Lost in the familiar Civil War narrative of North vs. South, federalists vs. slaveholders, are the thousands of non-slaveholding North Carolinians who objected to "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." They called themselves the Red Strings, but the discretion of their subversive courage means that our memory of them is obscure.
"It's easy to think that the Civil War was black and white and good and bad, but like any war, it had a lot of variables to it," said Jeff Bockert, assistant curator of education for N.C. Historic Sites.
"Knowing different aspects of the Civil War in the state will help you get a clearer picture of what the war meant, not only for the time but for today."
Part of the reason for the obscurity of the Red Strings, who were also known by the modest name of "Heroes of America," in modern-day history comes because the group operated in secret, fearing its members would be hanged if discovered. They distinguished themselves using only a special handshake and by hanging red string in windows. Members were spread across the state, and most Heroes only knew one or two others.
But there were 10,000 Red Strings in North Carolina—mostly just to the west of the Triangle, in Randolph County where the Quaker population thrived—who rebelled against the rebellion. In Randolph County, where only 10 percent of the population owned slaves, the people were hesitant to lay down their lives for a social structure that did not provide them prosperity.
"They were a large enough nuisance to the Confederate government that they had to take troops away from the Virginia front to put down these mini-rebellions," says Bockert, a member of the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.
North Carolina was the stage for the starkest internal opposition of all the Southern states during the war, and home to the largest number of Confederate deserters, according to historians.
The Red Strings were part of a movement in the Piedmont, the Quaker belt at the time, and were supported by Southern Unionists, peace advocates and those opposing slavery and the planter aristocracy. They ranged from men such as Bryant Scott, who sought to overthrow the government and free slaves, to pacifists who escaped from Confederate ranks and endeavored to aid others in evading the bloodshed, finding paths and sympathetic homeowners who helped hide them.
"It was almost like a mini-Civil War in the Piedmont," Bockert says.
In Greensboro, the New Garden Boarding School, now known as Guilford College, stayed open during the Civil War and provided a haven for irregular forces, or "bushwhackers" (on both sides, but Unionist bushwhackers were more common here), and both Union and Confederate deserters.
"No matter what side (soldiers) were on, (the school) put food on back by a cave outside the college, and whoever was passing by would know how to pick it up there," said Lois Ann Hobbs, whose husband, Grimsley, served as Guilford College president.
Hobbs, a Quaker, says the group didn't support either side, North or South, and faced pressure from both. Along with providing food, the Quakers at New Garden helped men fleeing battle to hide along an Underground Railroad that ran from Guilford to the mountains.
But relatives knew little of their bravery.
"Lines were still drawn even after the war," Bockert says. "It still wasn't safe to tell people you were a Red String. It didn't get into family lore ... By the 1930s they may have thought their grandfather fought for the South."