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Saunders, William Laurence

William Laurence Saunders (1835-1891) was born in Raleigh, NC, the son of Episcopal minister Rev. Joseph Hubbard Saunders and Laura J. Baker Saunders. William was educated at the Raleigh Academy, entered the University in 1850, and graduated with third honors in 1854. After studying law with William H. Battle and Samuel F. Phillips, Saunders was admitted to the bar. He received an LLB degree from the University in 1858 and an LLD degree in 1889. Together with J. J. Stewart, Saunders became owner and editor of the Salisbury Banner. He enlisted in the Rowan Rifle Guards before North Carolina seceded from the Union, rose to the rank of colonel, and was wounded several times, once in the throat, which permanently impaired his speech and consequently his ability to plead cases. In 1864 he married Florida Cotten, who died eighteen months later, shortly after the couple's only daughter was stillborn. Returning to a farm in Pitt County after the war, Saunders emerged as a leader of the secret group opposing the activities of the Union League, an organization founded in Illinois in 1862 that sought to organize blacks politically and to promote Republican policies during Reconstruction. Though Saunders probably headed the Invisible Empire in North Carolina, when summoned in 1871 before the congressional Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of the Late Insurrectionary State, he repeatedly declined to answer questions about his role. In 1872 Saunders became editor with his brother-in-law Joseph A. Engelhard of the Wilmington Journal, then in 1876 established with Peter M. Hale the Raleigh Observer. Crippled by rheumatism, Saunders nevertheless was an active campaign strategist and writer for the Democratic party and served as clerk of the NC Senate (1870-74) and as secretary of state (1879-91). His most lasting contribution was editing the ten-volume Colonial Records of North Carolina (1886-90), which recovered much of the state's early history and stimulated its further study. From 1875 until his death in 1891 Saunders was a member of the University's board of trustees, most of that period serving also as the board's secretary-treasurer (Dictionary of North Carolina Biography 5:286-87).