The Historical Origins of the 1871 Nash-Edgecombe County Line

In the spring of 1871, state legislators voted to relocate the boundary line between Nash and Edgecombe counties from the Falls of the Tar River to the line of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad that ran through the middle of Rocky Mount, Battleboro, and Sharpsburg. The legislature’s new law stated that “all the portion of Edgecombe county west of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and between the Halifax and Wilson [county] lines be, and the same is hereby annexed to and shall form a part of Nash County.”[1] This change in the boundary line was controversial in 1871, and it remains so to this day.  Uncovering the lost history of the county line change is therefore important for discussing the broader historical development of Nash and Edgecombe Counties, and it is also especially relevant for the CHW’s project on Rocky Mount Mills. The mill and many of the mill workers were directly affected by the change in the county line, and residents of both counties were politically divided on the issue.

The change in the Nash-Edgecombe county line disrupted political boundaries that had existed for nearly a century. Since the creation of Nash County out of Edgecombe County in 1777, the boundary between the two counties had been based on the Falls of the Tar River. Nash County had jurisdiction on all land west of the Falls, and Edgecombe governed everything east of the Falls. As communities developed over the ensuing decades, most of Rocky Mount’s population lived on the Edgecombe side of the line, and the rural settlements of Battleboro and Sharpsburg were located entirely in Edgecombe County.[2] Completed in 1840 as the longest railroad in the world, the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad (renamed Wilmington and Weldon in 1855) transformed these towns into commercial hubs for transporting agricultural products to distant markets north and south.[3] Though the railroad would initially come to be a major political and social dividing line within the towns of Rocky Mount, Sharpsburg, and Battleboro, it was the political, economic, and social upheaval of the 1860s that had the most direct impact on the change in the county line.

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought dramatic changes to eastern North Carolina.[4] Death and destruction took its toll on the region, but the emancipation of the area’s enslaved population and the postwar economic malaise were the most lasting impacts of the decade. On the one hand, Reconstruction provided the region’s African Americans with newfound political and social freedoms guaranteed to them by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Between 1868 and 1872, Edgecombe voters elected three African American men to represent them in North Carolina’s House of Representatives, including Willis Bunn, Henry Cherry, and R.M. Johnson, and African Americans held prominent roles in Edgecombe County local government, as well.[5]

Yet on the other hand, African Americans and the region’s white population suffered from the economic downturn after the war. Crops had gone to feed Union and Confederate armies; much of the state’s industry had been destroyed; and money and credit were scarce. “The state’s economy,” notes historian William Link, “lay in ruins, with the value of property in the state having been reduced by half.”[6] Economics would most directly impact the change in the Edgecombe-Nash county line, but the racial politics of the region and state served as a powerful undercurrent.

The first attempt to change the political boundaries surrounding Rocky Mount occurred in the spring of 1869 and was most assuredly a result of the economic disparities in the region. Though Raleigh’s Daily Standard reported on January 1, 1869, that there would soon be attempt in the general assembly to “make the Wilmington and Weldon Rail road the line between Nash county and Edgecombe county,” the legislature took a different tack.[7] On Tuesday March 2, 1869, John B. Respass of Beaufort, representing the third senatorial district, introduced a petition by area residents and a bill in the state Senate to “lay off and establish a new County by the name of Rocky Mount.”[8] The proposal was not for a new county line but for an entirely new county.

The motivations of Respass and the petitioners were primarily economic in nature. Respass was a Republican, allied with many of the leading African American politicians against conservative Democrats’ attempts to “redeem” the state from Republican control and the semblance of racial equality that came with it. Yet Republicans, more so than their Democratic opponents, were supporters of a diversified economy, represented in the railroad transportation network that Rocky Mount was a part of. With Rocky Mount at its center, the proposed new county would take territory from Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson counties and be composed of territory surrounding the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, a region known to be relatively wealthy and valuable compared to the agricultural hinterlands in the more rural parts of the counties.[9] Even a vocal critic of the proposal recognized that the area around Rocky Mount differed from the “mother county” of Edgecombe in that the community had “made rapid strides to the importance of a city” because of the proximity to the railroad.[10] In the end, the legislature took no action on the measure, likely because of the popular uproar and the financial burden of organizing a new county. Residents of Edgecombe petitioned the legislature to reject the new county because it would impoverish existing counties, and the legislature’s finance committee ultimately refused to endorse the bill.[11]

Like the attempt to create a new county, the 1871 change in the Edgecombe-Nash boundary line was certainly related to economic issues but was not as popular with many of the area residents, both white and black, Democratic and Republican. According to even the most critical newspaper reports, the movement for a new county had significant local support. Legislation moving the county line, however, originated in the North Carolina Senate and succeeded despite opposition in the General Assembly and among local residents.

