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Football History - North Carolina Tar Heels History
Why "Tar Heels"?
University of North Carolina athletic teams are known as
the Tar Heels because North Carolina is "The Tar Heel
One legend has the nickname being applied to the state's
residents as long ago as the Revolutionary War. According
to this story, the troops of British General Cornwallis
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 their crossing.
When they finally got across the river they found their
feet completely black with tar. Their observation that anyone
who waded North Carolina rivers would acquire tar heels
led to the nickname first being used.
Others say the nickname was acquired during the War Between
the States. During one of that war's fiercest battles a
column supporting North Carolina troops was driven from
the field. After the battle, the North Carolinians who had
successfully fought it out alone, happened to meet the regiment
which had fled to safety and were greeted with the question,
"Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?"
"No, not a bit," shot back one of the North Carolina
soldiers. "Old Jeff's bought it all up," he went
on, referring to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
"Is that so? What's he going to do with it?"
"He's going to put it on you'ns heels to make you
stick better in the next fight."
Upon hearing of the incident, Robert E. Lee smiled and
said to a fellow officer, "God bless the Tar Heel boys."
A letter found in 1991 by State Archivist David Olson lends
credence to another more direct theory. A letter from Maj.
Joseph Engelhard describes a fight involving men from North
Carolina in which Lee was heard to have said, "There
they stand as if they have tar on their heels."
The letter, dated August 24, 1864, told the tale of a battle
on the outskirts of Petersburg, Va. Engelhard was elected
secretary of state for North Carolina in 1876.
The adoption of light blue and white as UNC's colors dates
back to the 19th Century. When the University reopened following
the Civil War, most social activities were directed by two
literary societies, the Dialectic and Philanthropic. The
official color of the Di was light blue and that of the
Phi white. Since society membership was compulsory for all
students, the opinions and activities of these organizations
were by nature of circumstances all embracing. It was the
custom for all men from localities west of Chapel Hill to
affiliate with the Di and generally for students from the
east to become members of the Phi.
On public occasions the student officers, marshals and
ball managers were chosen equally from the membership of
the two societies. It had long been the custom of each society
for its members to wear its color on such occasions. However,
the chief marshal and chief ball manager, one from the Di
and the other from the Phi, wore combination light blue
and white regalias and rosettes signifying that they represented
the whole student body.
Later, when intercollegiate athletics were established,
the question of what to wear became a problem. Certainly,
the students wanted to be associated with the University,
but the school had no official colors. So it seemed only
natural for the fans to adorn themselves with the same combination
as that used by the chief marshals and ball managers, colors
which represented not membership in a society, but a University
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