Glory and Tarheels

Blogger/journalist Jules Crittenden reminds us that today is the 146th anniversary of the doomed assault of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner, near Charleston. Although the attack was a failure it proved that Black soldiers would fight and led to their integration into the Union armies. By the end of the war some ten percent of the Federal armies were African-American.

On another subject, I took a quick look at the term “tarheel” after seeing Brett’s posting. Both come from Land We Love, a magazine published after the war by former Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill (and now available on Google).

On one occasion, as a portion of our Virginia cavalry was passing by some North Carolina infantry, one of our boys said, “halloo, tar-heels, have you any tar left in your State?” A rough looking fellow straightened up and cooly replied, “not a single drap. Our Guvnor has sold it all to the Government to pour on the fields, whar you cavalry have to fight to make you stick better nor you have been a doin.” As we had been licked a short time before, we felt the additional tar plaster applied to our sores.

We get an account of a similar hit which comes to us from Hudsonville, Mississippi:

After the close of the seven days’ fight around Richmond, and when Hanson’s North Carolina brigade (of which I was then a member) was en route to Drury’s Bluff from Malvern Hill, we came upon some Virginians encamped upon the Richmond and Petersburg turnpike about two miles from Manchester. There began at once the usual running fire of wit and sarcasm between the troops of the two States. As we were approaching the Virginians, I noticed a big, burly, dark-visaged Lieutenant step out before his companions, as though he was to be the champion of their side. He was of so dark a complexion as to indicate descent from Pocahontas or of some one else not belonging to the Caucasian race. The wink was given to our “acknowledged wit ” and he moved over to the side next to the Virginians. The dark-visaged Lieutenant noticed the movement and at once accosted “old Stonewall,” the name by which our wag was known.

Lieutenant. ” Halloo, Tarheel, did you know that Tar River was burnt up.”

Stonewall. “No I did’nt, boss, is it true?”

Lieutenant. ” Oh yes, I was there and saw it burn up.”

Stonewall. ” Well, I am afraid it is too true, for your face looks badly smoked.”

The North Carolinians did not always get the best of the verbal encounter, however, as the next anecdote shows:

The following occurred December, 1864, when Hoke’s division was sent out on a reconnoissance upon the Darby Town road. Kirkland’s N. C. brigade (of as true metal as men are made of) was passing us to take position on our left, and greeted us with “Rice-birds,” “Sand-lappers!” “Hagood’s foot cavalry!” etc. One of our men cried out, “Go it, tar-heels!” This title the North Carolina troops were justly proud of, it having been given them at the battle of Manassas, where a general remarked, “That regiment of North-Carolinians must have tar on their heels to make them stick as they do.” To this retort of “Go it tar-heels!” one of Kirkland’s men replied: “Yes, we are tar-heels, and tar sticks;” and “Yes,” shouted back another of the South-Carolina rice-birds, “when the fire gets hot, the tar runs.”

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5 responses to “Glory and Tarheels”

  1. Will Hickox Avatar

    It’s unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that the gallantry of the 54th Massachusetts has totally eclipsed the sacrifice of the other Union troops who made the doomed assault. Whenever mention is made of Ft. Wagner we must hear about the 54th and Col. Shaw “as depicted in the film ‘Glory’” as if there is any history enthusiast who hasn’t already heard of the film. Similarly, the not-so-glamorous service of the 54th after Wagner is also usually ignored.

  2. Will Hickox Avatar

    I think I should add that I did not intend my above remarks to be critical of Fred Ray, just the state of CW studies in general.

    1. admin Avatar


      Thanks for the clarification. With that said, I didn’t think your earlier comments were critical of Fred at all. You make a good point about the popularity of the 54th in comparison to many USCT and other African-American regiments. I think the story of the USCT regiments at New Market Heights during the Petersburg Campaign is a great example of what you’re saying.


  3. Will Hickox Avatar

    As we all know, popular culture favors a single dramatic episode as opposed to the full story, which requires patient study and is often anticlimactic. Witness the 54th after Wagner, the long, hard slog in Europe after D-Day, Iwo Jima after the flag-raising…the list goes on.

  4. Will Hickox Avatar

    We must also not forget the majority of USCT regiments, who were stuck in garrisons and saw little or no combat, but were every bit as courageous and dedicated as the 54th. If I remember correctly, the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery was left to rot in the defenses of New Orleans for most of their enlistment, yet suffered more deaths than any other Union regiment–over 800 died of disease. And how many remember them?

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