Tag Archives: Kemp Plummer Battle

Landmark court opinion defining rights of enslaved people arose in Edgecombe County

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer, June 8, 2017

The upshot was a landmark decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court that was a major step forward in the ongoing definition of the status and rights of enslaved people.

Will was sentenced to death in the Edgecombe County Superior Court, Judge Donnell presiding, but plantation owner James S. Battle became convinced that Will had acted in self-defense and so he hired Bartholomew F. Moore to represent Will on appeal. In an opinion written by Justice William Gaston, the Supreme Court reversed Will’s conviction — holding that, if a free man was entitled to the defense of self-defense or to a lesser charge of manslaughter, then the same analysis should apply to an enslaved person. This was a step forward. It moved away from Justice Thomas Ruffin‘s earlier opinion in State v. Mann, in which Ruffin seated his reasoning on the nature of slavery, while Justice Gaston, four years later, focused on Will’s humanity, not his legal status as property.

Will’s case is recognized as a landmark. And so, on June 10, 2017, a historical marker is erected where his case began, at 275 New Hope Church Road in Battleboro, North Carolina.

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An Eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist — William Horn Battle hanging out with Richard Mendenhall – Wait! What?

richard_mendenhall_older

Richard Mendenhall

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

OK – now I am fascinated.

In Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, Kemp Plummer Battle recalls a trip that he and his father, William Horn Battle, made to Asheville in the summer of 1848. Kemp was sixteen years old. On the way, they stopped at Jamestown where they spent an evening with Richard Mendenhall, “an old acquaintance of my father.”

Here is part of Kemp Battle’s account:

Near Greensborough we met an old acquaintance of my father, a refined and educated Quaker named Richard Mendenhall. On parting, he said courteously, “Come and see me, Kemp, and I will entertain thee for thy father’s sake until I know thee and can entertain thee for thy own.” I afterwards found this was a quotation from Swift’s Tale of a Tub.

While Mr. Mendenhall did not keep a hotel, he was willing to furnish meals to travelers at his house in Jamestown (pronounced “Jimston”). My father and I had dinner with him. Some friends had told me that he was fond of testing their knowledge of history. I determined to put a bluff on him. He began by asking me what was a giaour, the title of one of Byron’s poems. I happened to know that it was a name given by the Turks to disbelievers in Islamism. I answered his question and at once plied him with counter historical questions so fast that he refrained from catechising me further.

A nice story. Old-time Tar Heels, indeed. You can visit the Mendenhall home in Jamestown today and see where they were.

But how did William Horn Battle come to be acquainted with Richard Mendenhall? They were an unlikely pair.

William Horn Battle was born and raised in Battleboro (then) in Edgecombe County, a town founded by his grandfather. His family were farmers and slaveholders and founders of one of the oldest cotton mills in the state, which operated with slave labor. Battle himself was a lawyer, banker, judge and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice. He is acknowledged as the founder of the UNC Law School. Conservative at his core, William Horn Battle was the very embodiment of the antebellum establishment. He prominently opposed licensing women to practice law.  Son, Kemp, among other roles, was president of the Chatham Railroad Company, Treasurer of the State, and president of the University of North Carolina.

Richard Mendenhall was born and raised in Jamestown in Guilford County, a town founded by his father and named for his grandfather who settled it. Mendenhall operated what is now preserved as the Mendenhall Plantation. He was a tanner, merchant, and educator. He was also an abolitionist and a founder and president of the Manumission Society of North Carolina. He led in transporting African Americans to Liberia and Haiti. He is said to have been a principal in the Underground Railroad. His younger brother, George C. Mendenhall, was a prominent lawyer, legislator, and UNC trustee. George was a large slaveholder, who formed companies of slaves that operated variously as builders, caterers, farm laborers, etc. Under Richard’s influence, George and his wife transported their slaves to freedom in the Midwest, thereby stimulating celebrated litigation. As a lawyer, George defended abolitionists and free blacks. Richard Mendenhall’s sons were a lawyer, bankers, investors in cotton mills, and leaders in building the North Carolina Railroad.  His son, Nereus Mendenhall, served as president and kept Guilford College open through the Civil War and afterward. Guilford College, when led by Mendenhall, has been characterized  as an “island of moderation, surrounded by a sea of fundamentalism.”

Both the Battles and the Mendenhalls were Whigs and unionists. But, when war came the Battles were ardent supporters of the Confederacy. The Mendenhalls, Quakers, stood aside from the war. Some were imprisoned and abused for refusing to fight. Nereus Mendenhall interceded with Jefferson Davis to arrange legal protections for Quakers and other pacifists.

So William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall seem unlikely dinner companions. An eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist. Each might rather have regarded the other as a Carolina giaour, than as a dinner-table discussant of literature and history. (Sixteen-year-old Kemp Battle later became professor of history at UNC.)

MidLaw’s theory is that Battle and Mendenhall may have become acquainted in Raleigh, perhaps in connection with Richard’s service in the General Assembly (if he did serve, as MidLaw believes he did).

Or, it may have been that William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall were simply a pair of civil, cultivated people, North Carolina leaders, from different backgrounds and with different points of view in what was becoming an increasingly divided society. Old-time Tar Heels.

Window into NC lawyers in the 19th Century, Kemp P. Battle’s memories

Kemp Plummer Battle

Kemp Plummer Battle

At the second-hand bookstore in the Raleigh-Durham airport the other day, I came across a copy of Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, the compendium of Kemp Plummer Battle’s memories and anecdotes. Himself a lawyer (also a railroad president, university president, Edgecombe County farmer, and more), so were his father, William Horn Battle, and others in his family.

So Battle’s memories include many a lawyer story. Those stories are windows into the North Carolina Bar in the mid-nineteenth century. Below is a good one that shows lawyers and also Battle’s densely-packed style.

Judge Thomas Ruffin, the younger, had probably the ability of his father. In his younger days, he was not a hard student of legal principles, although he gave his whole mind to the trial of his cases. Indeed, so eager was he for victory that there were accusations of sharp practice. But I personally had no evidence of this. On the contrary, when thrown intimately with him for a day or two once, I was struck by his high-toned principles. I remarked to one of the best of men, his law partner Judge Dillard, “Ruffin is a lawyer who can be relied on for utter fairness.” Dillard smilingly said, “He is a rascal like the rest of us.” He meant only that in the hot excitement of trials he might take positions which non-lawyers might think not strictly fair. But it should be remembered that lawyers giving their minds to the cause of their clients, studying mainly the arguments for their side, necessarily become biased. It is impossible for them to act as impartial judges. This is illustrated by what Judge James C. MacRae told me about a trial over which he presided. A certain lawyer made a speech advocating a construction of the law which did not meet the judge’s approval and he said, “Surely you do not claim that to the be the law?” “Well, Judge, I can’t say that I do, but I did not know how it would strike your Honor.”

Come to think of it, this practice may have survived the 19th Century.