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The exact etymology of the nickname is unknown, but most folklore believe its roots come from the fact that tar, pitch, and turpentine created from the vast pine forests were some of North Carolina's most important exports early in the state's history. For a time after the Civil War, the name Tar Heel was derogatory, but it was later reappropriated by the people of North Carolina.
Because the exact history of the term is unknown, a number of legends have developed to explain it. One such legend claims it to be a nickname given during the U.S. Civil War, because of the state's importance on the Confederate side, and the fact that the troops "stuck to their ranks like they had tar on their heels".
The term "Tar Heel" gained popularity during the Civil War.
In its early years as a colony, North Carolina settlements became an important source of the naval stores, tar, pitch, and turpentine, especially for the British navy. Tar and pitch were largely used to paint the bottom of wooden British ships both to seal the ship and to prevent shipworms from damaging the hull.
At one time, an estimated 100,000 barrels (16,000 m3) of tar and pitch were shipped annually to England. After 1824, North Carolina became the leader in the United States for naval stores. By the Civil War, North Carolina had more than 1600 turpentine distilleries, and two thirds of all turpentine in the United States came from North Carolina and one-half from the counties of Bladen and New Hanover.
Historians Hugh Lefler and Albert Newsome claim in North Carolina: the History of a Southern State (3rd edition, 1973) that North Carolina led the world in production of naval stores from about 1720 to 1870.
At the time, tar was created by piling up pine logs and burning them until hot oil seeped out from a canal. The vast production of tar from North Carolina led many, including Walt Whitman, to give the derisive nickname of "Tarboilers" to the residents of North Carolina. North Carolina was nicknamed the "Tar and Turpentine State" because of this industry.
Somehow, these terms evolved until the nickname Tar Heel was used to refer to residents of North Carolina and gained prominence during the American Civil War. During this time, the nickname Tar Heel was a pejorative, but starting around 1865, the term began to be used as a source of pride.
In 1893, the students of the University of North Carolina founded a newspaper and christened it The Tar Heel, which was later renamed The Daily Tar Heel. By the early 1900s the term was embraced by many as a non-derisive term for North Carolinians by those from inside and outside the state of North Carolina.
The following legends and anecdotes have arisen trying to explain the history of the term Tar Heel.
According to this legend, the troops of British General Cornwallis during the American Revolutionary War were fording what is now known as the Tar River between Rocky Mount and Battleboro when they discovered that tar had been dumped into the stream to impede the crossing of British soldiers. When they finally got across the river, they found their feet completely black with tar. Thus, the soldiers observed that anyone who waded through North Carolina rivers would acquire "tar heels."
In the third volume of Walter Clark's Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, the author explains that the nickname came about when North Carolina troops held their ground during a battle in Virginia during the American Civil War while other supporting troops retreated. After the battle, supporting troops asked the victorious North Carolinians: "Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?" and they replied: "No, not a bit; old Jeff's bought it all up." The supporting troops continued: "Is that so? What is he going to do with it?" The North Carolinian troops' response: "He is going to put it on you'ns' heels to make you stick better in the next fight."
The State of North Carolina was the next to last state to secede from the United States of America, and as a result the state was nicknamed "the reluctant state" by others in the south. The joke circulating around at the beginning of the war went something like: " Got any tar?" "No, Jeff Davis has bought it all." "What for?" "To put on you fellows' heels to make you stick." As the war continued, many North Carolinian troops developed smart replies to this term of ridicule: The 4th Texas Infantry lost its flag at Sharpsburg. As they were passing by the 6th North Carolina a few days afterward, the Texans called out, "Tar Heels!", and the reply was, "If'n you had had some tar on your heels, you would have brought your flag back from Sharpsburg."
The book Grandfather Tales of North Carolina History (1901) states that:
During the late unhappy war between the States it [North Carolina] was sometimes called the "Tar-heel State," because tar was made in the State, and because in battle the soldiers of North Carolina stuck to their bloody work as if they had tar on their heels, and when General Lee said, "God bless the Tar-heel boys," they took the name. (p. 6)
A letter found in 1991 (dating from 1864 in the North Carolina "Tar Heel Collection") by North Carolina State Archivist David Olson supports the theory that Lee might have stated something similar to this. A Colonel Joseph Engelhard, describing the Battle of Ream's Station in Virginia, wrote: "It was a 'Tar Heel' fight, and ... we got Gen'l Lee to thanking God, which you know means something brilliant."