First Wednesdays – “It is important to have uniformity in the decisions of our judges…”

Despite the fearful losses of the recent campaigns, military operations continued in both Tennessee and Virginia by both Union and Confederate forces. In Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee continued to pull his battled and reduced Army of Northern Virginia back to the Rapidan River, while the Union Army of the Potomac continued strike at Confederate posts along the Rappahannock River. Confederate General Braxton Bragg, a native of Warrenton, North Carolina, had bottled up the Union Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Tennessee after his victory at Chickamauga, Georgia in September 1863. In an effort to break the siege at Chattanooga and to quell dissension within his commanders, Bragg allowed Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet to advance his corps northward toward Knoxville, Tennessee to strike a blow at federal forces in East Tennessee. Southeast of North Carolina, the port of Charleston, South Carolina once again became a focus of another Union military operation through an unceasing bombardment of Fort Sumter, the symbol of Confederate Independence.

In North Carolina, the military conflict for Southern Independence had truly become a “Civil War” to the citizens of the state. Severe losses in North Carolina regiments had brought turmoil to families, who discovered that their fathers, husbands, and sons would not be returning home. Prices of goods were rising to the point, where families simply could not afford to purchase basic necessities. Confederate conscription acts served to stoke the fires of dissension within the state by drafting the yeoman farmers and mechanics of Tar Heel society, and exempting the wealthier classes of the population. In western North Carolina, massacres such as the one that occurred at Shelton Laurel in Madison County served to convince citizens that the need for independence was not important enough to justify the cost. Not surprising, a peace movement began to grow within the state being fueled by editorial writers and politicians such as William Woods Holden and others.

Increasingly, North Carolinians turned to the courts to combat the perceived draconian actions of Confederate conscription officials within the state. They found a willing ally in the North Carolina Supreme Court, and especially Chief Justice Richmond Pearson of Yadkin County. Chief Justice Pearson saw the court as the protector of individual freedoms within the state, and as a result, he issued opinions going against the actions of the Confederate conscription officials. These opinions reversed the conscription of citizens, and ordered the release of men already in the custody of the Confederate Army. In the case of In re Irwin, John Irwin presented a substitute aged thirty-six years of age to the conscription officer. When the age requirement for conscription was then expanded to forty-five years of age, the substitute was liable for conscription, and John Irwin was arrested. John Irwin then applied for a writ of habeas corpus to the N.C. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Pearson ruled that Irwin should be released, since the expansion of the conscription age should only affect those men who have not been conscripted, and not those already in the army.

Chief Pearson’s opinion brought the state into the attention of the Confederate national government, who saw North Carolina and her judiciary as thwarting the Confederate war effort. Governor Zebulon Vance found himself between the increasing overtures from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and others, who wanted Vance to ignore the opinions of his judges and the rising public support for Chief Justice Pearson’s opinions and growing peace movement within the state. Governor Vance was also concerned that the recent legislation for the establishment of the Home Guard would be affected by this court decision, and would negate his ability to regain control of areas of lawlessness within the state. Vance turned to his Attorney General, Sion Hart Rogers, to issue his opinion regarding the Irwin case and the recent Home Guard legislation. Rogers, who recently served as colonel of the Forty-seventh North Carolina Troops, disapproved of Chief Justice Pearson’s opinion in his letter to Governor Vance, and also supported the use of the Home Guard to arrest deserters in the state. The internal division over the war had affected nearly all aspects of North Carolina and its government, and would serve to plunge the state and its citizens in further discord.

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2 Responses to First Wednesdays – “It is important to have uniformity in the decisions of our judges…”

  1. Excellent article captures the sentiments of the common people within the state. I had never heard of a peace movement and would like to know more about that and if the movement was also in other states, both north and south. Northern states were unhappy about the influx of free slaves migrating north. In my native area of Easton, PA, one of the local papers contained the sentence “…that President Lincoln freed the slaves, he can now figure out how to clothe and feed them too”. The comments of the day were that bands of free blacks were roaming the area in search of food and clothing, raising fears among local residents as to the possible results of those problems among the new refugees.

  2. Pingback: Need a History Fix for the Holidays? | History For All the People

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