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Okay, out of the box I’ll tell you yes, I’m a big UNC fan. This post is inspired by their upcoming Final Four appearance for the Men’s team and possibly the Women’s team as well. (As I write this, the Women’s team is one game away from the final four.) But this post isn’t as much about March Madness and the Tar Heels basketball team as it is about the monicker Tarheel and it’s history. Most North Carolinians have heard the nickname at home or abroad and few really know the origins of it. Some of the history of the tarheel nickname is vague and uncertain. Like many things that we have handed down from the past it’s hard to know exactly when the name was first used, or if all of the stories we have are true or happened exactly as they did. But, here’s where we start on the history of the nickname tarheels.

The first thing you should probably want to remember is that North Carolina’s main export as an early colony was pine tar. The tar from the pines of Eastern North Carolina was vital as tar pitch to waterproof sailing vessels. The process of getting the tar involved burning the pine logs until the oil seeped out… with some giving North Carolinians the nickname tarboilers. Because of the huge volume of North Carolinas tar export (*and turpentine) the state became known as the tar and turpentine state. This evolved into Tarheel and gained in popularity around the civil war. Although, initially the phrase was not a compliment, some references liken it to “white trash” in it’s use of that time.

Here are a couple ideas from the wikipedia article on Tar Heel on some anecdotes as to early use of the term…

River fording by General Cornwallis

According to this legend, the troops of British General Cornwallis during the American Revolutionary War were fording what is now known as the Tar River between Rocky Mount and Battleboro when they discovered that tar had been dumped into the stream to impede the crossing of British soldiers. When they finally got across the river, they found their feet completely black with tar. Thus, the soldiers observed that anyone who waded through North Carolina rivers would acquire “tar heels.”

Ability to hold ground

In the third volume of Walter Clark’s Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, the author explains that the nickname came from the North Carolina troops ability to hold their ground during a battle. According to the book, North Carolina troops held their ground during a battle in Virginia during the American Civil War while other supporting troops retreated. After the battle, supporting troops asked the victorious North Carolinians: “Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?” and they replied: “No, not a bit; old Jeff’s bought it all up.” The supporting troops continued: “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” The North Carolinian troops’ response: “He is going to put it on you’ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight.”

Reluctant secession

The State of North Carolina was one of the last states to secede from the United States of America (Tennessee was the last to do so) and as a result the state was nicknamed the “reluctant state” by others in the south. The joke circulating around at the beginning of the war went something like this: ” Got any tar?”- “No, Jeff Davis has bought it all.”- “What for?”- “To put on you fellow’s heels to make you stick.” As the war continued, many North Carolinian troops developed smart replies to this term of ridicule. Such as when the 4th Texas Infantry lost its flag at Sharpsburg. Passing by the 6th North Carolina a few days afterwards, the Texans called out, “Tar Heels!”, and the reply was, “Ifin you had had some tar on your heels, you would have brought your flag back from Sharpsburg.”

Robert E. Lee quotation

The book Grandfather Tales of North Carolina History (1901) states that:

During the late unhappy war between the States it [North Carolina] was sometimes called the “Tar-heel State,” because tar was made in the State, and because in battle the soldiers of North Carolina stuck to their bloody work as if they had tar on their heels, and when General Lee said, “God bless the Tar-heel boys,” they took the name.

A letter found in 1991 by North Carolina State Archivist David Olson somewhat supports this theory that Lee might have stated something similar to this. The letter dated from 1864 (in the North Carolina “Tar Heel Collection”) a Colonel Joseph Engelhard described the Battle of Ream’s Station in Virginia. In that letter he states: “It was a ‘Tar Heel’ fight, and … we got Gen’l Lee to thanking God, which you know means something brilliant.”

I have read it many times that from the civil war era North Carolina troops fought like they had tar on their heels and they stayed in the fight with a stubborn-ness that image brings to mind.

