Treasures of the Archives: “Tar Heel fight”

[This blog post was written by Debbi Blake, Collection Services Section Manager for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

On August 28, 1864, Major Joseph A. Engelhard wrote a letter to “Friend Ruf” in which he described the successful Battle of Ream’s Station, Virginia as a “’Tar Heel fight.”  Engelhard went on to say that Confederate General Robert E. Lee gave thanks to God for these boys.

A graduate of UNC and Harvard Law School, Joseph A. Engelhard was born in 1832 in Mississippi.  He worked with judges in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, and later opened a law practice in Tarboro, North Carolina.  Leaving his practice in May 1861 to serve as assistant quartermaster of the Thirty-third North Carolina Troops under Colonel, then later Brigadier General, Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, Engelhard rose to the rank of major.  He was made assistant adjutant general and transferred to Brigadier General William Dorsey Pender’s brigade.  In May 1863, he became divisional adjutant when General Lee formed the Third Corps, and General Pender was placed in charge of one of the three divisions.  Once Pender fell at Gettysburg, Engelhard was tasked with writing the performance report of Pender’s division during that battle.

Engelhard’s use of the term “Tar Heel” fight comes at the top of the second page of the letter, when he explains that the “brilliant little fight” was made up of all North Carolina troops.  This use of the term “Tar Heel” was one of the first times it was seen written down, although the term seems to be at least common enough that “Friend Ruf” and others would know what was meant by it.  Although there is speculation that the term was used during the Revolutionary War, there is no evidence currently to support it being used before the American Civil War.

The letter, now in the custody of the State Archives of North Carolina, is part of the Treasures of the Archives and is currently housed in our security vault.  A diary that predates this letter by about a year also includes the term and the two additional items that form our “Tar Heel” collection.

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