came. Due to the shortages of men and material, the borders of Onslow were protected by a small number of cavalry who for the rest of the war had their work cut out for them.
The war did not discriminate or favor anyone in Onslow County or the south. It affected everyone. It complicated issues never before imagined. It crushed the Southern economy and Southern society. It forced and aided change, bringing new perspectives, contributions, and potential of all Onslow County citizens who refused to lose faith and chose to persevere.
1. Our needles are now our weapons' (chapter taken from) A Woman's War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy edited by Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., University Press 1997
2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies 127 Volumes: OR, SERIES I, VOL. LI/2 (S#108); OR, SERIES I, VOL. XVIII(S#26); OR, SERIES I, VOL. XVIII (S#26-1)