b. November 23, 1820 d. July 7, 1861
35th North Carolina Governor (1859 to 1861). At the start of the Civil War he was responsible for leading his state out of the Union and joining the Confederate States of America. Raised on his family's plantation in what is now Davidson County, he graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1841, studied law with future State Chief Justice Richmond Mumford Pearson, and became a practicing attorney in Salisbury. From 1844 to 1848 he was a member of the State House of Commons, and from 1848 to 1858 he served as a judge of the State Superior Court. He resigned from the bench upon winning the first of two terms as Governor.
A Democrat, Ellis launched a progressive program of improving North Carolina's roads, waterways, and educational system. He was also pro-slavery and states rights, initially steering a moderate course in his attitude towards the central government. In addressing the General Assembly in November 1860 he urged for the "prevention...of civil war and the preservation of peace", but he also recommended beefing up the State Militia and called for a convention in which North Carolinans could express their opinion on the secession issue.
The convention idea was rejected by voters, suggesting little popular support for leaving the Union, but by then the national political situation was deteriorating rapidly. On April 13, 1861, Fort Sumter fell to South Carolina forces and the Civil War had begun. President Abraham Lincoln sent Ellis a telegram requesting two regiments of militia to help put down the rebellion, and received this response: "I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina". The Governor immediately ordered the seizure of all federal forts in the state along with the federal arsenal in Fayetteville, and on April 17 he wired Jefferson Davis, "We are ready to join you to a man. Strike the blow quickly and Washington will be ours".
On May 1 the General Assembly authorized Ellis to send troops to aid Virginia; North Carolina formally seceded on May 20 and was admitted as the 10th Confederate State the following day. Ellis would not live to witness the catastrophe he had contributed to setting in motion. Already in failing health, he went to a sanitarium in Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now in West Virginia) in late June and died there soon after his arrival. He was 40. Henry T. Clark, Speaker of the State Senate, completed his term.