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Civil War and Reconstruction
James L. Leloudis
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


When fighting erupted between North and South in 1861, University of North Carolina President David Lowry Swain committed himself to keeping the institution open. He succeeded, for instance, in winning from the Confederate government a draft exemption for many of the school's students. Even so, faculty and student ranks dwindled. The Union strategy was to throttle the Confederacy by blockading its major ports on the Atlantic coast, taking control of the vital Mississippi River, and then marching steadily northward to conquer the remaining inland territory. North Carolina was one of the last sections of the Confederacy to fall, and as a result, it bore a brutally disproportionate share of the war's burden. Nearly one-fifth of the men drafted into the Confederate army came from this state.1
In 1865, after the Confederate government's evacuation of Richmond and Union victory over Joseph Johnston's army at Bentonville, North Carolina, Sherman's troops began a final march toward Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Both were spared the fate of other cities in the Union army's path when President Swain and Carolina alumnus William Alexander Graham surrendered the state capital and the University to Sherman.2
President Swain and North Carolina's old guard managed to cling to power during the years of Presidential Reconstruction immediately after the Civil War. But in 1867, Republicans in Congress, angered by the continuing defiance of ex-Confederates, took matters into their own hands. With passage of the Military Reconstruction Acts in March of 1867, they set the stage for political upheaval in North Carolina. The acts called for continued military occupation of the South and instructed army commanders in the region to organize elections for constitutional conventions that would return the rebel states to the Union. A special provision in the acts gave black men—who would not be granted general suffrage rights until passage of the Fifteenth Amendment—a one-time right to vote for convention delegates.
The seemingly impossible now became imaginable. A new state Republican Party, organized in 1867, brought together former slaves and roughly one-fifth of the white electorate—the largest percentage of white voters in any southern state to cross the color line. Those white Republicans recognized a complementarity of interest with newly freed blacks. They had long resented the slaveholding elite's hold on power, and by the time of the Civil War's end, many had concluded that the battle was not theirs so much as it was a "rich man's fight." Their alliance with former slaves did not erase racial animosity, which had been deeply engrained by two hundred years of racial slavery. But it did hold out to both groups the promise of an enlarged political voice and greater economic opportunity—those things that gave the idea of freedom substance and meaning in day-to-day life.
When voters went to the polls in late 1867, the results were astounding. Republicans won 107 of 120 seats in the state's constitutional convention. Fifteen of those delegates were black. In January 1868, the convention met in Raleigh and drafted a document that reflected the aspirations of former slaves and their white allies. The new state constitution gave all adult men the right to vote, regardless of skin color or previous condition of servitude. It also established a school system that, while it remained racially segregated, promised for the first time in the state's history to educate all children, black and white alike. Last, but certainly not least, the new constitution revolutionized state and county government. It removed the property qualifications for state office-holding, and at the local level, it abolished the offices of the justices-of-the-peace and replaced them with elected, five-member boards of county commissioners who were responsible to voters rather than to political cronies in the legislature and the governor's mansion.
With a few deft strokes, political power in North Carolina had been radically restructured. Additional proof came in the election of April 1868. Republican candidates took more than two-thirds of the legislative seats in Raleigh. Twenty of those legislators were black, and at the local level, scores of black men became county commissioners, judges, and school committeemen. In the same election, Republican William Woods Holden won the governor's office. Prior to the Civil War, Holden had been an outspoken advocate of secession, but as the fighting took a heavier and heavier toll on white yeoman families of the Piedmont and the western mountains, he switched sides. He had run for election as a peace candidate in 1864, and for a brief period during Presidential Reconstruction, he had served by presidential appointment as the state's provisional governor.
The Constitution of 1868 brought change to the University as well. It stripped legislators of their authority to appoint the University's trustees and gave that responsibility to the state Board of Education, which was controlled by the governor. This move was designed to wrest control of the campus from its ex-Confederate alumni and, in the words of Governor Holden and his Republican allies, to broaden and democratize the University—to remake it as a "people's university," open to all and no longer reserved "for the few." The executive committee of the University's new Board of Trustees declared their support for the coeducation of men and women and endorsed plans for establishing in Raleigh a college for the freedmen, which was to be operated as a branch of the University. "Education," Governor Holden proclaimed, "knows no color or condition of mankind." What might have come of such commitments remains an open question. The trustees' educational experiment came under fierce attack as soon as it was announced, and within two years collapsed completely.3
In July 1868, the trustees took the first step in reforming the University by removing from office President Swain and his faculty. From there, the story took a tragic and ironic twist. Less than a month after his dismissal, Swain died from injuries he suffered when the horse pulling his buggy bolted and threw him to the ground. The horse had been a gift from General Sherman, given to Swain to celebrate the marriage of the president's daughter to a Union brigadier general .4
To replace Swain , the trustees chose Solomon Pool , an 1853 graduate of the University and former adjunct professor of mathematics. Pool was from Elizabeth City, the son of a Methodist minister and a man of strong Republican sympathies. During the constitutional convention of 1868, he had denounced the University as an institution governed by "aristocracy and family influence." "Better to close it," he had exclaimed, than to leave it in the hands of ex-Confederates as "a nursery of treason." Pool's new faculty colleagues were also men of decided political views. For instance, Fisk Brewer , Professor of Greek, had graduated from Yale in 1852 and was the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer. At the end of the Civil War, he had come south to serve as the principal of a freedmen's school in Raleigh. There and in Chapel Hill, he shocked local whites with his unequivocal endorsement of racial equality and by inviting blacks to dine at his home.5
When Pool , Fisk , and their colleagues opened the University for classes in March 1869, they joined a larger battle over the shape of the South's future and the very meaning of American democracy. They came under withering fire from critics who renounced them as a motley collection of "ex-negro teachers and scalawags." Cornelia Phillips Spencer , whose father, James Phillips , and brother, Charles Phillips , had taught mathematics at the University, attacked Pool in a steady barrage of letters to Democratic newspapers. In a particularly pointed dispatch to the Raleigh Daily Sentinel, she described him as "an arrogant prig, without two clear ideas in his brains." Bad press, however, was far from the worst of Pool's worries. The University was bankrupt. The funds that its trustees had invested in state bonds during the Civil War were lost when the legislature repudiated North Carolina's Confederate war debt. Repudiation was a powerful class issue. It angered men of wealth who had invested their fortunes in the Confederate war effort and now saw that wealth disappear. By the same token, it brought relief to middling white yeomen who had assurance that they would not be taxed to pay for a war that had already taken a heavy toll through the destruction of their farms and the lost lives of their loved ones. The legislature might have made up the University's shortfall, but it refused to do so. Old-guard Democrats were determined to starve Pool and his faculty out of office, while many Republican lawmakers, whose agenda Pool shared, remained deeply suspicious of an institution that historically had never been their own.6
Pool's university also failed to attract sufficient numbers of students. The college's Democratic alumni boycotted the institution, and only a handful of Republicans sent their sons to study in Chapel Hill. Many preferred the denominational colleges, which were more closely attached to local communities, and even more feared for their children's safety. Chapel Hill stood near the center of a violent insurgency that was determined to unseat by force of arms and intimidation North Carolina's biracial Republican government. That insurgency was led by the Ku Klux Klan, whose campaign of terror was focused in the central Piedmont region of the state, where many white voters had defected to the Republican cause and, in the Klan's view, had marked themselves as traitors to their race. By late 1869, Klansmen were riding openly through Chapel Hill, as one newspaper reported, "enquiring the whereabouts of the negroes and white radicals."7
Governor Holden launched a counter-attack against the Klan. In 1870, he declared martial law in several Piedmont counties, mobilized the state militia to hunt down the insurgents, and refused to release captured Klansmen, even on writs of habeas corpus. But when Holden requested federal assistance, he was refused by President Grant, now weary of the unyielding turmoil in the South. That abandonment gave conservative Democrats the opening they needed. In the August mid-term elections, they rallied to defeat the Republicans and to send a Democratic majority to the state legislature. That majority then promptly adopted articles of impeachment against Holden , tried him, and on March 22, 1871, removed him from office. It was the first successful impeachment of a governor in the history of the United States.
Democrats heralded Holden's impeachment as an act of "redemption" that had saved the state from what one partisan would later characterize as the "unwise doctrine of universal equality." The University was one of the chief casualties of that victory. In February 1871, with Holden's impeachment underway, with no funds and few students, the trustees voted to suspend classes and close the institution's doors. Pool and his faculty slowly moved away from Chapel Hill, and in the years that followed they were—and continue to be—actively forgotten in popular recollections of the University and Reconstruction. As memory of them faded—or, more to the point, as that memory was erased—so, too, was awareness that Reconstruction in Chapel Hill might have ended in any other way.8

