The growth in the economy of the Southern States was due in part to the contributions made by people who had no rights and no freedom. Slavery was an active part of Southern American life, and Alamance County was typical of most counties in the South. In 1860, out of 883 farms in the area, 520 of them held slaves, most of them holding between 1 and 5 slaves. Roughly 33% of the county’s population were slaves.
The issue of slavery drove national politics as politicians and voters in the North sought to control, restrict, and end slavery in the South. The South viewed this as an attack on their primary economy – agriculture – and the states began to split off from the North in 1861, following the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Efforts had been made to avert the war, including efforts by former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin from Alamance County, but those efforts were in vain. President James Buchanan felt that if Ruffin had persisted, the war could have been averted.
But war was coming. In March 1861, North Carolina held a secession vote. The citizens of Alamance County overwhelmingly voted against secession by a vote of 1,114 to 254. The state, as a whole, also rejected secession from the Union. However, on April 12, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina opened the American Civil War, and after a month and a half of fierce debate, North Carolina chose to join the Confederate States.
Alamance County gave over 230 of its sons’ lives to the war, but it gave up any of its sons reluctantly. The county was a hotbed of resistance to the Confederacy and contributed some of its largest resistance in the form of the Heroes of America, or “Red Strings”, a group dedicated to resistance of the Confederacy who hid draft dodgers, among other activities.
As the war came to a close, however, North Carolina did begin to see an increase in activity. The largest battle was at Bentonville, NC, south of Raleigh. After this battle, General William T. Sherman of the Union Army stationed his troops in Raleigh and General Joseph E. Johnston of the Confederate Army stationed his troops in Greensboro. The two generals met at the Bennett Farm near Durham, NC and worked on terms of surrender for Johnston’s Confederate Army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was traveling by rail near Greensboro and issued orders to Johnston (which were ignored). Johnston, upon surrendering, stopped at Company Shops to dismiss some of his soldiers.
After the war, reconstruction took its toll on the area. Although mills could provide jobs, the economy of the Southern US was heavily in recession. Lawlessness and bitterness took root and secret organizations began to appear. In Alamance County, these groups appeared as the former organizers of the Red Strings were in control in the area, and in 1870, events became deadly as racial and political tensions came to a head.
On February 26, 1870, Wyatt Outlaw, a former slave – the son of one of the leaders in the Red Strings, Union veteran, political leader, councilman, and constable, was lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan. On May 21, 1870, state Senator John W. Stephens was murdered by Klansmen in Caswell County to the north. In July 1870, Governor William Holden declared Alamance and Caswell Counties to be in insurrection, and sent Colonel Geroge Kirk to manage the state militia in the area. Governor Holden suspended habeas corpus and arrested over 100 people. When the State Supreme Court ordered the men charged in court, Holden refused.
By September 1870, Holden had declared that the insurrection was over, but the political damage by his decision to ignore court orders was done. The opposition party had been elected to the Legislature in August of 1870, and in December 1870, Holden was became the second governor in United States history to be impeached, and after a 3-month long trial, on March 22, 1871, William W. Holden became the first governor in United States history to be removed from office.