When we think about the American Civil War, we usually think of the battles…Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Lookout Mountain, Bentonville…and the leaders…Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson. But as with all wars, the story really begins and ends with the ordinary people on the homefront.
After North Carolina seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861, the first local company of Confederate troops, the Forsyth Rifles, was formed by Alfred Horatio Belo on the square in Salem. For the first time, Moravian boys, brought up in the pacifist tradition, would march off to war. Soon, there was a second company, the Forsyth Grays. And then another, the Forsyth Southrons, drawn mostly from Winston boys.
The communities of Salem and Winston rallied around their troops. The girls at Salem Female Academy made a flag for the Rifles. The girls and ladies of Winston made another for the Southrons. As the soldiers prepared to march off to Danville to be mustered into the Confederate army, elaborate presentation ceremonies were prepared. In Salem, Moravian Bishop Bahnson blessed the Rifles, and the Salem congregation band played them out of town. In Winston, Martha E. “Mattie” Gray, whose father, a decade earlier, had bought the first lot auctioned in the new town of Winston, was chosen to make the presentation to the Forsyth Southrons. Her remarkable speech is reproduced below exactly as it appeared in the Western Sentinel, a local weekly newspaper, on June 28, 1861. She was just seventeen years old.Forsyth Southrons: Unworthy as I am to represent the patriotic feelings which swell the hearts of of my Southern sisters, yet I am chosen in behalf of the ladies of Winston to be the deliverer of this ensign to you, and with it our prayers for you as the defenders of our rights, our homes, our all. Unlike other flags that you have been wont to look upon, it is decked with only fifteen stars. The Old “Stars and Stripes” that formerly caused our breasts to throb with such feelings of patriotism, now no longer moves our hearts, but to indignation. Insulted, oppressed, and invaded, a number of our Southern States have estranged themselves from the old Federal Government, and side by side in “conscious pride” the brave sons of the sunny South are doing battle in Freedom’s holy cause.
Just beyond the borders of our own loved State, on Virginia’s honored soil, where repose the bones of our beloved Washington, the camp fires of the Vandal hordes of the North now gleam and threaten destruction and utter annihilation. But with stout hearts, a firm reliance on the Almighty, and headed by such patriots and soldiers as Davis, Lee, Beauregard and our noble Hill, and with such a determination as is inscribed on your banner, “We’ll Live Free or Die Brave,” the groans of the vanquished usurpers of liberty will soon announce the recognition of our independence, and the shouts of victory will soon ring loud and long throughout this glorious land of Dixie. Believing that wherever glory awaits, that there this flag will be found.
“We pray for your return,
But speed you onward now.” ——————————————————————————————————————————————————
The boys, soon to become men in the crucible of war, walked from Winston and Salem to Danville. The Sentinel published their letters describing the journey: [we] “went forward with buoyant spirits, cheering the occupants of the dwellings which we passed with cheer upon cheer, which was always answered by the ladies with the waving of handkerchiefs and other encouraging recognitions.”
When they arrived in Danville “…we marched down Main Street and halted in front of the New Hotel, where we were welcomed in an address by Dr. Atkinson [and others]…” They camped near the banks of the Dan River. “Our encampment is visited daily by numbers, of whom the fair ladies of Danville do not form the minority. Their presence goes far to dispel the weariness which at times hangs about us…”
It was a great adventure. Most of the boys had never been more than a few miles from where they were born. They were assigned to the Eleventh Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers, and set about preparing for battle. They had no idea as to what was to come.
Local members of the Eleventh Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers relaxing in camp before the First Battle of Manassas.