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Letters bring to life Civil War’s effect on UNC students, faculty, families
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Carolina Meadows

The Setting: Mid-April 1861. Students with borrowed muskets, wood put together like guns, and swords are drilling between New West and Old East. A WRAL TV news van pulls up in front of South Building.

TV Reporter (and cameraman): President Swain, thank you for allowing us on campus.

Swain: Although you have time warped 150 years too soon it’s a critical time for the University and North Carolina. Do record it.

Reporter: Seven Southern states including South Carolina have seceded and formed a confederacy. Will North Carolina join them?

Swain: Probably, if Fort Sumter surrenders to General Beauregard and his Charleston cannon. Lincoln will send federal troops and militia into the South. I am afraid those marching students will join the Confederate army in Raleigh. The students have been meeting constantly and arguing about states’ rights, the need for slaves especially in the Eastern cotton and rice plantations in North Carolina, and preserving their Southern way of life.

Professor Hedrick, an ardent no extension of slavery “Free Soiler” and I have tried to persuade them not to go.

Here comes one of our best students, Ruffin Thompson. His father is a lawyer in Hillsborough. Ruffin is 19 and a class marshal. He’s done very well here after being dismissed at “Old Miss” for firing his pistol on campus and drinking corn whiskey.

Ruffin: Good evening, President Swain, gentlemen. President Swain, sir, I have decided to join my friends in the 18th Mississippi Infantry Regiment tomorrow.

Swain: I am very sorry Ruffin. Be as careful as you can. I will tell your father who, as you know, is an old friend, not to send the hundred dollars for your tuition until you return.

Reporter: Don’t go to Gettysburg.

Ruffin: Where’s that?

Reporter: Don’t ask. If you’re there don’t charge with Pickett. It was a bad mistake by General Lee.

Ruffin: I will keep it in mind. I hope my Old East roommate who is going to join the Union doesn’t show up there. I don’t want to shoot at him. I am planning to be back here after my six-month enlistment and the South has won.

The foregoing (with a little help from this reporter) comes from an excellent talk in the Lecture Hall recently by Jay Gaidmore, one of the UNC archivists. His topic “UNC and the Civil War” was very well researched and presented. The beginning and what happened at UNC during the war comes to life in letters from students, faculty and families in the Southern Historical collection in the Wilson library. Drawings and early photographs of dramatis personae at the time were fascinating. They included Swain, a group of students in their uniforms and General Pettigrew, UNC class of 1849, who was killed at Gettysburg.

UNC lost 312 students during the war, not all in battles but to disease as well. Ruffin escaped early in the war because he contracted measles and was sent home to Hillsborough. Recovered, he joined the Confederate Marines, survived and went on to medical school in New Orleans.

The UNC campus continued to educate with fewer professors and tutors and very few students. President Swain convinced Jefferson Davis in 1862 to exempt students over 18 from the Confederate draft. Davis agreed, “It was best not to give up the seed corn of the future Confederacy.” Swain could not prevent conscription in 1863.

As the South began to lose the war, Confederate and N.C. bonds and money became worthless. Inflation inflated. In 1862 a hair cut in Chapel Hill was 25 cents. In 1864 it was a dollar. Food for students and townspeople was costly and scarce.

As Sherman and the Union army got close to North Carolina in 1865, $20,000 was hidden in one of the campus stonewalls. A professor buried his valuables in a nearby woods but forgot where.

Setting: August 1865 (post war). The WRAL-TV van is in front of President Swain’s house. A wedding is about to be filmed, but none of the invited guests are appearing.

TV Reporter: President Swain, do you think the guests aren’t coming because of how you felt when the Union troops were here?

Swain: They were very helpful. They guarded the campus buildings when some citizens wanted to destroy them.

Reporter: But weren’t the Yankee horses stabled in campus buildings? General Sherman said his officers had the best educated horses in the Union Army. Is it true General Sherman gave you a horse he stole when he burned Atlanta?

Swain: I never look a gift horse in the face.

Reporter: Your daughter Ellie is about to marry the Union General Atkins. The townspeople are in an uproar. You and the general have been hung in effigy.

Swain: Love conquers all! Will the wedding be on the 11 o’clock news?

Swain says goodbye and hastens to the family porch to conduct his beautiful daughter into the waiting arms of the Yankee general.

From Dr. Jim Scatliff, a member of our resident Public Relations Committee, a lively account of the Civil War and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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