The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday June 3rd

Civil War: University president’s daughter announces engagement to Union general

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Click on the timeline to see The Daily Tar Heel’s Civil War headlines. Click on a headline to be taken to the article.

Editor’s note: One hundred fifty years ago Sunday, reports of the attack on Fort Sumter appeared in area newspapers. These stories from the Civil War are presented as they might have appeared in a student newspaper. All photos and article data courtesy of Wilson Library.

MAY 1865 — The family of University President and former Governor David Lowry Swain has sent out many invitations requesting the attendance of family and long-time friends at the marriage of their daughter, Miss Ella Swain, to Union General Smith Atkins of Illinois.

How the couple met is still up for debate.

Some claim the two met at the home of President Swain. When the general and his army first arrived in town, Atkins called upon the president at his home. While visiting in the president’s parlor, Miss Swain came to the room where she met the general.

“She threw up her head and marched in with great display of hauteur,” said Mrs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a neighbor and close family friend of the Swains.

Another version of the meeting simply says that a friend introduced them. However, the most common story of their acquaintance began with a dinner at the president’s residence.

In true Southern hospitality, Swain invited the general to dinner at his home.

When Miss Swain, the president’s youngest daughter, saw the soldier, she turned to her father and proclaimed that she would not sit at a table with a Yankee.

After a stern reminder about good manners and propriety, Miss Swain returned to the table but stated she would not say a single word to him.

Miss Swain, known for her wit and strong loyalty to the confederacy, had at first been offended by the presence of Yankees in her home, said Colonel W.D. Hamilton of the Ninth Ohio Cavalry. But in Atkins’ presence Miss Swain’s ideology quivered.

“It was the old, old story,” Colonel Hamilton said. “A feathered arrow from the ancient bow had pierced the heart the modern bullet had failed to reach.”

Rumor has it the general succeeded in getting Ella’s consent to marry him before he left that night.

Though the couple is very much in love, the union has created an upheaval within Chapel Hill.

Town residents, disappointed already by President’s Swain decisions concerning the school, have voiced their disapproval of the marriage.

Community members feel the Swains have betrayed their fellow Confederates by supporting this marriage, when so many Chapel Hill sons were killed by soldiers under General Atkins command.

Additionally, President Swain accepted congratulatory gifts from General William T. Sherman himself, one of the most hated union generals in the South, blamed for many of the post-war atrocities.

In addition to the town’s disapproval, dissent is also present in the Swain family. Ella’s own mother, Eleanor, is openly distraught.

Mrs. Swain hates the North and fears that Ella will spend much of her married life alone, while the general is away on business.

But it appears Miss Swain will hear none of the disapproval, seeing Gen. Atkins with eyes of a lover who can see no wrong.

“The world may scorn me if it will; I care but little for its scoffing,” said Ella Swain about her marriage to the general.

“As to myself, but one voice can prevent this ‘affair’, and that is one higher than man.”

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