|The Southern states, they believed, had both a Constitutional right and a just cause for leaving the Union and forming a new nation. Like these North Carolinians depicted on a wintry Raleigh street, countless Confederate soldiers fought and died for the cause of Southern independence.
They had gone to war reluctantly, but no Confederates had done more to defend the South than the citizens and soldiers of North Carolina. They had cautiously waited, watching with sadness and sympathy, as one Southern state after another seceded from the Union. Even after warfare erupted at Fort Sumter, many North Carolinians hoped negotiations would hold the country together. Not until President Lincoln called for 75,000 Northern volunteers to invade the South, did the citizens of “the Old North State” vote to secede. They would not allow Northern troops to cross their borders for the purpose of making war on fellow Southerners.
By early 1863, as gray-clad North Carolina troops tramped down Raleigh’s snow-covered streets, the Tar Heels had proven they were not reluctant warriors. They had fought and died in significant numbers in every theater of war east of the Mississippi. Although North Carolina contained one-ninth of the Confederate population, one-sixth of Southern troops were North Carolinians. Tar Heel civilians were also doing their part for “the Cause,” providing rations, equipment and arms from Carolina fields, factories and blockade runners.
What thoughts were in the minds of Raleigh’s women and children as they watched the men of their state heading through a snowy night, bound for faraway warfare and an uncertain future? What images preoccupied North Carolina’s young Confederate warriors as they passed Raleigh’s warm and beckoning lights? Would they return to home and family? Would they fall on a distant battlefield, slain by a foe they had never met?
In February of 1863, what lay ahead for many North Carolina soldiers and thousands of other Southern troops was the greatest battle of the war - the greatest battle ever fought in North America - looming in the summer to come at an obscure Pennsylvania hamlet called Gettysburg. There, thousands of Tar Heel troops would lay down their lives in defense of homes and homeland at peaceful-sounding sites as McPherson’s Ridge, Willoughby’s Run and Cemetery Ridge. Of the 15,000 Confederates killed and wounded at the battle of Gettysburg, one-fourth would be from North Carolina.
There, noted a surviving Tar Heel, and on countless other bloody fields of fire, the Confederates from North Carolina “covered themselves with glory.”