Have a boxful of history? Share the wealth!

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

Thousands of North Carolina boys and men began their Confederate service as members of local militias, some of which had colorful names such as “Scotch Tigers” and “Cumberland Plough Boys.” The names, and the men, were sometimes lost to view as those units disappeared into a more conventional military force.

The North Carolina Civil War History Center invites anyone who has a scrap of history gathering dust in some seldom-visited part of the house to bring it out for a fresh look. There are stories and bits of stories in those old boxes and bureau drawers. Others would love to share them, maybe add content or clarity; and the Center knows how to make that easy. Click the link on its home page, www.nccivilwarcenter.org/, or scroll through some of the stories already posted there.

From the family file: Needham Bryan Outlaw, one of my great-grandfathers, was one of many sons of Duplin County who served in Company I of the 66th North Carolina Regiment. His service included carrying dispatches between Goldsboro and Richmond – and nursing, at a time when nursing was still mostly a male domain.

That’s the scrap, the bait that could attract some of the hundreds who owe their existence to him. They have stories, too.

A few of them may already know that, for example, Needham duped his future father-in-law into hooking him up with the daughter he wanted rather than the one the old man hoped to marry off (and who had unwisely played hard-to-get back when Needham really did have a thing for her).

Maybe the better story is that his work as a soldier gave him a contact at a Richmond hospital that he used, post-war, when his oldest daughter needed psychiatric help for a problem that was at the time untreatable. Not long after shipping her off to Richmond, he got a telegram from a Dr. Hodes. It was bad news: “Am ready for you to come for her today she does not improve.” She never did, dying in Cumberland County after spending most of her adult life in hospitals. But “Hodes,” it turns out, was a typo. The doctor was James A. Hodges of Cumberland County — who later testified that Marsh “Carbine” Williams was insane when he killed a Cumberland County lawman who surprised him at his moonshine still. Had Hodges succeeded, Williams wouldn’t have gone to the pen, where he had the time and tools to devise the short-stroke piston that gave U.S. riflemen an edge in World War II.

I’ve not yet done a proper check on Abner Robinson, another great-grandfather, and so have little information about his service, other than that he began the war as a member of a Sampson County-based state militia or home guard unit. But what intrigues me is a single mention of Abner’s having fought in the Battle of Averasboro near war’s end. And it’s intriguing because, ten years later, Abner and wife  Annabella would have a daughter who would one day inherit the north end of that battlefield from her husband, and rule the house in which some of Abner’s ailing comrades had been treated before it became a Union headquarters. Abner and Annabella had four children. Two sons reached maturity but died, weeks apart, of a mysterious disease so grotesque and so virulent that the bodies were removed from the house and buried in the middle of the night. It was described in ghastly detail in a Clinton newspaper. It isn’t much of a stretch to offer that trauma as the likely reason both daughters went into nursing.

Henry Elliot Smith, another great-grandfather, began his Confederate service with the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry, which he joined a few days before it helped seize the U.S. Arsenal atop Haymount hill. (It appears, although I have not confirmed, that an older brother joined, too.) The FILI was soon incorporated into the First North Carolina Infantry.

Today, the Arsenal site is home to the state Museum of the Cape Fear Complex, which will eventually be subsumed by the History Center but which keeps a busy and varied schedule of events right now.

Henry’s service record with Company H of the First North Carolina is sketchy, marked by absences. But his sisters were candid about the reason: Henry was frail – so much so that they fretted more about him than they did about a much younger 15-year-old brother who got into the war just as it reached his doorstep. But give frail Henry points for spunk. Medically excused from the infantry, he got back into the fight, becoming a horse soldier.

A few years after the war ended, Henry married his sisters’ schoolmate, who had come to North Carolina as a refugee from the Federal naval and ground assault on Baton Rouge.

North or South, it works the same way: Put some bare essentials out there and, somewhere, a light will come on in someone’s head and a dusty box will come down from the attic. Then out come stories worth not only revisiting, but sharing with an entire state insatiably curious about its Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction past.

Until now, it was almost impossible to do that; but the History Center’s website makes story-swapping simple. And if you have trouble deciding which story to share, don’t work yourself into a swivet. There’s no rule that says you can’t share them all.

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