Tar Heel Origin and Old North State Meaning

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North Carolina
Origins of the nicknames "Old North State" and "Tar Heel State"

Have you ever asked the question, what is a Tar Heel? Where did the term come from and when was it first used? Not that knowing the terms in this short study will change the world, but it will allow an understanding of some phrases that many hear often only never to appreciate their origin.
Why is North Carolina called the Tar Heel State and referred to as the Old North State? What is a Tarheel? Who coined the Old North State, and why? Below is the appellation and nickname history, definition, origin and meaning for both the Tar Heels and Old North State. A quick note on the Old North State. Originally spelled Olde North State, it has its roots in Middle English, but with all American English words we have a tendency to adopt and then shorten the British English. For instance, shop for shoppe, traveling for travelling, favor for favour, and so on. In the Southern states, American English has been further shortened, such as ya'll for you all. But with the internet age, we now have LOL, ROFL, TY, and an entirely new vocabulary.


Old North State and Tar Heel State

North Carolina
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In 1629, King Charles I of England "erected into a province" all the land from Albemarle Sound on the north to the St. John's River on the south, which he directed should be called Carolina. The word Carolina is from the word Carolus, the Latin form of Charles.


When Carolina was divided in 1710, the southern part was referred to as South Carolina and the northern or older settlement, North Carolina. From this came the nickname the "Old North State."


Historians have recorded that the principal products during the early history of North Carolina were "tar, pitch, and turpentine."

When Confederate units from various Southern states had retreated during a fiercely contested battle in the American Civil War, it was North Carolina soldiers that had "held the ground during the thick of the fight." After the battle, the North Carolinians, who had successfully fought it alone, were greeted from the regiments that had retreated, with the question: "Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?" Quick as a flash came the answer: "No, not a bit, old Jeff's bought it all up." "Is that so; what is he going to do with it?" was asked. "He's going to put on you-un's heels to make you stick better in the next fight." Creecy relates that General Lee, upon hearing of the incident, said: "God bless the Tar Heel boys!" And from these series of events the name stuck. A Tar Heel, consequently, embodies discipline, courage, and determination.


Notes: Some contemporary writers, without applying a single source, state that the term “Tar Heel” was initially a disparaging “name.” This writer has not located any source to corroborate their position. However, to the contrary, the term or name “Tar Heel” was initially, or originally, stated and applied with the highest respect, gallantry, praise, and commendation.


Sources: R. B. Creecy, Grandfather Tales of North Carolina; Walter Clark, Histories of North Carolina Regiments, Vol. III; and State Library of North Carolina. 


The song known as "The Old North State" was adopted as the official song of the State of North Carolina by the General Assembly of 1927. (Public Laws, 1927, c. 26; G.S. 149-1.)

The Old North State

(William Gaston. Collected and Arranged by Mrs. E. E. Randolph)

Carolina! Carolina! heaven's blessings attend her,
While we live we will cherish, protect and defend her,
Tho' the scorner may sneer at and witlings defame her,
Still our hearts swell with gladness whenever we name her.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.

Tho' she envies not others, their merited glory,
Say whose name stands the foremost, in liberty's story,
Tho' too true to herself e'er to crouch to oppression,
Who can yield to just rule a more loyal submission.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.


Then let all those who love us, love the land that we live in,
As happy a region as on this side of heaven,
Where plenty and peace, love and joy smile before us,
Raise aloud, raise together the heart thrilling chorus.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.

Tar Heel Collection

Earliest surviving document reflects "Tar Heels"

Diary of William B. A. Lowrance, Nov. 2, 1862-Feb. 6, 1863.

The last narrative entry of this Civil War diary, on February 6, 1863, contains a phrase using the nickname "Tar Heels" for soldiers of North Carolina. While encamped in what is now Pender County in the southeastern part of the state, 2nd Lieutenant William B. A. Lowrance wrote, "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.'" This diary entry is considered the earliest surviving written use of the term.

The writer, Lieutenant Lowrance, was at the time in Company B, Forty-sixth North Carolina Regiment. Initially, he entered as a private in Company G, First North Carolina Infantry Regiment, enlisting at Salisbury on March 19, 1862. Lowrance was appointed Adjutant of the Thirty-fourth Regiment on December 11, 1863. Promoted to Captain on October 14, 1864, he was transferred to Company K. Lowrance was part of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

Civil War letter from Major Jos[eph] A. Engelhard, dated August 28, 1864.

The letter is signed by Major Jos[eph] A. Engelhard and addressed to "Friend Ruf." In the letter, Major Engelhard describes the successful Battle of Ream's Station (Dinwiddie County, Virginia) as a "'Tar Heel' fight," with the result that "we got Genl. Lee to thanking God, which you know means something brilliant." Certainly the letter seems to give credence to the tradition that General Lee had given thanks to the Almighty for the Tar Heel boys.

