Civil War Origins of “Tar Heel”

An 1851 issue of the North Carolina Standard. Image from the State Archives

On June 2, 1863, an article in the semi-weekly Raleigh newspaper the North Carolina Standard, the nickname “Tar Heel” appeared—one of the first known uses in print. Describing battle actions from a month earlier, Sgt. George W. Timberlake reported:

The troops from other States call us “Tar Heels.” I am proud of the name, as tar is a sticky substance, and the “Tar Heels” stuck up like a sick kitten to a hot brick, while many others from a more oily State slipped to the rear, and left the “Tar Heels” to stick it out.

A number of different oral traditions suggest multiple possible origins for the nickname. Some tales suggest colonial origins, but the more persistent anecdotes date the term to the Civil War.

A post-Civil War commemorative banner that celebrates the accomplishments of North Carolina’s Confederate solider. Image from the N.C. Museum of History

The term is most commonly associated with General Robert E. Lee, who is said to have exclaimed “God Bless the Tar Heel boys.” Lee’s statement was made when he heard of an exchange in which a North Carolina soldier answered to the jeer of “Tar Heel” that if the other states’ soldier had had some tar on their heels the North Carolina troops would not have had to retake the battle line.

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Images from N.C. State Archives and N.C. Museum of History.

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