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The Daily Tar Heel

A tale of two lovers

Illicit Civil War love story at UNC published

Suzy Barile describes her new book, “Undaunted Heart,” at a reading at Bull’s Head Bookshop on Wednesday. DTH/Lauren Vied
Suzy Barile describes her new book, “Undaunted Heart,” at a reading at Bull’s Head Bookshop on Wednesday. DTH/Lauren Vied

During the Civil War, Ella Swain, daughter of the president of UNC, caused a scandal when she fell in love with a Yankee general.

Now her great-great-granddaughter, Suzy Barile, has chronicled Swain’s history in her book “Undaunted Heart.”

Barile, a UNC and N.C. State alumna, came to the Bulls Head Bookshop on Wednesday for a brief reading and Q-and-A session for her recently published book.

Barile opened the reading with the beginning of the book. Raleigh had fallen to the Unionists, and Chapel Hill was about to come under Yankee control.

Swain, the 18-year-old daughter of the prominent UNC president David Swain, was gathering shoes for the barefooted Confederate soldiers.

But when Yankee General Smith Atkins was invited into the Swain parlour, Ella entered the room and met her future husband.

Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a friend of the Swain family, was there that fateful day and recorded the event in her writings.

Swain married the general four months after they met and moved to Freeport, Ill.

The couple would spend their winters in Raleigh with Ella’s mother, who refused to sit at the table with a Yankee general.

Atkins would often bring dinner to his mother-in-law in her room and sit with her there, which was acceptable.

In writing “Undaunted Heart,” Barile used only primary sources, including Swain’s letters and Spencer’s records.

“It wasn’t until I read her letters that I learned about her life,” Barile said.

Swain’s letters came from a cardboard folder found in the attic after Barile’s mother’s death. They contained Swain’s correspondence with her family after she moved to Illinois.

Intimate details of the atmosphere and townspeople, such as the University’s telescope being used to hide watches, make the village of Chapel Hill from almost 200 years ago more vivid.

The Wednesday reading drew an intimate crowd interested in the hidden history of Chapel Hill during the Civil War and a love story shrouded in lore.

Stephanie Willen Brown, director of the Park Library in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication said she was curious to learn about the story.

Originally from the North, Brown said the Civil War does not create a strong emotional response for her.

“We didn’t really learn about the Civil War, I’m embarrassed to say,” Brown said. “I’m curious to see why this marriage was so controversial.”

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