Fact Friday 84 – Boomtown Beginnings - Early Changes in a Post-Civil War Charlotte

Fact Friday 84 – Boomtown Beginnings - Early Changes in a Post-Civil War Charlotte

Happy Friday everyone!

The era following the Civil War would be transformative for the Queen City in a way never before seen in its history. Let’s dive into a few of the environmental factors that, on the heels of bloodshed and emancipation, would change the face of the city forever.

For the black man, life was different soon after emancipation, but not much. His legal status changed. At last he could vote, but old attitudes lingered in Piedmont Carolina.

Life was hard for black and white alike in that topsy-turvy decade following 1865. Both races shared misfortune, loss, injustice and often bitterness. Anger was common, though not always expressed or wisely directed. At dining room tables, firesides, churchyards, and country stores, veterans regaled listeners with stories of gory battles, heroism and cruelty, long marches and hunger. Reflecting this, the sparse literature of the period sang a song of tragic loss, eulogizing generals and their families and holding high the antique agrarian love of the land.

The land itself was picked clean of crops, livestock and young men. Many who lived through the war wondered if they would survive the aftermath. Since farmers had no money to pay farmworkers’ wages, many blacks wandered into town. 

By 1869, Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory stated that the population of Charlotte had doubled since 1860, from three thousand to six thousand. By 1876, there were eight thousand adults and 1,730 buildings. “During that last thirty-five years of slavery,” said D.A. Tompkins, “the county and city made no appreciable advance in wealth and population. During the decade after emancipation, both wealth and population doubled in the county and trebled in the city.”

The Civil War was as important to Charlotte economically as the gold mines had been earlier. Most of the newcomers brought by the navy yard and the munitions and ordnance supply depot stayed after the war. Their skills and energy infused the small town. The businesses they generated needed workers and customers. Some Charlotte families may have had safe investments elsewhere, since local recovery was swift. Northerners’ investments here surely made a large difference. They invested in business and reopened the gold mines. If Charlotteans lacked money at first, they maintained an aura of purpose and effort gleaned from the war. Also from the war, they kept their military titles. First citizens of the era were three Confederate generals, D.H. Hill, Rufus Barringer and R.D. Johnson, plus former governor Zebulon Vance, numerous colonels, majors, and other officers. The widow of General “Stonewall” Jackson, Mrs. Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, reigned long as the revered first lady of Charlotte.

What followed in late nineteenth-century Charlotte was a persistent tension between the Old South- a graceful Jeffersonian gentility tied to the land – and a New South changed by the harsh war and different values borne by a wave of aggressive newcomers.

Captain John Wilkes and his wife, Jane, both New Yorkers, lived in Charlotte and were active leaders when the war began. They had mining interests and came in 1854 to settle and invest in the town. A United States Naval Academy graduate, Wilkes first bought Leroy Springs’s Mecklenburg Flour Mills and supplied flour to the Confederate armies in Virginia. He then worked to connect a rail line for southern supplies between Danville, VA and Greensboro, NC. His Mecklenburg Iron Works had been a strategic naval ordnance depot for the Confederacy. He was also founder of the First National Bank and treasurer of the Rock Island Woolen Mill.


Jane Smedburg Wilkes, daughter of a wealthy Swedish family in New York, had regularly nursed the Confederate wounded in Charlotte. Later she and other prominent Episcopal Charlotte women took a leading role in opening Saint Peter’s Home and Hospital, the first civilian hospital in North Carolina, in 1878. Traveling frequently to New York, she raised money for equipment, buildings and subsequent additions, including one of the state’s earliest X-ray machines. Even J. Pierpont Morgan invested in Jane’s idea to the sum of $200. Starting in rented rooms, the original Saint Peter’s Home and Hospital expanded until a separate house was built. Because of the carnage of the Civil War, the few minimal hospitals in the region were generally regarded as death houses; so, convincing the public that hospitals were a good thing took considerable effort and time. 

The building that housed Saint Peter’s Home and Hospital stands as condominiums at the southwest corner of West Sixth and Poplar. Saint Peter’s moved and merged in 1940 with Charlotte Memorial Hospital, now Carolinas Medical Center. 

In 1888, Jane Wilkes solicited more northern money to start Good Samaritan Hospital, which is said to be the first privately funded, independent hospital in North Carolina built exclusively to treat black patients. Good Sam, as the hospital was called, operated for almost a century on Mint Street (where Bank of America Stadium currently stands). The Wilkeses lived forty years at 508 West Trade Street and had nine children, four of whom died, two as infants. Jane was called the “Godmother of Charlotte Hospitals.”

Until next week!




Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!


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Information taken from:


Charlotte North Carolina: A Brief History; Mary Kratt, 2009



“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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