A Confederate Nickname for North Carolinians:

Origins of the Term "Tarheel"


THE WAR originated a great many new phrases in the imaginative South, but was Tarheels one of them? Long prior to the war the state of North Carolina was famous for its chief export: tar, pitch and turpentine. These articles were in great demand during the days of wooden sailing ships and were known and still are known as "naval stores".

Where does these natural products come from you ask? Pine trees. Pine trees everywhere! Ask any native North Carolinian and they will tell you that when they would walk through the woods as youngins, and in most cases barefooted, they would come home with tar stuck to the bottom of their soles. This, historians suspect, is how the phrase "tar heel" originated. In 1862 "tar-heel" was introduced as a term of ridicule. Why? Well, the State of North Carolina was the last state to succeed from the Union. Apparently, the State officials held out to the last moment. Therefore, throughout the South, the state was known as "the reluctant state". 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, "Tarheels!", and the reply was, "Ifin you had had some tar on your heels, you would have brought your flag back from Sharpsburg".

It was recognized as a term of affront until 1864 when, during one of his visit to the Army of Northern Virginia, 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 Tarheels". There was a slight pause before the applause came and from that time on "Tarheel" has been honored as an epithet worthy to be offered to a gallant North Carolina soldier."

As the war continued, it was plain that more North Carolinian "boys" were dying for "the Cause" than from any other state, Virginia included. Equally important, many North Carolinian State Regiments distinguished themselves on the battlefield, the First North Carolina Cavalry Regiment included. Yet, until recently, many history books gave most of the credits of victory and heroism to Virginia Regiments (after all, it was on Virginia soil that most major engagements were fought). Historians are just now recognizing the error of their ways.-A good example is the newly published book entitled "Stuart's Tarheels: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Cavalry" by Chris J. Hartley. This biography of Brigadier General James B. Gordon takes a tremendous step in acknowledging the often overlooked accomplishments of the North Carolina Cavalrymen during the Civil War.

History has revealed that North Carolinians were far from "reluctant". Which is why you will at times here them say with pride:

"First at Bethel,
Farthest at Gettysburg and Chickamauga,
Last at Appomatox."


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