The institution of slavery was a way of life in Bentonville and throughout the South prior to the Civil War. The agrarian (farming) economic system adopted by the South relied on an exhaustive amount of manpower. On plantations and larger farms, this manpower was typically supplied by forced labor. However, not all farmers owned slaves and, in fact, most did not. In 1860 only twenty-seven percent of North Carolina's population owned slaves, and just three percent of the state's citizens owned enough slaves (twenty) to be considered plantation owners. Unlike in the Cotton Belt of the Deep South, the vast majority of North Carolina slaveholders owned fewer than ten slaves.
Bentonville in southeastern Johnston County provides a good example of slavery in North Carolina, and John Harper was representative of the slave owners in Bentonville. Mr. Harper owned three enslaved people in 1860: Lucy (age 38), her son Alexander or Alec (21), and his wife Clarsey (19). It is highly probable that they were inherited by Amy Harper from her father James Woodard's estate and freed by General Sherman's army during the Battle of Bentonville. Evidence indicates that Lucy, Alec, and Clarsey were domestic servants, assisting the Harpers with household chores and, at times, in the fields. Lucy and Clarsey likely helped Mrs. Harper and the Harper daughters cook for the family. Alec perhaps assisted with the livestock and the upkeep on the Harper estate. The type of servitude embodied by Lucy, Alec, and Clarsey was typical of what slavery was like in much of North Carolina.
There were at least two slaveholders in the Bentonville community who owned the requisite amount of slaves to be considered planters in 1860. Willis Cole, a neighbor of the Harper family, owned nearly two dozen enslaved people. A few of Cole's slaves may have helped with household chores while the remainder planted corn, beans, and sweet potatoes. Some of the Cole slaves may have assisted with the naval stores industry. Census records indicate John F. Sanders owned fifty-seven slaves but very little is known about his plantation operation or even its exact location.
Slavery ended in Bentonville in 1865 with the arrival of Sherman's army. The Harper slaves were freed but they did not have the means to leave the area. The Harpers and their former slaves lived as neighbors and tended the same fields for the next forty years. Alec and Clarsey adopted "Harper" as their last name, and named their oldest son "John Harper." John and his descendents lived in Bentonville well into the twentieth century.