Born in Mississippi in 1832, Joseph Adolphus Engelhard attended the University of North Carolina and was graduated in 1854. Thereafter, he attended Harvard Law School and subsequently read law under noted judges in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Engelhard left his growing law practice at Tarboro in May 1861 to serve as assistant quarter master (captain) of the Thirty-third Regiment under Colonel, later Brigadier General, Lawrence O'B. Branch. Reportedly, Branch collapsed into Engelhard's arms as he fell mortally wounded at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862. Rising to the rank of major, Engelhard was made assistant adjutant general and transferred to General William D. Pender's Brigade. From May 1863 until the close of the war, Engelhard served as division adjutant. He served with General Pender at Gettysburg when General Lee formed the Third Corps and placed Pender in charge of one of its divisions. Following Pender's fall at Gettysburg on 2 July 1863, Engelhard served with General Cadmus M. Wilcox. After the loss and wounding of many soldiers during battle, Engelhard assumed command of the right flank of his division. According to various accounts, Engelhard's horse was "shot out from under him upon reaching the enemy's lines." Following the request of General Lee, Engelhard later wrote the official performance report of Pender's Division during its three days at the Battle at Gettysburg. Engelhard continued to serve with Wilcox, whose stubborn defense at Petersburg on 2 April 1865, made it possible for General Lee's army to cover its withdrawal and to move westward toward Appomattox.

At the close of hostilities, Engelhard was selected as clerk of the North Carolina Senate. He served again during 1866-1867 session, representing Edgecombe County. During 1866, Engelhard acquired substantial interest in the Wilmington Journal and served as the paper's editor for the next ten years. In that position, Engelhard became the voice of the Cape Fear region in protesting the policies and acts of Reconstruction. A Democrat, Engelhard attended his party's national convention in Baltimore as a delegate. In 1875 he called for a state convention to revise the State Constitution, particularly the provisions relating to local governments. During the following year, voters approved a variety of constitutional amendments, many of which were championed by Democrats as minimizing the more unreasonable aspects of Reconstruction. By a large majority, Engelhard was elected secretary of state in 1876. He served in that capacity until his death 15 February 1879, in Raleigh. Engelhard's funeral service was held at Christ Church (Episcopal) and he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Source: State Archives of North Carolina, The Tar Heel Collection

Recommended Reading: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Hardcover). Description: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina constitutes the most comprehensive and inclusive single-volume chronicle of the state’s storied past to date, culminating with an attentive look at recent events that have transformed North Carolina into a southern megastate. Integrating tales of famous pioneers, statesmen, soldiers, farmers, captains of industry, activists, and community leaders with more marginalized voices, including those of Native Americans, African Americans, and women, Milton Ready gives readers a view of North Carolina that encompasses perspectives and personalities from the coast, "tobacco road," the Piedmont, and the mountains in this sweeping history of the Tar Heel State. The first such volume in more than two decades, Ready’s work offers a distinctive view of the state’s history built from myriad stories and episodes. The Tar Heel State is enhanced by one hundred and ninety illustrations and five maps. Continued below...

Ready begins with a study of the state’s geography and then invites readers to revisit dramatic struggles of the American Revolution and Civil War, the early history of Cherokees, the impact of slavery as an institution, the rise of industrial mills, and the changes wrought by modern information-based technologies since 1970. Mixing spirited anecdotes and illustrative statistics, Ready describes the rich Native American culture found by John White in 1585, the chartered chaos of North Carolina’s proprietary settlement, and the chronic distrust of government that grew out of settlement patterns and the colony’s early political economy. He challenges the perception of relaxed intellectualism attributed to the "Rip van Winkle" state, the notion that slavery was a relatively benign institution in North Carolina, and the commonly accepted interpretation of Reconstruction in the state. Ready also discusses how the woman suffrage movement pushed North Carolina into a hesitant twentieth-century progressivism. In perhaps his most significant contribution to North Carolina’s historical record, Ready continues his narrative past the benchmark of World War II and into the twenty-first century. From the civil rights struggle to the building of research triangles, triads, and parks, Ready recounts the events that have fueled North Carolina’s accelerated development in recent years and the many challenges that have accompanied such rapid growth, especially those of population change and environmental degradation.

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Recommended Reading: Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Hardcover: 1328 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press), Description: The first single-volume reference to the events, institutions, and cultural forces that have defined the state, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is a landmark publication that will serve those who love and live in North Carolina for generations to come. Editor William S. Powell, whom the Raleigh News & Observer described as a "living repository of information on all things North Carolinian," spent fifteen years developing this volume. With contributions by more than 550 volunteer writers—including scholars, librarians, journalists, and many others—it is a true "people's encyclopedia" of North Carolina. Continued below...

