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Was there a good choice when the war came in 1861?

Ned Jilton II • Jan 30, 2019 at 2:17 PM

In a move that took many by surprise, on Jan. 14, University of North Carolina Chancellor Carol Folt had the pedestal which formerly held the Civil War soldiers’ memorial nicknamed Silent Sam removed.

The statue itself, which had stood on the campus since 1913, had been pulled down by rioting students on Aug. 20 of last year. But the pedestal still stood, and the chancellor had been informed that by law the statue had to be reinstalled.

The debate that surrounded the statue was nothing new. Some protestors said it was a symbol of slavery and oppression of blacks. Others said it was not a symbol of hate but of history and heritage.

But in all the shouting, I never heard anyone say anything about the UNC students and alumni whom Silent Sam represented: the ones who fought, and some of whom died, in the war.

Slavery, tariffs, states’ rights or preserving the Union were some of the reasons the politicians gave in 1860 as they made a mess of this country. And when politicians make a mess, it’s everyday people like you and me that get dumped on.

In 1861, it was the young men from UNC that got dumped on. The Civil War was already underway when the governor put out the call for soldiers.

With soldiers in blue uniforms coming ashore along the Carolina coast, the question for the men from Chapel Hill was not slavery or states’ rights. The question was something much more basic. Do I defend my family and home or do I defend the Union?

Think about that question for a moment.

Do you defend your home by fighting for your state, even though you may disagree with the policies of that state? Or do you fight for the Union and risk having to fire on your own family and friends?

What about simply avoiding the fight by not choosing sides?

That option went out the window when the Confederacy instituted the first military draft in American history. The U.S. quickly did the same thing.

With the draft in place, if you didn’t make a choice, you could end up in prison or worse.

After making a choice from terrible options, what happened next?

One of the more famous UNC graduates to fight in the Civil War was James Johnston Pettigrew.

Pettigrew entered UNC at the age of 15. He excelled in mathematics and classical languages and was a member of the Philanthropic Society. Because of Pettigrew’s outstanding academic reputation, President James K. Polk appointed him an assistant professor at the United States Naval Observatory.

When the war started, Pettigrew chose to fight for his state rather than the Union.

During the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862, Pettigrew was shot through the throat, windpipe and shoulder. While lying wounded, he received another bullet wound in the arm and was bayoneted in the right leg. Believing his wounds mortal, Pettigrew did not permit any of his men to carry him to the rear.

But he did not die. He was captured by the Yankees, who took him to a hospital, where he recovered as a prisoner of war. He was later exchanged and returned to service.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Pettigrew led a division next to that of Gen. George Pickett’s in what has become known as Pickett’s charge, although many historians today call it the Pickett, Pettigrew assault.

Pettigrew survived the assault and commanded the division that covered the Army of Northern Virginia’s escape across the Potomac River.

Pettigrew was leading the last Confederate brigade still north of the river when Union troopers closed in. On foot and in the front line, Pettigrew was directing his soldiers when he was shot by a Union cavalryman at close range, the bullet striking him in the abdomen. He was immediately carried to the rear and across the Potomac, having refused to be left in Federal hands. He died three days later.

The loss of Pettigrew emotionally devastated his family, and there was an official day of mourning held for him in North Carolina.

The Pettigrew family was lucky in that the body was returned home for burial. For many families, all they got were some personal belongings or a lock of hair. The body of their loved one would be dumped into a mass grave on some far-off battlefield.

Other families would never see or hear from their sons again. When a soldier was listed as missing, his family would never know if he died on the field of battle, in a hospital or as a prisoner of war.

In 1913, during the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, the soldiers’ memorial was erected on the UNC campus. North Carolina Gov. Locke Craig, UNC President Francis Venable and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy praised the sacrifices made by students who fought for the Confederacy.

In the crowd were family members and a few old soldiers who held the memory of the terrible choice those men had to make and the horrors of war they faced.

Now even the pedestal of the memorial is gone and Chancellor Folt has resigned.

Sadly, the memory of the sacrifice of those young men who had to make such a horrible choice, and the lessons learned, are slowly being forgotten. Then another generation may some day have to make the same choice with the same sad consequences — again.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net .