You are here

A Great City Emerges

Book 1, Chapter 11
Hornets' Nest
Number of Pages: 
Page Range: 

MECKLENBURG'S steady, if slow, development through the early and middle decades of the last century was halted, however with the outbreak of the War Between the States. It would be many years before the South would show an appreciable recovery.
The Presidential campaign of 1860 in Mecklenburg, as many subsequent campaigns would be, was a bitter one. when the votes for President were counted, it was found that John Breckinridge had received 1,101; Bell, 826; Douglas, 135, and Abraham Lincoln, none.
But although South Carolina had seceded in 1860, it was not until a year later, on May 20 - Mecklenburg's independence day - that a reluctant convention in Raleigh voted North Carolina's withdrawal from the Union. The Confederates' firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops with which to suppress the Southern "insurrection" had hastened the secession of North Carolina. In Charlotte the United States Mint was taken over for use as Confederate headquarters, and soon Mecklenburg young men were drilling. The First North Carolina Volunteers, who later were to achieve fame as "first at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg, and last at Appomattox," within a few days after the surrender of Fort Sumter would embrace two Charlotte militia companies, the Hornets Nest Riflemen, an organization that would survive to the present, and the Charlotte Grays. Young students of the Charlotte Military Academy, whose cornerstone had been laid hardly three years earlier, and their faculty leaders entrained as a body for Raleigh to begin rigorous training as troops and to lead in the training of green recruits. The Charlotte Military Academy, as the D. H. Hill School, survived until a few years ago as a part of the Charlotte school system. It stood on the approximate site of the new Charlotte Y.M.C.A. building at East Morehead Street and South Boulevard. With the closing of the Academy at the beginning of the war, the school building shortly became a hospital in which hundreds of sick and wounded Confederate soldiers were treated.
The next year, when the Confederate Naval ordnance facility at Norfolk was being threatened by Federal forces, it was moved 250 miles inland to Charlotte and established at the foot of the gentle slope on East Trade Street some two hundred yards form the Square. The selection of Charlotte as the site of the Confederate Navy Yard, as the ordnance depot was called, was probably due to the excellence of its railroad connections.
Though many naval weapons were fashioned here for the Confederate Navy, the ordnance depot had a short life, for on January 7, 1864, its warehouses and other facilities were destroyed by fire and explosion that consumed supplies and munitions valued at some ten millions.
Little action during the War Between the States occurred in the vicinity of Charlotte, though in the last days Union raiders pillaged the undefended area. But Mecklenburg, like North Carolina in general, contributed heavily of all her resources to bolster the Southern cause.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the only strong arm in the Federal government to whom the South could look for fairness and decent treatment, ushered in a period that succeeding generations were to record as the most shameful in the history of the now reunited nation.
Charlotte has a peculiar connection with this tragedy, too, for it was while Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was a guest at the Bates home on South Tryon Street, near the site of the North Carolina National Bank, that he was informed of the assassination of President Lincoln. President Davis and members of his Cabinet, with several military aides, were retreating southward from Richmond and had just arrived in Charlotte on the afternoon of April 18, 1865. Lincoln had been shot the Friday night before, April 14, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, and had died the next day. This was Tuesday afternoon, and Mr. Davis was addressing a crowd that gathered at the Bates home to welcome him, when he was handed a telegram. He read it in silence. "Can this be true? This is dreadful, horrible! Can it really be true?" he is reported to have said to those beside him. He then handed the telegram to Colonel William Johnson, who read the news to the assembled crowd.
Two days later, on Thursday, April 20, President Davis presided at a meeting of the Cabinet in the Dewey Bank, which stood in the first block of South Tryon Street's western side where the present Bank of Charlotte is now situated. Later the meeting adjourned to the Phifer home on North Street - it stood on the present site of the Sears, Roebuck store - in order that Secretary of the Treasury Trenholm, who was ill there, might take part in this discussion of the South's situation, infinitely worse now that Lincoln was dead.
In June, Charlotte was occupied by Federal troops of the 180th Ohio Regiment commanded by Colonel Willard Warner. A few weeks earlier, however, a company of New Jersey troops under the command of Captain M. C. Runyan had entered Charlotte and established what he would later describe, in a letter to the adjutant of the Ninth New Jersey Volunteers, as "good order." This letter, written from "Greensborough, N. C., May 13, 1865," reveals, from a Federal soldier's viewpoint, the situation in Charlotte at the end of a disastrous war that had drained Mecklenburg, as well as the entire South, of virtually all its resources. This county had furnished to the Confederate armies more than 2,700 men, more than the number of qualified voters, approximately one of every six people in the county, adult and children, white and Negro.
Of the arrival of the troops taking command in this area and of the citizens encountered, General H. Ruger reported, in part: ". . . I arrived here and established my headquarters on the evening of the 13th. Portions of the division had arrived from time to time until now nearly the whole division is here. I have been issuing such orders and regulations as I have thought proper for the maintenance of order. I find the citizens generally disposed to accept the new situation without complaint, and apparently desirous of resuming a condition of peace and observance of law. This region of country is strongly rebel, however."
