Wednesday, May 18, 2011

XPost: Civil War Experiences of Nancy Brewer

[The following is a cross-post from the Southern Unionist Chronicles blog created by Victoria Bynum.

[It drew my attention because the incidentally mentioned husband Green Brewer is a figure in Chapel Hill history about whom little has ever been written or was even known. Green Brewer was appointed to the Chapel Hill Board of Commissioners (i.e what is now the Town Council) in 1869 by Gov. William W. Holden and is listed in census records as being African-American. Along with Thomas Kirby and Wilson Caldwell, he was one of three 19th century African-Americans who served on what-is-now the Town Council. I have written previously about Thomas Kirby:

[And I'll have to get started on Wilson Caldwell soon! Meanwhile, here is Victoria Bynum with the brave struggle of a free woman of color through the Civil War - and incidentally some detail on the end of Green Brewer's life . . . ]

The Civil War Experiences of Nancy Brewer, A Free Woman of Color
By Victoria Bynum
Renegade South

One of the women who will make a brief appearance in my book-in-progress, Southern Communities at War, is Nancy Brewer of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 1871, fifty-year-old Nancy applied to the Southern Claims Commission for compensation for wartime damages caused by the Union Army (#11545). Specifically, she testified that soldiers under the command of Gen’l S. D. Hopkins had in April 1865 seized a horse worth $100, forty lbs of bacon worth $10, and 1000 feet of lumber worth $20, from her farm.

Nancy Brewer’s claim was one of many submitted under the act passed by Congress in March 1871 allowing for “Claims of Loyal Citizens for Supplies furnished during the Rebellion.” Hers caught my eye because she was both black and a woman. I opened her folder not so much to learn what she believed the government owed her, but to glean whatever insights I could into what Nancy Brewer’s life was like in slaveholding and Civil War Chapel Hill.

Given that Nancy was claiming loss of property, I was not surprised to learn that she had been a free woman even before the Civil War. Although she could not sign her own name, Nancy had also been a prosperous free woman. Two years before the war, she explained, she had bought a lot and a house in Chapel Hill for $400. She had also purchased her future husband, Green Brewer, out of slavery in order that they might live as a married couple.

These are the sorts of personal family histories that we might never know about without the existence of records that address totally unrelated issues that happen to involve African Americans. Nancy’s deposition further reveals the complexities of life for people who opposed the Confederacy, yet suffered depredations committed by Yankee soldiers. According to Nancy, her late husband, Green, had belonged to the Union League, and they had always sympathized with the Union cause because it was “God’s will for the colored race to be free.” But during the last months of the war, as Union Army encampments surrounded Chapel Hill, the Brewers’ pro-Union views did not protect their property. Soldiers had taken the Brewers’ horse despite her protest that without it they could not make a crop.

Testifying on Nancy’s behalf was another African-American woman, Nelly Stroud, a washer woman who now lived with her. Nelly admitted that the Brewers had not shared their political views with her while the war was raging. “It would not do for colored people to talk here,” she explained, “a still tongue made a wise head.” But Nelly had little good to say about Union soldiers either. During the war, she washed and cooked for them, but feared them at the same time. They threatened to “show me the devil” if General Johnson did not surrender, Nelly told Commission agents. When asked why they would make such a threat, she responded that “I just believe the Devil made them do it.”

Thomas M. Kirkland, a white merchant, also testified on behalf of Nancy Brewer. Kirkland claimed to have known Nancy’s husband, Green, for about ten years, though he quickly explained that he had not been on “intimate” terms with him during the war because Green was a black man. In typical paternalistic fashion, he characterized him as “sober & upright,” and generalized that almost all blacks were loyal to the U.S. Government during the Civil War.

Nancy Brewer’s claim was approved by the Commission. This final comment from a Claims Commission officer appears on her file, giving us further valuable information about the experiences of this African American couple of the Civil War Era South:

The claimant is a colored woman & a widow—her husband having died since the war. He was formerly a slave, but she had bought him & he belonged to her!—or rather was freed during the war—. He was a rather superior colored man. After the war, Governor [William] Holden appointed him a magistrate—Loyalty proven.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Farewell Forever Old Road to Durham?

Have you ever wondered why there is no rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham? Do you want to know how we can ever create one? Do you want to know how you can help? Let me tell you . . .

