It’s a sweltering spring day in Raleigh. One by one, the 120 delegates to the special convention called by the North Carolina General Assembly pen their names to an ordinance of secession from the United States of America. Outside the capitol, signaled by a handkerchief waved from a high window, the waiting crowd goes delirious. Cannons blast out a 100-gun salute, church bells peal, and a marching band blares into full throat.
Across the city, crowds erupt into spontaneous, manic celebration.
All over North Carolina, the war begins in a pageant of silk banners and marching men, young and eager, a jubilee of parades with brass bands and snappy drummer boys beating the step with a light tattoo, handsome officers in middle age outfitted more in costume than uniform — blue and gray and red and buff tunics striped with yellow and gold and black, buttoned in brass and leather and bone, festooned with sashes and braid and gilt badges and hand-sewn epaulets, their caps emblazoned with crossed rifles, bugles, swords, and cannon barrels, wide-brimmed hats tilted rakishly on heads, plumed and feathered and brushed and banded, swords swinging from hips on brass saber hooks, hilts dangling gold and red braids, boots spit-shined to a mirror gloss by body servants, beards and mustaches trimmed and oiled in the manner of true cavaliers.
The officers’ horses are a wonder — sleek and spirited, coats shiny from the comb and brush, manes and tails braided, saddle leather oiled to a rich sheen over blankets fit for a royal bed chamber.
The enlisted men wear the various uniforms of their local militia regiments: a gray or butternut homespun battle shirt made by a mother or wife, blue or gray frock coats, trousers made from “slave cloth” — a practical cotton-wool weave. Their shoes are plain, lace-up brogans.
In Raleigh, Kinston, and Kenansville; Wilmington, Mocksville, and Goldsboro; Wilkesboro, Boone, and Asheville; and a score of other cities and towns from the wind-scoured coast to the piney Sandhills, through the rolling Piedmont and into the fastness of the western mountains, the troops turn out on brilliant parade, jubilant at the prospect of glory, certain of a quick victory.
They call themselves colorful names that honor their home places and resonate with bellicose confidence: the Duplin Rifles, the Scotch Boys, the Rough and Readies, the Cape Fear Rifles, the Wilmington Light Infantry, the Burke Rifles, the Cabarrus Troopers, the Lexington Wildcats, the Rockingham Invincibles.
From the Franklin Military Institute near Faison come the young and eager Confederate Greys, boys with something to prove. From Davie County, every family of which will give a son, brother, or father to the Confederate Army, march the Davie Grays, the Davie Sweepstakes, and three additional volunteer companies. Boone musters the Watauga Marksmen and the Watauga Minute Men. When news of secession reaches Edgecombe County, supporters raise a lone star flag at Rocky Mount and fire a 15-gun salute. The population of just 7,000 sends six companies of volunteers, more than 600 men, including the Edgecombe Guards and the Edgecombe Spartans.
Hillsborough fields the Orange Guard and the Orange Light Artillery, jokingly called the Church Bell Battery — two of its large howitzers are fashioned from church bells donated by the town.
The local militias assume the air of the Knights of the Round Table about to embark on a chaste and holy quest, pure of heart, emblazoned with the insignias of their heritage, burning with righteous zeal for the Cause.
In Greensboro, on the eve of war, the 180-strong Guilford Greys muster near the Revolutionary War battlefield that was the site of a great Patriot victory. A cadre of young ladies presents to their commander a beautiful blue, silk flag with yellow fringe, 5-feet-4-inches by 6 feet, elaborately designed. One side features a wreath of acorns and oak leaves encompassing the North Carolina seal painted in oil: a tableau of two female figures, Plenty and Liberty. Liberty’s right hand clutches a scroll labeled “Constitution,” and her left hand holds a pole with a liberty cap perched atop it. Plenty is seated to her right bearing three heads of wheat in her right hand, her left hand resting on an upturned, overflowing cornucopia.
Above the seal, an eagle holds fast a ribbon on which is painted in gold “E. Pluribus Unum”: Out of many, one. Below it, another ribbon proclaims “Greensboro, North Carolina.”
The obverse side mirrors the state seal but carries more specific inscriptions: “Guilford Greys” above, and below, “Organized March 15th, 1860.” Centered inside the wreath is another legend: “Presented by the Ladies of Edgeworth Female Seminary, May 5th, 1860.”
