North Carolina Museum of History

Little Known Facts Out of History

Raleigh, NC

September 21, 2003

While batting around the Mid-Atlantic States, we crossed through North Carolina, and wound up in Raleigh. Now I was raised in NC, in a small resort town of Southern Pines and many of my learned behaviors originated in this state. Even as a small child, I learned the expression of "Tarheel" as a compliment to an outstanding citizen of this great state. Today it is a common expression appearing on signs, billboards, papers and even the State College. So, while in the capital, I decided to do a little research on the subject. I picked the North Carolina Museum of History for my source, and so armed with pencil, paper, and camera, we were off to find the source of the now famous local expression. We found the museum building made up of three floors for which only two are being used for museum space. It was broken up into theme rooms of a sort, which covered an assortment of subjects including Health and Healing, Pioneers of Aviation, and of course North Carolina's Sports Hall of Fame. I will have to admit that I glossed over much of this looking for hints of the origin to the celebrated expression in question. Although, several times I couldn't pull myself away from what I found. The first area of fascination was found on the main floor just behind the information booth. It was just a couple of tables and some placards. Back in July of 1941, then President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the creation of a super secret organization call the Office of Coordinator of War Information or COI. and appointed a New York lawyer by the name of William Donovan as its director. With war breaking out, the organization's name was changed to the Office of Strategic Services or OSS. This was not the first time that America had dealt with spies, but it was by far the most organized and most effective. It was assigned to gather information on foreign governments and to train and send operatives (spies) into foreign lands to lead partisans in fighting to liberate their countries. Two years later the organization underwent its final name change to the Central Intelligence Agency or, of course the CIA. One of the major contributions to this form of activity was a large research and development section assigned to invent all kinds of fascinating devices which facilitated the activities of some very deadly people. It was here that North Carolina born and raised George Watts Hill made his contribution. Year after year he directed the creation of some really strange things that really worked. There were hidden compasses (when anyone was caught behind enemy lines with a compass in his possession it was usually curtains for him in a most painful way. Nobody but spies needed them.) The various parts of the compass were made into parts of a suit such as buttons and could be assembled and disassembled as needed. there were auto pistols with silencers and weapons cloaked in all manner of design, each of which Mr. Hill packed away for future reference and are now on display. Many of the devices lacked the sophistication of the James Bond era, but were no less effective. One was a simple but effective way to escape while being tracked by a dog. Nothing more than a rag, string and chemical in a bottle that destroyed the human sent left on the ground. Disguised in a handsome, small, and easily concealed box, this tool was issued to all those who trespassed into enemy territory. For those who were rushed to the front before being adequately trained, there were written instructions included. While far too long to report in its entirety, the gist was as follows: When the possibility of being tracked by a dog, plan your escape carefully. If possible approached the objective from down wind. After completing your assignment depart along ground that will leave a good scent. In about 100 yards or so, slowly back up over the exact same part of ground you have traveled. When ready, make a strong leap sideways off of your marked trail. Unfold the cloth, apply the solution and unwind the string. move softly away at a strong angle, dragging the cloth behind you. From time to time make strong sideways jumps, being sure to cover your trail with the cloth. Be careful not to touch fences, sides of structures, bushes or shrubs. They never did say what was in the solution. If they told me, they might have to kill me I guess. There was a proper recognition of the most historic event in the states history, the flying of the first plane. The Wright brothers' experiments at Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill forever put the coast of this state on the map. One section did bring back some old memories from my early military days.  It was dedicated to one of North Carolina's more infamous characters.  Carbine Williams is credited with the short piston carbine rifle, which I carried many a night in the early 60s.  Carbine Williams as he is known grew up in the hills of North Carolina where he got into the moonshine business and ended up in a shoot-out with the local sheriff.  This got him some 30 years in prison.  During that time he worked in the metal shop and invented the rifle made famous in the Korean War. But none of this was getting me any closer to my goal and so I moved on to where I believed I would find the elusive story. A good size section of the second floor was dedicated to the Civil War (War between the States) for us southerners. Most of the great battles of this war were fought in places other than North Carolina. This is not to indicate that the Tarheels were not present and accounted for when the major conflicts erupted. At some of these clashes, the list of dead and wounded Tarheels was greater than from any other state. Although the presentation was interesting and well done, it failed to address my question. Mostly it presented artifacts, photographs and placards of the various officers and enlisted men who served, some surviving and some not. With nothing left to search, I was about to retire the search in defeat when I met one of the employees who monitor the rooms. Without much forethought, I asked "Well what is the actual origin of the expression "Tarheel?" He smiled, closed the book on the "Battle of Gettysburg" he had been reading and replied, "How much time do you have?" Twenty minutes later I still wasn't sure, when or where the expression had originated but I have plenty of possibilities. The first rumor of such a name came from way back when North Carolina was a British Colony. It has its origin in the pine trees that grow so profusely throughout the area. The large wooden ships used the pine tar, harvested by burning underground, to water-seal the hulls. In acquiring it, the laborers trudged through the sticky sap and would leave a trail of pitch where ever they walked. As these were some of the poorest paid workers the title took on a rather derogatory connotation. There were other references to the name until the beginning of the Civil War. The most prominent rumor appeared in print around the beginning of the last century. It was reported that in a rather vicious battle in northern Virginia around 1863, several companies of Virginians fell back allowing Union forces to advance. It began to look like a rout until the advancing forces ran into a North Carolina company that stood fast, exchanging blow for blow until the Union had had enough and withdrew. A returning Virginian infantryman called out asking the North Carolina men if there was any tar left in their state. The NC solider replied that it had all been sold to President Jeff Davis so he could stick it on the boots of Virginian soldiers so they would stay stuck in place like the Carolina soldiers. The nickname, although remaining derogatory, stuck and Tarheel may have been born. This was further advanced after the battle of Murfreesboro in TN when the Confederate General used the expression while praising the efforts of a North Carolina regiment. Still another rumor reports of an incident in the battle of Chancellorsville, VA, when a North Carolina Brigade broke in the face of the enemy and left the field. Afterward, some Mississippi infantrymen who had finally stopped the Union advance called out and asked the Carolina boys if they had forgotten to put tar on their boots. Whatever the origin, the expression remained defamatory well into the 1900s and then slowly a degree of pride began to surround the expression. This change continued until today it is worn as a badge of distinction and honor. And so I wrapped up our visit to Raleigh and the history of the Tarheel state.

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