“A Blessing and a Curse: The North Carolina Railroad and the American Civil War in Rowan County, North Carolina 1850–1870”

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Name: Hillary Hollowood
Thesis Adviser: Joseph T. Glatthaar

hollowoodAbstract: This thesis closely examines the Civil War experiences of North Carolinians in Rowan County located in the state’s mid-western Piedmont region. Scholarship on slavery and the Civil War in North Carolina has mainly focused on eastern slaveholding counties and western mountain counties, largely overlooking Rowan County and the surrounding area. Interpreting Rowan’s prewar economic shift, wartime homefront, and post-war Reconstruction era allowed for a better understanding of the community level of the Confederacy and the intricate role the North Carolina Railroad played in the county before, during, and after the Civil War. Census data, account books and personal records of Rowan County residents reflected the changes the railroad brought to the area’s economy in the late 1850s as the agricultural and commercial industries experienced a period of rapid growth and improvement. In just a few years the railroad transformed from the county’s greatest blessing to an unfortunate burden as the Civil War broke out and the Confederacy capitalized on Rowan’s rail lines to support the war effort. The county’s proximity to the railroad subjected it to immense wartime hardships, the most notable of which was the establishment of the Confederate Military Prison at Salisbury. The prison had a profound effect on the community as it brought both great struggles and great change as women left at home to support their families exercised a sense of agency in their interactions with prisoners suffering within its gates. Personal diaries, letters, and prison records shed light on both the deplorable condition of the prison itself and the way it, and the war, impacted the county’s social structure.  

Women who acted as sole providers for their families during the war continued to explore their new sense of agency in the post-war period. The county’s divorce records and the 1870 census exhibited the lasting social ramifications of the county’s homefront experience as accounts of interracial adultery, abuse, and abandonment increased in the late 1860s and early 1870s. At the same time, newly free African Americans participated in the county’s new labor system and established a community in Rowan based on faith and family. Freedmen Bureau reports of the area reflected the complicated nature of race relations in Rowan during Reconstruction and counter the county’s portrayal as an area of racial passivity. In the midst of these transformations, the North Carolina Railroad contributed to the county’s changed labor and economic systems and laid the foundation for post-war recovery. In tracing Rowan County’s trials and changes from 1850 to 1870, its Civil War narrative came into focus and highlighted the importance of the North Carolina Railroad to its transformative journey.