What would you have done if you lived in 1861 Wilmington and were faced with the question of secession? That’s the provocative question raised by a new exhibit at the Cape Fear Museum. And judging by some of the fools on facebook who are signing petitions calling for secession, there are folks who can’t figure out the question 151 years later.
North Carolina and the south was abuzz with the issue of secession in 1861. Should the State stand with the United States of America or join the deep South states that had voted to secede? Seven ‘deep south’ states had voted to secede and the debate had moved to the more northerly southern states. “Fragments of War,” the new CFM exhibit uses artifacts from the era to place visitors in the mindset of North Carolinians and Wilmingtonians who had to face that question.
To borrow a phrase from a modern political campaign, we were against it before we were for it. North Carolina actually voted against secession in February of 1861. And then Fort Sumter occured in April, 1861. Sentiment changed. Wilmingtonians voted to support secession in an April, 23, 1861 meeting held in Thalian Hall. They saw the issue of secession the same way that South Carolinians saw it. And, as a very practical consideration, Virginia had voted to secede which would leave the State surrounded by secessionist states. Would North Carolina stay with the Union and be surrounded by secessionits or go with its neighbors and secede?
What would you do?
On May 20, 1861, 85 years to the day after the Halifax Resolves, the State voted to secede.
It’s easy to look back and observe that the State made the wrong decision. But would it have been as clear then if we were transported back in time? “Fragments of War” is designed to demonstrate that the question might not have been so easy.
Three of the museum’s most valued artifacts serve as the backbone of the exhibition. An American Flag, a uniform, and a confederate flag serve as the primary items in the exhibition. These three are supplemented by other items from the collection and collectors.
The U.S. flag is significant as it represents what was almost lost, the nation. This flag is believed to have been exhibited at a critical meeting when secession was debated. What a witness to history that would be! Recognizing the anti-Union sentiment of the meeting, the owner took the flag, hid it, and eventually moved it to keep it safe. It was carried north and then returned to Wilmington and the Museum in the twentieth century.
But is the story true? The flag features 34 stars. How many states were there in early 1861?
General William H.C. Whiting’s uniform is significant as it tells the tale of an individual who had to make the choice, as all North Carolinians had to do. A North Carolinian, a graduate of West Point, and a soldier. Which side would he choose? He chose his State over his Nation and became one of the eight Lieutenant or Major Generals from N.C. (Wolfpack fans will all recognize the name of another, D. H. Hill.) Whiting ended up as the commander of the Cape Fear region of the Confederate army and built the extensive series of fortifications that led to Wilmington being the last port open to the confederacy, significantly extending the life of the secessionist movement.
A confederate flag is the third major item and is significant as it represents what might have been. The 2nd National Flag, completes the trio of major artifacts. It is believed to have been flown at Fort Fisher and captured by Union troops when the Fort fell.
Other items in the exhibit explore the impact of the decision in more pedestrian ways. Cloth soared in cost from a range of 12 to 37 cents in 1861 to $11 to $13 in 1864. Widows of the men who fought in the war received pensions for many years to come. Daughters of the Confederacy organizations were formed to promote a view of the war.
How would you have voted on the secession issue if you lived in Wilmington in 1861?