Durham News: Opinion

Robert Colby: Remembering the stories, remembering the war

Though Union soldiers reached today’s Triangle only in the Civil War’s final weeks, the war’s effects long preceded them.

As fighting drew hundreds of Orange (including present-day Durham) and Wake County men to far away battlefields, the men, women, and children they left behind endured chronic shortages of food, clothing, and other essentials (all while coping with rampant inflation).

The mass departure of University of North Carolina students removed a major source of local income, prompting the Raleigh Weekly Standard to assert, “There is no community in the State which has suffered more by the war than … Chapel Hill.”

The war spared neither poor nor rich. Stagville’s Paul Cameron – North Carolina’s wealthiest citizen – found himself “in the midst of … a Revolution,” increasingly unable to profit from (much less control) his hundreds of slaves.

And while the war meant freedom to slaves like Hillsborough’s Millie Johnson, it also brought chaos and tragedy. She found her children sold and scattered – two to Virginia, one to Hertford County, N.C., and two to parts unknown; her former master even kidnapped her daughter after the fighting’s end.

Thus, by the time Joe Johnston surrendered in Durham to William T. Sherman, the Civil War had made an indelible impact on the lives of all Triangle residents.

Fortunately, the stories of people like Paul Cameron and Millie Johnson have been preserved in university and government archives. More Civil War-era Carolinians, however, left little public trace of their experiences.

Many of their stories are lost to us – but others remain undiscovered, or simply unreported, preserved only in family and community lore. One of my own relatives, for example, served in the Confederate army but deserted, disenchanted by the deaths of his wife and children while he was off fighting. He then joined the Union army and fought in several battles before dying in a steamboat accident.

His tale appears in no formal study of the war, and by itself tells us little. But collectively, the stories of similar men and women comprise the experience of Civil War North Carolinians, and to understand the effects of the Civil War on the state, we must remember and understand the lives of all those who fought it and lived it.

This is the mission of the North Carolina Civil War History Center. A forthcoming, Fayetteville-based history education facility, the NCCWHC will relate the state’s antebellum, wartime, and postwar experiences from the perspective of ordinary North Carolinians: black and white, slave and free, male and female, Confederate and Unionist.

In order to do so, however, we need your help.

We want current North Carolinians to share with us those stories known now only within your families and communities. Whether a seemingly mundane record of service in the army, labor on the homefront, or work as a slave, or a dramatic tale of battle, escape, or tragedy, we at the NCCWHC want your story to help us tell the larger narrative of the state during and after the war.

The Civil War remains with us in everything from public policy decisions to debates over monuments in public spaces. Thus, it is essential that we understand it and teach it to the next generation of Carolinians.

By sharing your story, you help contribute to a clearer understanding of North Carolina’s Civil War – of the war’s effects on the lives of everyday men and women and on society more broadly. You also ensure that your story will be preserved for posterity and will be accessible to historians, students, genealogists, and others.

Finally, you contribute to our state’s ongoing conversation about the Civil War. If you’d like to help the NCCWHC, you can do so by sharing your story, you can submit it online at nccivilwarcenter.org/share-a-story/.

Robert Colby is the designated story specialist for the Triangle region for the North Carolina Civil War History Center. You can reach him at rkdcolby@live.unc.edu

Our State, Our Stories

The North Carolina Civil War History Center plans to collect 100 family Civil War stories from each of the 100 counties of the state over the next year – up to 10,000 stories total.

“This is one of the largest public history projects undertaken in the state,” said James R. Leutze, chancellor emeritus of UNC Wilmington and chairman of the History Center’s statewide advisory board. “If we don’t collect these family stories now, many will be lost to the ages.”

Memories from the Civil War remain in the family histories handed down from generation to generation. This initiative, entitled “Our State, Our Stories,” is intended to make certain that these stories will be available for others to read and understand.

The History Center has engaged ten “Story Specialists” from across the state to assist in the collection of the stories over the next nine months. They plan to canvass local Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Sons of Union Veterans organizations across the state as well.

The Center is collecting stories by three methods:

▪ Online submission by individual storytellers directly to the Center’s web page: www.nccivilwarcenter.org/share-a-story;

▪ Oral histories gathered and recorded by Story Specialists in conversations; and

▪ Printed forms that can be completed and mailed to the Center.