University Station

When the North Carolina Railroad was built across the Piedmont from Goldsboro to Salisbury in the 1850’s, there were several competing proposals about the route of the rail line. A route through Chapel Hill was considered for the NCRR, but the Hillsborough alternative was ultimately built. The nearest point to UNC on this line was not in any existing community, so a stop was established five miles east of Hillsborough at what became known as University Station. Students were dropped off there and would either walk or pay for a wagon to take them 10 miles to UNC. For about 25 years, this route was UNC’s connection to the railroad and the rest of the state. But this was never viewed as a satisfactory arrangement.

university station
The former station house at University Station, east of Hillsborough, NC

In February of 1861, the legislature created a corporate charter for the University Railroad Company to establish a rail connection from Chapel Hill to some point on the North Carolina Railroad. The charter called for the commencement of construction by 1863 and completion by 1867. Of course, the Civil War derailed these plans, but even at this early date, engineers considered whether it was better to connect to the NCRR by following what we now call Old Chapel Hill-Durham Road or by building a line to University Station. “That route was surveyed by Prof. C[harles] Phillips fifteen years ago when the prospect of a railroad or a plank was agitated for the University. It is but eight miles, four miles shorter than any road leading from Durham could be made, and is said to run mostly on a ridge and will require but little grading.” (NC Presbyterian, 2/12/1873).

By the beginning of 1878, the Trustees of the University had come to feel that a rail connection to Chapel Hill was essential, resolving that they “look with deep interest to the early completion of the railway communication between Chapel Hill and the steam lines of travel already in existence, and would urge upon the Legislature of the State and upon the people of the country the duty and value of a speedy establishment of such line.” (UNC Trustees Minutes, 1/16/1878).

A Rail Line to Durham?

Immediately Durham interests sought to secure a connection from Chapel Hill to Durham. The Durham Tobacco Plant editorialized in 1879: “Durham can and will do more for such a road than any other point . . . this would be on a direct line to Oxford and connected with the Clarksville branch and thereby make it a very important road. The charter should be granted running from Durham.” The Chapel Hill Weekly Ledger (3/8/1879) agreed: “Durham will help us build the road if we build it to that place – she has promised and is able to aid in its construction. There are many reasons why the road should be built to Durham. It will be beneficial to both towns to a greater extent than if it were built to any other point.” These pleas did not fall upon deaf ears, but in 1879 when the legislature authorized the creation of the State University Railroad Company (SURR), the question of where to connect was left in the company's hands.

Because the line to Durham was longer and more expensive, it was clear that a line to Durham could only be justified by investment from Durham. The Chapel Hill Ledger (11/8/1879) reported that a meeting of the incorporators resolved to take subscriptions for $10,000 to run the line through Durham. Battle relates in his History: “I spent a day in the endeavor to persuade [Durham residents] to do this, but met with no response . . . One merchant replied, ‘Your road is against the interests of Durham. Trade would stop at Chapel Hill.’”

In early 1880 the Chapel Hill Ledger (1/10/1880) reported: “An interesting debate was participated in . . . as to what point the road should be run . . . Messrs. Battle and Hoke favoring University Station . . . They would be glad to see the road go to Durham if the requisite amount could be raised. Messrs. [Julian[ Carr and [Paul] Cameron warmly advocated Durham as the point to which the road should be run. Mr. Carr pledged himself to raise $4,000 in Durham . . . K P Battle offered a resolution to locate the road from Chapel Hill to University Station.” The resolution passed.

The State University Rail Road

So ultimately the rail line was built to University Station, rather than Durham. Ironically, Jule Carr wrote a letter to the Ledger (1/24/1880) casting doubt on the success of a route that did not connect at Durham: “I trust that your railroad to University Station may prove of as much benefit to the good people of Chapel Hill as some of your very clever citizens seem to think it will, but, to be honest with you, I have very little hope of it myself.” As it turned out, the railroad to University Station was not only a benefit to “the good people of Chapel Hill,” but it was so successful that it spawned a new town that would, thirty-three years later, be named for Mr. Carr.

8 The Whooper
"The Whooper" ran from University Station to Carrboro for over 40 years.

Whether the community leaders of old made the right decisions could be debated. On the one hand, the route actually got built and served (and still serves) important functions for southern Orange County. That rail line spawned the Town of Carrboro, which (pardon my bias) I view as a good thing. On the other hand, had they worked harder to connect UNC to Durham, our region and its challenges would look quite different today.