Mary Harper “Mamie” Morehead, niece of a former governor, on this day the Queen of the May, dedicates the banner with romantic and thrilling words: “Feign would we have it ‘a banner of peace’ and have inscribed on its graceful folds ‘peace on earth, good will to man,’ for our womanly natures shrink from the horrors of war and bloodshed.
“But we have placed upon it the ‘oak,’ fit emblem of the firm, heroic spirits over which it is to float. Strength, energy, and decision mark the character of the sons of Guilford, whose noble sires have taught their sons to know but one fear — the fear of doing wrong.”
Soon to fade
There is no talk about the true usefulness of the flag, to be raised aloft above the pall of gun smoke on a battlefield amid the chaos of exploding cannonballs so that the unit can be identified by the generals in the rear, or that the man carrying it makes himself a coveted target for enemy gunners. No one remarks either on the disquieting irony that, because local firms lacked the machinery and expertise, the flag is signed by a Yankee manufacturer, Horstmann — of Philadelphia.
The Albemarle Guards carry their own blue, silk flag, presented by the ladies of Edenton. The white, silk banner of the Forsythe Rifles bears the ominous and daring motto, “Liberty or Death.” Company M of the Bethel Regiment of the 1st North Carolina Infantry carries a red-white-and-blue state flag labeled “Dixie Rebels.” The flag of the Brown Mountain Boys of Stokes County, also given by local women, bears a white eagle encircled by a dozen stars.
Each unit will soon carry, as well, the Second National Flag of the Confederacy — a white field with a red canton crossed with the blue-and-white stars and bars. For them, this will be the “stainless banner,” inspiring an almost sacred devotion. It will also prove completely impractical on a battlefield, too easily mistaken at a distance for a flag of surrender, and will be speedily replaced.
But all this lies in the future. The present is an almost giddy whirlwind of galas, quadrilles, mass celebrations, and earnest ceremonies of honor.
Some observers, though, remark wryly on the flamboyant theatricality of the volunteer units. Thomas Fanning Wood, a young medical student in charge of the Committee of Safety in Wilmington, notes in his journal, “The Minute Men were organized as far back as Nov. of 1860, and were conspicuous on the streets with their badges of ribbon with a pine-bur rosette. They were of the impetuous sort, ready to secede if it could be done in a day, and take up the next day’s excitement with the same relish. … These were not the men to sit in council on the grave questions of the day.”
Citizens — including especially formerly ardent Unionists — compete to show off their loyalty to the Confederate cause. Pinned over their hearts are cockades — cloth rosettes with a centered brass button and two swallow-tailed ribbons, blue or red for secessionist. The red-white-and-blue Unionist cockades have largely disappeared. The cockades resemble state fair prize ribbons. Wood writes, “Nearly every Northerner was suspected of not being truly Southern without he enlisted in some sort of military company.” He cites the case of Dr. T.B. Carr, a dentist and native New Yorker: “He was an officious ‘minute man,’ and he wore the blue ribbon, [on] his coat, a blue badge button ‘C.F.M.M.’ My father, seeing this one day, accosted Dr. Carr.
“‘Well, Dr. What does all this mean?’ pointing to his badge.
“‘Why, don’t you know’ answered the doctor with importance, ‘that is Cape Fear Minute Men.’
“‘O,’ replied my father, ‘I thought it was Cape Fear Milk Man.’”
Wood himself enlists in the Wilmington Rifle Guards in September 1861.
Amid all the martial roistering, however, there are troubling harbingers of doom. As the Flat River Guards march out of Durham County to the war, they stop at Walnut Hall, home of William Preston Mangum, a young enlistee, so he can bid farewell to his family. His father, crippled by a stroke, speaks to them haltingly, with his daughter Pattie interpreting: “Boys, God bless you every one, but you can’t succeed. Their resources are too great for you.”
Young Willie Mangum will survive for another month, until mortally wounded at the First Battle of Manassas.
Early signs of shortage
Old Willie Mangum is more prophetic than he knows. North Carolina has not much of an armory to supply these enthusiastic troops. At the Fayetteville Arsenal, 7,000 muskets last used during the Revolutionary War are in storage — old, unrifled pieces too dangerous to fire. Only a handful of cannons are available, and there is no cannon foundry in the state — to build one would cost in excess of $100,000, an unheard-of sum. Officers and cavalrymen supply their own horses and tack, but there are not enough tanneries to make replacement harnesses for horses, artillery trains, and wagons, and also to supply leather for shoes and cartridge boxes, so ladies will fashion cartridge boxes out of cotton cloth. But even their sewing needles must be imported.