The volume includes more than 2,000 entries, presented alphabetically, consisting of longer essays on major subjects, briefer entries, and short summaries and definitions. Most entries include suggestions for further reading. Centered on history and the humanities, topics covered include agriculture; arts and architecture; business and industry; the Civil War; culture and customs; education; geography; geology, mining, and archaeology; government, politics, and law; media; medicine, science, and technology; military history; natural environment; organizations, clubs, and foundations; people, languages, and immigration; places and historic preservation; precolonial and colonial history; recreation and tourism; religion; and transportation. An informative and engaging compendium, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is abundantly illustrated with 400 photographs and maps. It is both a celebration and a gift—from the citizens of North Carolina, to the citizens of North Carolina. "Truly an exhaustive and exciting view of every aspect of the Old North State!”

Recommended Reading: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was the sister to General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...

During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. Continued below...

John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Joe Johnston and William Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General George Stoneman's Raid.

Recommended Reading: Touring the Carolina's Civil War Sites (Touring the Backroads Series). Description: Touring the Carolina's Civil War Sites helps travelers find the Carolinas' famous Civil War battlefields, forts, and memorials, as well as the lesser skirmish sites, homes, and towns that also played a significant role in the war. The book's 19 tours, which cover the 'entire Carolinas,' combine riveting history with clear, concise directions and maps, creating a book that is as fascinating to the armchair reader as it is to the person interested in heritage travel. Below are some examples from this outstanding book:

1. Fort Fisher - the largest sea fort in the war that protected the vital town of Wilmington N.C., and the blockade runners so important for supplying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
2. Charleston - where the whole shootin' match started.
3. Bentonville - the last large scale battle of the war.
4. Outer Banks - early Union victories here were vital to capturing many parts of Eastern North Carolina from which the Union could launch several offensives.
5. Sherman's March - the destruction of certain towns in both Carolinas (particularly South Carolina) further weakened the South's will to continue the struggle.
I also enjoyed reading about the locations of various gravesites of Confederate generals and their Civil War service. Indeed, if not for this book, this native North Carolinian and long-time Civil War buff may never have learned of, and visited, the locations of some of the lesser-known sites other than those mentioned above.
Johnson's writing style is smooth--without being overly simplistic--and contains several anecdotes (some humorous ones too) of the interesting events which took place during the Civil War years. Highly recommended!


Recommended Reading: North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Hardcover) (The University of North Carolina Press). Description: Although North Carolina was a "home front" state rather than a battlefield state for most of the Civil War, it was heavily involved in the Confederate war effort and experienced many conflicts as a result. North Carolinians were divided over the issue of secession, and changes in race and gender relations brought new controversy. Blacks fought for freedom, women sought greater independence, and their aspirations for change stimulated fierce resistance from more privileged groups. Republicans and Democrats fought over power during Reconstruction and for decades thereafter disagreed over the meaning of the war and Reconstruction. Continued below...

With contributions by well-known historians as well as talented younger scholars, this volume offers new insights into all the key issues of the Civil War era that played out in pronounced ways in the Tar Heel State. In nine fascinating essays composed specifically for this volume, contributors address themes such as ambivalent whites, freed blacks, the political establishment, racial hopes and fears, postwar ideology, and North Carolina women. These issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras were so powerful that they continue to agitate North Carolinians today.


Recommended Reading:  Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (New Directions in Southern History) (Hardcover). Description: In Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina, Mark L. Bradley examines the complex relationship between U.S. Army soldiers and North Carolina civilians after the Civil War. Continued below...

Postwar violence and political instability led the federal government to deploy elements of the U.S. Army in the Tar Heel State, but their twelve-year occupation was marked by uneven success: it proved more adept at conciliating white ex-Confederates than at protecting the civil and political rights of black Carolinians. Bluecoats and Tar Heels is the first book to focus on the army’s role as post-bellum conciliator, providing readers the opportunity to discover a rich but neglected chapter in Reconstruction history.

Recommended Viewing: The History Channel Presents The Revolution (A&E) (600 minutes). Review: They came of age in a new world amid intoxicating and innovative ideas about human and civil rights diverse economic systems and self-government. In a few short years these men and women would transform themselves into architects of the future through the building of a new nation – “a nation unlike any before.” From the roots of the rebellion and the signing of the Declaration of Independence to victory on the battlefield at Yorktown and the adoption of The United States Constitution, THE REVOLUTION tells the remarkable story of this pivotal era in history. Continued below...

Venturing beyond the conventional list of generals and politicians, THE HISTORY CHANNEL® introduces the full range of individuals who helped shape this great conflict including some of the war’s most influential unsung heroes. Through sweeping cinematic recreations intimate biographical investigations and provocative political military and economic analysis the historic ideas and themes that transformed treasonous acts against the British into noble acts of courage both on and off the battlefield come to life in this dramatic and captivating program. This TEN HOUR DVD Features: History in the Making: The Revolution Behind-the-Scenes Featurette; Interactive Menus; Scene Selections.

This page discusses the Tar Heels and Old North State origin, meaning and history, North Carolina Tar Heel definition, origins of the nicknames, Tarheel and Old North State nickname, Why is North Carolina called the Tar Heel State? What is a Tar Heel? Who named it the Old North State?

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