Will Rail Ever Come?

Now at last we may be coming to the time when the problem of a rail connection to Durham could actually be solved. Two years ago the General Assembly authorized Triangle area Counties to implement an additional ½ percent sales tax to support public transportation. While other funding sources were considered by the Legislature, only a sales tax was ultimately permitted, and only on the condition that it be approved by a county-wide referendum in each county.

After years of careful planning, Triangle Transit and Orange and Durham governments are finally coming together around a plan to build a light rail system to connect from Durham to UNC. The plan is essentially this:

Orange and Durham County voters would go to the polls in November of 2011 or 2012 to consider a referendum on whether to increase the sales tax in each county by ½ of a percent to finance a major expansion of public transportation. If approved, the new public transportation plan would include:

1. Major bus service upgrades along US 15-501 and NC 54,
2. A Bus Rapid Transit system on Martin Luther King Boulevard,
3. A new Carrboro-Chapel Hill- Durham regional express bus service.
4. Expanded service on the 420 Bus Route between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.
5. Full Chapel Hill Transit service on Saturdays (expanding the limited existing Saturday schedule).
6. Limited Chapel Hill Transit service on Sundays (currently there is no service),
7. A new Efland-Hillsborough-Durham regional express bus service along US-70,
8. A major evening service expansion on Chapel Hill Transit,
9. Permanent funding for bus service within the Town of Hillsborough (currently grant funded, but with funds running out in 2014 unless this referendum is passed),
10. Commuter rail service from Durham to RTP starting in 2018. This service would eventually extend far into Wake County as well, but only after Wake implements the same sales tax. This service could be further expanded to serve Hillsborough and points both further east and west, but that is not a part of the immediate plan, and
11. Light Rail service from UNC to Duke, Downtown Durham and NCCU in 2025. This service could be expanded to points further west at some point in the future if further funding were to be identified.

How to Get Involved

The next six weeks will be critical to making this plan come to fruition. The Orange County Board of County Commissioners will need to pass a resolution placing this issue on the ballot in order for us to get to vote on it in November.

We need to vote on this referendum THIS YEAR. All environmental indicators show that we should have implemented a system like this a decade or more ago. Orange County’s Green House Gas (GHG) Inventory shows that over half of all GHG emissions in our community come from automobile traffic and a major expansion of public transportation is the single greatest opportunity to reduce those emissions. The price of gas continues to spiral out of control and there is no end in sight. The sooner we move to a more sustainable future centered around public transportation, the better off both our region and our planet will be.

As well, 2011 will be a great time to vote on this matter. The political pendulum is singing back in the direction of environmental protection and sustainability and we should ride that wave to victory this November. If you agree with me that this plan needs to be the future of Orange County, then please let your County Commissioners know: Now is the time and this is the plan!

You can email the entire County Commission by emailing the Clerk of the County Commission at:


Battle tells us in his History: “When the grading was finished the ladies of the village gave the employees and convict [laborers] an excellent dinner.” There was also a grand ceremony to mark the occasion. Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s daughter Julia drove the last spike in the rail line. As Battle says“Speeches were made by President Battle, Mr. Jones Watson, and others.” And Julia Spencer wrote a song for the occasion, which I take the liberty of excerpting here:
"Farewell, old wagon/Jolting hack and phaeton/Farewell forever/We’re going to take the train . . .
"Farewell forever/Old road to Durham/Farewell forever/We’ll travel now by train . . .
"And all along the coming years/That time for us may fill/We’ll bless the men that brought the road/To dear old Chapel Hill . . ."

Sources consulted:
Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Vol. II, UNC Press, 1912.
The Chapel Hill Ledger, George T. Winston, ed., 1879-1880.
Hoke, William F. papers, North Carolina State Archives.
Hoke, William F. papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH.
Love, James Lee, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, UNC Press, 1945.
The Tobacco Plant, Caleb B. Green, ed., 1879-1882.
Trustees Minutes, UNC Archives, UNC-CH.
The Weekly Ledger, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, ed., 1878-1879.
Wilson, Louis R. ed., Selected Papers of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, UNC Press, 1953.