Many of the volunteers rely on personal weapons. One of the Davie County men, Maj. Peter W. Hairston, writes his wife, Fanny, “I want you also to send me my Sharpe’s rifle and Old John Brown’s Bowie knife,” along with a request for a leather sling to carry the rifle.
The romantic idyll continues a while longer. From his camp on Confederate Point, formerly Federal Point, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Wood writes, “Our camp life was more like a holiday excursion. … Sometimes we would fall in at reveille with a fishing line in hand, half dressed, and as soon as we broke ranks would dash across the sand dunes for the sea beach and fish for drums and whiting until breakfast time.”
Wood’s unit is a company of boys, six to a tent, and they behave like boys. “We shot marbles, danced, played cards, chess, back-gammon, drafts, etc.” There is little swearing, no drinking or gambling, faithful letters home to mothers, and no women except the visiting wives of officers. Even the practical jokes are harmless boarding-school antics.
It is all so innocent.
Once encamped with thousands of other soldiers, far from home, up in Virginia or out on the coast, facing imminent battle, some of the soldiers begin to reflect on the gravity of their choice. From Richmond, Maj. Hairston writes again to Fanny: “We have just received marching orders in the direction of the enemy. Should we never return, I commend my children to your charge and care and remember if I fall my last farewell was to you and my last remembrance is my affection of true and devoted love to you my darling wife. … ”
Only a handful of officers have any experience at war, and that was service in the brief, one-sided Mexican Campaign, ending in a heroic charge at Chapultepec, a rout, and total victory. And unlike most of the original 13 colonies, North Carolina did not experience defeat at the hands of the British redcoats during the American Revolution. Three crucial battles were fought on North Carolina soil — Moore’s Creek, King’s Mountain, and Guilford Courthouse — and each resulted in a triumph for the underdog Patriots. They have no cultural memory of defeat.
So the North Carolina volunteers are cocky, thrilling for adventure, immortal. One writes, “All we want is a pure open field fight and we will fight three to one our Col. [says] we will whip them and I do not doubt it at all.” Another boasts, “Few in numbers but tho I say it myself we have the best drilled Regiment in the south.”
They have not yet heard of such far-off places as The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Antietam Creek, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.
They have not yet starved in a country of farms, nor walked barefoot in frozen mud, nor seen their fine uniforms rot on their backs.
They have not yet been ordered to shoot healthy horses pulling gun caissons in order to immobilize the enemy’s artillery, or to sharpshoot teenage drummer boys to disrupt the enemy’s command and control on the battlefield.
They have not yet felt the concussion of a cannonball that takes off a man’s head, or charged into a hail of grapeshot that mows down a dozen men at once.
They have not yet watched the surgeons sawing off legs and arms for hours on end at the rate of one every 15 minutes with nothing to dull the pain.
They have not yet held in their arms a young comrade dying of fever, or served on a burial detail to shovel sand over a mass grave of their boyhood friends.
They have not yet watched their friends, caught trying to return to their suffering families, be tied to posts and shot for desertion.
On the home front, Liberty has not yet given way to conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus by President Lincoln. Plenty has not yet yielded to starvation.
Their silk banners have not yet disintegrated to tatters on their staffs, replaced by sturdier, plainer wool bunting flags, trophies to be captured on the field of glory and slaughter.
The 180 “sons of Guilford” have not yet been reduced, through death and dismemberment, to just a lucky 13 whole, surviving “heroic spirits.”
They are not yet veterans. But for that distinction, they will not have long to wait.
Save the Flags
Although many of the North Carolina regimental flags survived the Civil War, a large number of them are not on display because they have not been properly preserved. The Concord Museum, for example, recently moved its flag collection to preservative storage.
Anyone interested in helping to preserve these Civil War artifacts is encouraged to contact a local history museum or Heyward McKinney at the North Carolina Museum of History at 919-807-7871 or email@example.com about making a donation to support preservation efforts.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.
Philip Gerard draws information and accounts from several sources for this series.The author is indebted to Dr. Chris Fonvielle and Jeff Bockert of the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and to William R. Trotter’s comprehensive work, Silk Flags and Cold Steel, as well as a variety of North Carolina county histories, most published under the auspices of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History. Thanks also to the staff of Special Collections at the William Madison Randall Library at UNC Wilmington for access to letters and diaries; The North Carolina State Museum of History; The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History; the Museum of the Confederacy; and Historic Cabarrus Association, Inc., Michael Eury, Executive Director.
To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series