north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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     John Willis Ellis led North Carolina in seceding from the United States and into joining the Confederate States of America. The son of Anderson and Judith Bailey Ellis, he was born on November 23, 1820, in eastern Rowan County (later Davidson County). He attended Randolph Macon College for one year before entering the University of North Carolina from which he graduated in 1841. After studying law under Judge Richmond M. Pearson, he set up practice in Salisbury in 1842.

Ellis was elected a member of the House of Commons as a Democrat in 1844. Dorothea L. Dix selected him in 1848 as liaison to champion her call for the establishment of an insane asylum. In that same year, the General Assembly elected him a judge of the Superior Court, an office that he held until 1858 when he won his party’s nomination for governor. Ellis handily defeated his opponent, Duncan K. McRae.

As governor, Ellis pushed for faster movement of railroad freights, better plank roads and turnpikes, improvements in education, and completion of delayed river navigation projects. Hanging over his accomplishments, however, was the growing cloud of the slavery controversy and the sectional crisis. Running for reelection in 1860, Ellis ran on a “Southern Rights” platform and denounced the abolitionists, but publicly steered clear of advocating dissolution of the Union. His Whig opponent, John Pool, ran on a Unionist platform and advocated the introduction of ad valorem taxation of enslaved persons, which would have taxed them as property rather than as persons and would have added considerably to the financial burdens of the politically-dominant planter class. Ellis won, but it was by a much smaller majority than he had two years earlier.

Although aligned with the state’s secession movement, Ellis had to move and speak with caution, due to the political divisions within the state. In a November 20, 1860 address to the General Assembly, Ellis outlined a three-part strategy that cautiously supported the secessionist position: participation in a conference of Southern states to discuss the national crisis; a call for a state convention of the people to establish North Carolina’s position; and a reorganization of the North Carolina Militia and the creation of a separate 10,000-man corps of volunteers. While acknowledging that Abraham Lincoln had been legally elected under the Constitution, he pointed out that George III had sat on the English throne with full legal sanction also, a remark that strongly hinted the direction in which Ellis wanted to steer the state. Beginning in January, Ellis and his agents began seeking arms and ordnance for North Carolina from businesses in other states, while an officer from the North Carolina Military Institute was dispatched to visit armaments establishments in several cities. Yet the rapidly evolving situation meant that the governor had to walk a political tightrope. Concerns of possible Federal military action obliged Ellis to act when armed groups seized Fort Caswell and Fort Johnston; the governor immediately ordered them to return control to the United States.

In late January Ellis corresponded with Robert H. Smith, who had previously acted as Alabama’s commissioner to North Carolina to discuss secession and was a delegate to the upcoming convention at Montgomery that would form the Confederate national government. Ellis wrote Smith that North Carolina “will go with the South” and expressed optimism “that the new Confederacy will prove acceptable to all the Slaveholding States in which event we will all be together before the close of the year. I think North Carolina will be with you, practically, by 1st March and in due form soon after that.” His goals were frustrated, however, as the state’s citizenry declined to call for a state convention at that time. President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April gave Ellis the pretext to finally act, declaring famously that Lincoln “can get no troops from North Carolina.” As many “conditional” North Carolina Unionists now swung their support towards the Confederacy, Ellis sent state troops to seize all Federal forts and the Fayetteville arsenal, closing with a telegram to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, indicating that the state would support the Confederacy fully. A second call for a state convention was voted for by popular referendum, and North Carolina officially embraced secession when it met on May 20.

Years of riding the circuit as a judge had weakened Ellis’s health. Battling consumption, he tried to govern from a sick bed, relying upon a committee to help in decision-making. He forced himself to make public appearances to maintain popular morale, but finally gave in and, in a futile effort at recovery, journeyed to Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia. He died there on July 7, 1861. Ellis’s first burial took place in the family cemetery in Davidson County, but his remains later were removed to the Old English Cemetery in Salisbury.

Ellis was twice married, first to Mary White, who died only two months after their 1844 marriage. On August 11, 1858, six days after his election as governor, he married Mary McKinley Daves, daughter of John Daves of New Bern. They had two daughters.

References:
James S. Brawley, The Rowan Story, 1753-1953 (1953)
Cyclopedia of Eminent and Representative Men of the Carolinas of the Nineteenth Century, II (1892)
John Willis Ellis Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“The Governor’s Message,” November 20, 1860, Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, At Its Session of 1860-’61 (1861)
Marshall De Lancey Haywood, Builders of the Old North State (1968)
Noble J. Tolbert, “Ellis, John Willis,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II (1968), 151-152
Noble J. Tolbert, ed. The Papers of John Willis Ellis, 2 vols. (1964); Ellis to Robert H. Smith, January 25, 1861, in II, 570-571
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Gov. John W. Ellis

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