The architect of the bill to change the county line was Lawrence Battle, a conservative Democrat from Nash County and a relative of the Battle family that owned Rocky Mount Mills.[12] No sources exist explaining why Battle supported the bill, but based on newspaper accounts, the new county line was intended to reward those people of Nash County who had bought stock in the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and whose county had previously been unable to benefit from the economic gains of the railroad’s presence. Yet the new county line would also bring the entire Tar River bridge under the control of Nash County. This was a significant issue for supporters of the bill who thought Edgecombe residents were benefitting from the bridge without paying their fair share for its upkeep. W.S. Battle, for example, the owner of Rocky Mount Mills, had contributed his personal funds to rebuild the bridge after its collapse in 1867.[13] L. F. Battle introduced the bill to the state Senate on November 28, 1870, during the first days of the legislative session. It passed its first reading and was immediately sent to committee for further study.[14]

When it came up again on January 23, however, the bill met with significant opposition. The editor of the Tarborough Southerner, Edgecombe County’s local paper, had for weeks been pleading with his readers to organize opposition to the new county line, and they answered his call. As soon as the bill was read a second time in the Senate chambers, Senator N. B. Bellamy of Edgecombe County introduced a petition against the new county line. Signed by over 150 county residents, the document explained that many people in Edgecombe opposed the new county line because it would divide several local municipalities that were located on the railroad line, resulting in a devaluation of property and would generally impoverish Edgecombe by depriving it of “a large portion of her present population, and several hundred thousand dollars of taxables [sic], real, personal, and poll.” Petitioners recommended further that the legislature “postpone the bill indefinitely.”[15] A cadre of “leading citizens” from Edgecombe also visited the capitol to make personal appeals to individual legislators.[16] Though the legislature did not postpone the bill, the petition and local leaders did have some effect. The bill initially failed a second reading and only passed when the Senate reconsidered it on February 1.[17]

The proposal to change the county line met similar opposition in the House of Representatives. The Senate first transmitted the bill to the House on Friday, February 10, 1871, and it was soon sent to the House’s Committee on Counties, Cities, Towns, and Townships.[18] After several weeks of deliberation, committee members reported favorably on the bill, but state congressmen remained divided on the issue and attempted to amend the bill. E.M. Johnson of Edgecombe County, one of the legislature’s few African American members, proposed Nash relinquish some territory back to Edgecombe County, which failed, but an amendment did pass that would require residents affected by the change to vote on the issue themselves through a local referendum.[19]

Led by Battle, the Senate refused to accept the referendum, possibly because the bill’s supporters knew that a majority of affected residents opposed the bill as was clear from the legislative petition.[20] The House and Senate, therefore, created a joint committee to deliberate on the two houses’ different drafts, a body that included Congressman Johnson of Edgecombe County.[21] Yet the committee could not come to a consensus and drafted majority and minority reports on the matter of the referendum. A majority of committeemen, led by Johnson, supported the referendum and submitted a bill to the House with it included. By a vote of fifty-five to twenty-six, however, the House of Representatives instead adopted the committee’s minority report, and a referendum was not included in the final draft of the bill.[22] Both houses of the legislature passed the bill, and it became official state law by the end of the legislative session. [23]

The economic issues of local taxation and bridge maintenance were the main driving forces of the county line change, but the issue intersected with the region’s existing racial and political divisions. Supporters of the measure were likely white, conservative Democrats from Nash County, but opponents spanned the racial and political spectrum. Many African American Republicans, for example, opposed changing the county line. In the state legislature, all three African American senators consistently voted against the bill to change the county line, and alongside four white legislators, they drafted a joint resolution to demonstrate publicly their opposition. Noting that the bill would “create confusion and dissatisfaction among the people,” the senators were particularly incensed that affected residents could not vote on the matter through a local referendum. They explained that without a popular vote on “the question of the transfer” the county’s “qualified voters…are thus transferred from one county to another, like stock or dumb beasts upon a farm.”[24] Yet Edgecombe’s white conservative Democrats also opposed the new county line. The editor of the Democratic Tarborough Southerner, for example, was one of the most vocal critics of the new boundary even as he opposed racial equality and black suffrage.

Yet it was white Democrats’ shared commitment to limiting African Americans’ newfound political power that reunited Edgecombe and Nash Democrats in the wake of the county line change. In a Tarborough Southerner editorial after the line change had become law, the editor noted that four hundred African Americans “were transferred from Edgecombe to Nash by the recent Change of the County Line.” He confidently believed, however, “that Nash county can take care of herself in the coming [electoral] campaign and go overwhelmingly Conservative,” a clear reference to the violence, fraud, and intimidation that accompanied Democrats’ resurgence in North Carolina after Reconstruction.[25] Nash County did, in fact, “take care of herself” with regard to African American voters. In the ensuing decades, Edgecombe County would be consistently represented by an African American in the United States Congress as part of the “Black Second” congressional district, while Nash voters overwhelmingly elected conservative white Democrats to Congress in their majority-white congressional district.[26]

The new county line was controversial when state legislators approved it in 1871, and it remains so to this day. Economic inequities continue to divide Edgecombe and Nash Counties, with the city of Rocky Mount at the center of the controversy. Education, in particular, is a hot-button issue for many local residents. For decades, Nash County’s Board of Education and the Rocky Mount City Board of Education clashed over the composition of African American students within the two school districts, a controversy that resulted in a significant legal battle and the merger of the two school systems in 1992.[27] Yet the changing demographics of Rocky Mount and the region’s economic downturn over the ensuing two decades have perpetuated economic and racial divisions between Edgecombe and Nash County, and some local leaders have called for the Nash-Rocky Mount Public School District to be replaced by two county-wide districts that would divide Rocky Mount’s school children along the county boundary line.[28] The historical context may have changed over time, but the Nash-Edgecombe boundary continues to intersect with political, economic, and racial issues faced by residents of Rocky Mount and the surrounding communities.