Again from the wikipedia article on Tar Heel here are some documented early uses of the term…

* The earliest surviving written use of the term can be found in the diary of 2nd Lieutenant William B. A. Lowrance who wrote the following on February 6, 1863 while in Pender County in the southeastern North Carolina “I know now what is meant by the Piney Woods of North Carolina and the idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called ‘Tar Heels.'”

* After the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee in early January 1863, John S. Preston of Columbia, S.C., the commanding general, rode along the fighting line commending his troops. Before the 60th Regiment from North Carolina, Preston praised them for advancing farther than he had anticipated, concluding with: “This is your first battle of any consequence, I believe. Indeed, you Tar Heels have done well.”

* Sometime after North Carolina troops had fought particularly well, Gen. Robert E. Lee is said to have commented: “God bless the Tar Heel boys.” The exact occasion has not been noted.

* In a letter dated from 1864 (in the North Carolina “Tar Heel Collection”) a Colonel Joseph Engelhard described the Battle of Ream’s Station in Virginia. In that letter he states: “It was a ‘Tar Heel’ fight, and … we got Gen’l Lee to thanking God, which you know means something brilliant.”

* North Carolina State Governor Vance said in one of his speeches to the troops: “I do not know what to call you fellows. I cannot say fellow soldiers, because I am not a soldier, nor fellow citizens, because we do not live in this state; so I have concluded to call you fellows Tar Heels”.

* A piece of sheet music, Wearin’ of the Grey, identified as “Written by Tar Heel” and published in Baltimore in 1866, is probably the earliest printed use of Tar Heel.

* On New Year’s Day, 1868, Stephen Powers set out from Raleigh on a walking tour that in part would trace in reverse the march of Gen. William T. Sherman at the end of the Civil War. As a part of his report on North Carolina, Powers described the pine woods of the state and the making of turpentine. Having entered South Carolina, he recorded in his 1872 book, Afoot & Alone, that he spent the night “with a young man, whose family were away, leaving him all alone in a great mansion. He had been a cavalry sergeant, wore his hat on the side of his head, and had an exceedingly confidential manner.” “You see, sir, the Tar‑heels haven’t no sense to spare,” Powers quotes the sergeant as saying. “Down there in the pines the sun don’t more’n half bake their heads. We always had to show ’em whar the Yankees was, or they’d charge to the rear, the wrong way, you see.”

* In Congress on February 10, 1875, an African American representative from South Carolina stated that some whites were “the class of men thrown up by the war, that rude class of men I mean, the ‘tar‑heels’ and the ‘sand‑hillers,’ and the ‘dirt eaters’ of the South — it is with that class we have all our trouble….”

* Tar Heel was used in the 1884 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which reported that the people who lived in the region of pine forests were “far superior to the tar heel, the nickname of the dwellers in barrens.”

* In Congress in 1878, Rep. David B. Vance, trying to persuade the government to pay one of his constituents, J.C. Clendenin, for building a road, described Clendenin in glowing phrases, concluding with: “He is an honest man… he is a tar‑heel.”

* In Pittsboro on December 11, 1879, the Chatham Record informed its readers that Jesse Turner had been named to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The new justice was described as “a younger brother of our respected townsman, David Turner, Esq., and we are pleased to know that a fellow tar‑heel is thought so much of in the state of his adoption.”

* John R. Hancock of Raleigh wrote Sen. Marion Butler on January 20, 1899, to commend him for his efforts to obtain pensions for Confederate veterans. This was an action, Hancock wrote, “we Tar Heels, or a large majority of us, do most heartily commend.”

* The New York Tribune stated on September 20, 1903, regarding some North Carolinians that “the men really like to work, which is all but incomprehensible to the true ‘tar heel.'”

* On August 26, 1912, The New York Evening Post identified Josephus Daniels and Thomas J. Pence as two Tar Heels holding important posts in Woodrow Wilson’s campaign.

So, there you have it. We’ve taken a label that was once derogatory and turned it into a mark of pride. Good luck Tar Heels!