By June 1865 the reality of a failed attempt at disunion began to settle in the minds of the people of the states that had passed Secession Ordinances. The capitol city of North Carolina had been occupied by Union forces since mid-April. Civil authority was replaced by military authority – a general in command instead of a governor.
North Carolinians remained optimistic that a civil government would be restored. It was generally known that William Woods Holden, newspaper editor and a peace advocate since at least 1864, would somehow be involved. President Andrew Johnson spent most of May 1865 organizing his process for restoration of states in rebellion – a policy that became known as Presidential Reconstruction.
When Johnson announced his policy by proclamation on 29 May 1865 he also issued a second proclamation appointing Holden as the Provisional Governor of North Carolina and charged Holden with reconstituting the state government.
This letter by Holden in response to a request for him to be a speaker at a meeting in early May 1865 appeared in the May 3rd edition of Holden’s paper the Raleigh Standard (daily). The letter was handed to Holden by a friend who served as courier. Although this could happen prior to the military occupation it is also an indication that the mail wasn’t operational at the time – something Holden, as Provisional Governor, would have to fix.
Holden’s response gives a good insight into what his Provisional Governorship, when appointed, would be. He would work to lay the “foundations of prosperity and happiness.” He had to appoint Justices of the Peace, reconstitute the court systems, call for an election of a Convention which would then set dates for election of a General Assembly and Governor, and work to restore railroads (and their governing boards) – each and every part of the government and commerce of the state and counties. He reviewed applications for pardons from high ranking Confederate soldiers and officials and people of property. In June and July alone he reviewed over 3000 individuals on lists of people who had been suggested for county government service.
The most telling piece of his response, however, was his setting aside the question of the freedmen or former slaves. Ignoring the freedmen would prove disastrous. Even as Holden helped North Carolinians complete the steps set by Johnson to have their state restored, Republicans in Congress decided to take action against the omission of freedmen as citizens of the reconstituted states. Holden’s efforts won Johnson’s acceptance of North Carolina as being back in proper relations with the federal government in December 1865- the same month that Radical Republicans recast restoration as Reconstruction and required that the process begin again.