Almost a century before the forefathers of these Mecklenburgers had been similarly described by the invading Redcoats. But then the invaders had remained less than a month. This time they would remain, coming and going, for a decade. And the decade would be recorded as the worst in the county's history. Mecklenburgers who lived through those days of the Reconstruction - notably Dr. Alexander, whose bias and exaggeration, no doubt, are both understandable and forgivable - would never be able to put out of their visions those Reconstruction times that "will forever stand alone, wrapped in political blackness, when crime stalked through the land unabashed by the light of day."
Nevertheless, the Northern troops and the citizenry generally maintained friendly relationships and here and there even romance between a Northern youth and a Southern belle flourished. And in 1867, when Captain H. M. Lazelle and his troops left Charlotte, the board of aldermen thanked him and his men for their good conduct and even expressed regret that they were leaving. But at its best the decade following the war was an ordeal to the citizens generally and a nightmare to many.
[A paragraph here about the Ku Klux Klan has been omitted from the online version of the text. It can be found on p.122 of the printed version]
Charlotte's population in 1860 was recorded as totaling 1,366. The abolition of slavery that followed shortly, and the influx into the village of impoverished landowners from the farms had much effect, no doubt, in launching the development that within three-quarters of a century would see Charlotte's population increased a hundred times.
Landowners now without slaves to work their acres and unused themselves to farm labor came to town and sought work in trades, business, and the professions. The county's old agrarian system was ruined; it would never again achieve its antebellum status. Such great plantations as the Torrances' Cedar Grove and the Johnstons' Walnut Grove, which were being operated on their most lavish scale at the outset of the war, would never again be small feudal principalities.
But out of the destruction of the agrarian system would begin to develop the new South, and in North Carolina the backbone of this development would be its Piedmont area, with Charlotte as the center. Within the first six months of 1867, it is recorded, a dozen stores and some 75 other buildings, many of them residences but others erected for industrial use, were built in Charlotte. For that day, when Mecklenburg and the entire South were desperately stricken, such a growth was a phenomenal achievement for so small a town. And within the five-year period following the ending of the war, Charlotte continued to grow remarkably, with money from reopened gold mines and capital supplied by Northern industrialists providing the energy to speed that development. Charlotte's fourth bank was established in 1871 to join the First National, Dewey's, and the Bank of Charlotte. It was the Merchants and Farmers, and its establishment was a further indication that Charlotte was fast becoming an important center of the South's slowly expanding industrial activity.
Four years after the last Federal troops withdrew form Charlotte - that was 1876 - Zebulon Baird Vance, who had been North Carolina's war governor and was then living in Charlotte, was elected governor in a bitterly contested campaign with his Republican rival, Thomas Settle. At one of the Vance-Settle debates, held in Charlotte, an audience estimated at 4,000 attended. That was for those days a tremendous throng, but the year before had seen the gathering in Charlotte of the greatest crowd said ever to have overrun the town, whose population was now expanding rapidly. The attraction was Charlotte's celebration of the centennial of the Mecklenburg declaration of independence. Thirty thousand persons jammed in for the parade, the speaking, the fireworks. Harpers Weekly sent its staff artist to cover the event and he drew several illustrations, one of them showing the Square crowded with celebrating Mecklenburgers and persons from distant counties.
Like the event it was commemorating, the 1875 celebration was a two-day occasion. It began at noon on May 19 with the raising of the Confederate stars and bars to the top of a high flagpole at the Square. Governor C. H. Brogden spoke as Mecklenburg's honor guest and the New Bern band played The Old North State and a number especially composed for the occasion, Mecklenburg Polka. The re-established Union was recognized at the end of the program with the firing by the Raleigh Light Artillery of thirty-eight guns in salute to the thirty-eight states of the nation. The military was more prodigal with its powder, however, when the great day dawned; the Raleigh company and the Richmond Howitzers joined in firing one hundred guns. Trains, wagons, buggies, saddled horses and mules continued to bring thousands into the little town. At nine o'clock the procession for the parade began forming, but it was nearly noon, contemporary reports disclose, when the march to the fair grounds started. A dozen military companies and eighteen fire companies were in the parade, led by marshals on galloping horses, with bands playing and cannon booming. For those days it was a tremendous parade, and it would herald innumerable processions through the streets of Charlotte during the coming decades. More music and old-fashioned oratory enlivened the formal occasion at the fairgrounds, which was recessed in the afternoon for another speaking that night at the Square. Here orators from many states, even as far away as Indiana, which sent her Governor Hendricks, extolled the courage and patriotism of the early Mecklenburgers.
One of the principal speakers was Governor Vance. Four years later he was elected to the United States Senate, where he remained in office until his death in 1884. He was north Carolina's beloved war Governor and would continue to be one of the state's political idols whose name for many a decade would work magic in politics.