Lucas Kelley



The Daily Standard (Raleigh, NC)

The Nashville Gazette

The Nashville Graphic

Rocky Mount Telegram

Tarborough Southerner

Wilmington Journal

Wilmington Post

Legislative Records:

Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1870-’71. Raleigh: James H. Moore, 1871.

Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1868-’69. Raleigh: M.S. Littlefield, 1869.

Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1870-’71. Raleigh: James H. Moore, 1871.

Petition of Edgecombe County to the North Carolina General Assembly. Undated. Box 10, Session 1870-1871. North Carolina General Assembly Records. State Archives of North Carolina. Raleigh, NC.

Secondary Sources:

Anderson, Eric. Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1981

Balanoff, Elizabeth. “Negro Legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, July, 1868-February, 1872.” The North Carolina Historical Review 49, no. 1 (Jan. 1972): 22-55.

Battle, H. B. The Battle Book: A Genealogy of the Battle Family in America. Montgomery, AL: The Paragon Press, 1930.

Burke, James C. The Wilmington and Raleigh Rail Road Company, 1833-1854. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Corbitt, David Leroy. The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1987.

Kelley, Lucas. “The Civil War Comes to Rocky Mount Mills.” Community Histories Workshop, September 9, 2016.

Link, William A. North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[1] “An Act to Change the Line between the Counties of Edgecombe and Nash,” Tarborough Southerner, April 6, 1871.

[2] For an overview of Edgecome and Nash county boundaries, see David Leroy Corbitt, The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943 (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1987), 95-99, 157-159.

[3] James C. Burke, The Wilmington and Raleigh Rail Road Company, 1833-1854 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 9.

[4] Rocky Mount Mills was directly affected by the war, as Union raiders burned the mill and the bridge over the Tar River in July 1863. See Lucas Kelley, “The Civil War Comes to Rocky Mount Mills,” Community Histories Workshop, September 9, 2016,

[5] Elizabeth Balanoff, “Negro Legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, July, 1868-February, 1872,” The North Carolina Historical Review 49, no. 1 (Jan. 1972), 55; Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1981), 7

[6] William A. Link, North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 217.

[7] The Daily Standard (Raleigh, NC), January 1, 1869.

[8] Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1868-’69 (Raleigh: M.S. Littlefield, 1869), 381; The Daily Standard (Raleigh, NC), March 3, 1869.

[9] Tarborough Southerner, February 18, 1869.

[10] Tarborough Southerner, February 25, 1869. Emphasis in original.

[11] Tarborough Southerner, February 18, 1869; Wilmington Post, March 21, 1869.

[12] Wilmington Journal, May 13, 1870; H.B. Battle, The Battle Book: A Genealogy of the Battle Family in America (Montgomery, AL: The Paragon Press, 1930), 662.

[13] Tarborough Southerner, January 26, 1871.

[14] Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1870-’71 (Raleigh: James H. Moore, 1871), 50.

[15] Petition of Edgecombe County to the North Carolina General Assembly, undated, Box 10, Session 1870-1871, North Carolina General Assembly Records, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

[16] Tarborough Southerner, February 23, 1871.

[17] Journal of the Senate of 1870-’71, 279, 330.

[18] Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1870-’71 (Raleigh: James H. Moore, 1871), 319, 403.

[19] Ibid., 403-404.

[20] Journal of the Senate of 1870-’71, 480.

[21] Journal of the House of Representatives of 1870-’71, 455-456.

[22] Ibid., 593-594.

[23] Journal of the Senate of 1870-’71, 622.

[24] Ibid., 364.

[25] The Tarborough Southerner, June 8, 1871.

[26] For more on the significance of the Black Second District, see Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina.

[27] Rocky Mount Telegram, June 13, 1991. For more on the issue of public education in Rocky Mount and the surrounding region, see “Text of Proposed City-County School Merger Legislation,” The Nashville Graphic, Wednesday April 3, 1991, 4-B; Kathy Harrelson, “School Merger Study Approved,” Rocky Mount Telegram, April 2, 1985, 9.

[28] Chip Smith, “To Promote Unity, Rocky Mount Should Have a Voice in School Talks,” Rocky Mount Telegram, April 16, 2016, 4A; Lindell John Kay, “City Seeks to Stave Off School Split, More Discussion Sought,” Rocky Mount Telegram, May 1, 2016, 1A.