Endnotes:

1. The account that follows is adapted from James L. Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), chapter 2. On North Carolina politics during the Civil War and Reconstruction, see Paul D. Escott, Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), chapters 1-6. On efforts to keep the University open throughout the Civil War, see Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1907 and 1912), I:719-49.

2. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:742.

3. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:767, 774-5 and II:2-8, 14, 35; North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), June 10, 1869.

4. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:744, 775-780.

5. On Solomon Pool and his views of the University, see Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:9. Judge D.A. Starbuck of Forsyth County, one of the new trustees appointed in 1868, echoed Pool's sentiments. The antebellum University, he charged, had been ruined "by the hand of misrule and treason." In his view, the trustees' task was now to rid the institution of "narrow-minded, bigoted, and sectional ideas" and to remake it as "a nursery of patriotism, loyalty, love of country, and devotion to this great Union." See Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:4. On Fisk Brewer's background and racial views, see Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:10. Critics of the reconstructed University reserved particular venom for Brewer . A letter writer in the paper described him as "the embodiment of a New England Yankee: lank, cadaverous, and sharp-nosed. . . . His gait is as rapid as if a silver dollar lay at the end of his every journey. He is a Congregationalist in faith and an ardent nigger-worshipper in practice." See (Wilmington) Daily Journal, June 6, 1869, quoted in Pamela Blair Gwin, "'Poisoned Arrows' from a Tar Heel Journalist: The Public Career of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, 1865-1890" (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1983), p. 101.

6. (Raleigh) Sentinel, February 1, 1870; (Raleigh) Daily Sentinel, April 6, 1869; and Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:12-16, 27-33. On another occasion, Spencer was said to have dismissed Pool and his faculty as "pigs and pigmies . . . trying to fill the seats of the mighty (their antebellum predecessors)." See, Hope Summerell Chamberlain, Old Days in Chapel Hill, Being the Life and Letters of Cornelia Spencer Phillips Spencer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926), p. 167.

7. William D. Snider, Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp. 82-83.

8. Tarboro Enquirer, November 25, 1871. On the decision to close the University, see Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:41-43.