But the celebration on May 20, 1898, would eclipse even the centennial commemoration. On that occasion, the Charlotte Daily Observer would devote virtually its entire space to a report of the celebration, which centered about the dedication of the monument to the signers of the declaration. The principal speaker of the day was former Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, a descendor of the Brevards and grandfather of the Illinois Governor who a half century later would be the Democratic candidate for President.
"May 20th, 1898, dawned auspiciously," the Observer reporter began his lengthy story of the celebration. "Not a cloud was in the sky. The sun shone brightly. The streets were free from dust. The complicated machinery of the great celebration worked smoothly. There was no hitch, no jarring, no unpleasantness. All went merry as a marriage bell.
"The procession feature of the day was splendid," the reporter continued. "Probably there was never a longer or more enthusiastic one in any North Carolina celebration before. It was at least a mile long. It rendezvoused on South Tryon Street and the formation of the line began as early as 8 or 8:30 o'clock. The compact mass of veterans, horsemen, carriages, floats, etc., reached form the Square back as far as Morehead Avenue. . . ."
The speaking was in the First Presbyterian churchyard. "No more beautiful spot could have been found for the ceremonies," the reporter wrote. "The church occupies the center of a square, shaded with magnificent elms, which yesterday seemed conscious of the beautiful historical drama going on beneath their wealth of beauty and foliage. . . ."
On the speaker's platform were many Mecklenburg celebrities of that day, including Mrs. Stonewall Jackson and Mrs. Rufus Barringer, widows of Confederate generals. As the veterans passed by, "Mrs. Jackson waved a Confederate flag, which she held in her hand constantly, as a response to the reverential affection and regard expressed in the faces of all who passed. . . ."
After the prayer by Rev. J. R. Howerton, D.D., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, the reading of the Mecklenburg declaration and a prize-winning poem on the declaration by Rev. W. W. Moore, D.D., the speaker was presented by J. P. Caldwell, editor of the Observer.
"The speaker was interrupted numbers of times by applause," the report continued. "The patriotic sentiments, handsomely turned phrases, strength of thought and logical sequences, drew forth the appreciation of a patriotic, cultured, and discerning people."
The paper carried Mr. Stevenson's address in full. It was a lavish recital of Mecklenburg's colonial and Revolutionary history, emphasizing the action of the May 20, 1775 convention and reviewing the development of the nation during its first century's existence. "So, my countrymen, at this shrine," Mr. Stevenson closed, "the generations yet to come will learn the sublime lessons of patriotism anew; will, beneath the shadow of the noble column your hands have reared, swear again their allegiance to the holy cause of freedom and of country - the cause for which the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration lived and died; will, in the words of the great statesman, find here 'something that will remind them of the liberty and the glory of their country.' As - 'the centuries fall like grains of sand' - this monument, charged with its sacred message to the ages, will endure. History will be just, as God is just, and the names inscribed here will not perish from the memories of men."
The monument, a drawing of which occupied the front page of the paper, stood in front of the court house on South Tryon at East Third Street. When the court house was built on East Trade Street a quarter of a century later, it was moved to the esplanade in front of the new structure.
Eleven years after this celebration, Mecklenburg had as a guest at another great May 20 event President William Howard Taft, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson was the speaker. But by then the Charlotte citizens were beginning to put the emphasis on looking to the future potentialities as well as the past's accomplishments.
Charlotte, in fact, was growing steadily during the late 1880's and into the 1890's. Numerous municipal projects were launched and private enterprise provided other needed facilities. Telephone lines were erected and hand-cranking telephones installed. Electric lights supplanted kerosene lamps; horse cars appeared along the streets and in a few years the horses were retired and electric power was substituted; new city and county buildings and a new post office building were erected; the Charlotte National Bank, with a capital stock of $125,000, was organized in 1897 and joined Charlotte's other banking houses.
At the turn of the century there was the short-lived war with Spain, to which Mecklenburg contributed four companies. Two of these companies were members of the First North Carolina Regiment, which landed the first American troops in Havana; one was a member of the Second North Carolina Regiment; and the fourth was a company of Negro troops. The census of 1900 reported Charlotte's population was 18,091. It was in this period that an industry was shaping that would be of tremendous significance not only to Mecklenburg but to the entire Piedmont region in providing power to operate innumerable industrial enterprises that over the next few decades would transform the economic life of that area. Under the leadership of James B. Duke this hydroelectric power development would expand quickly to giant size and importance; within a half century the construction of great dams and power plants along the Catawba River would materially change even the geography of the entire river region.
The new century would record Charlotte's emergence into a position of leadership among the cities of the Carolinas and a top-most rank among the municipalities of the southeast. And as the city grew, the proportion of its population to that of Mecklenburg County went up rapidly. In 1900 its 18,091 population, in fact, was hardly one-third of the county's 55,268. Six decades later almost three of every four Mecklenburgers would live within the city limits.


Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.