MORRISVILLE — In the mid-1800s, the information superhighway was the railroad, and the news it brought to town was war.
Professor Richard Watson York was teaching at the new Cedar Fork Academy in Morrisville, where one-third of the male and female students came from families that owned slaves, according to lore.
One day, excited train passengers passing through started whooping and hollering out the windows with talk of shots fired at Fort Sumter, S.C. – those shots would lead to the beginning of the Civil War.
York canceled class and quickly began to put together a military unit of his male students to join the war effort, said Ernest Dollar, a Civil War buff who has become Morrisville’s unofficial historian and works as the director of the City of Raleigh Museum.
Dollar was on hand Thursday to give a presentation about “Morrisville Men at Gettysburg” at Morrisville’s town hall.
With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this year, Dollar thought it was a good time to talk about how Morrisville’s men experienced the war on the battlefront.
Dollar became interested in Morrisville’s Civil War history during his last year of college, when he learned that the Civil War ended in a small North Carolina town outside Durham.
Two days before the South surrendered, Union troops chased Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s retreating army along what became Chapel Hill Road to Morrisville Station in 1865.
“I was energized that this pinnacle event probably happened in my backyard,” Dollar said. “If I would have been here 150 years ago, I would have been in this unit.”
York and the men from Morrisville traveled to their training camp in Company Shops, now Burlington, by rail in 1861. From there, they headed to Virginia and to war, Dollar said.
Their first major clash was at the battle First Manassas, or Bull Run, on July 21,1861, in the plains of northern Virginia, Dollar said.
On July 1, 1863, the men from Morrisville marched south and positioned themselves behind a portion of the Union army fighting the other wing of the Confederate army to the west of Gettysburg, Dollar said.
The plan was to attack the Union troops from both sides.
Under Gen. Richard Ewell, a unit that included the Morrisville men was part of the attack and was ordered to distract the Union soliders, according to Dollar.
“Men woke up and expected an early attack but stayed concealed throughout the day,” he said. “ All day soldiers slept, ate, wrote letters, carved – to pass the time.”
Over the course of the fighting, the brigade lost 412 men, and more than half were from the 6th North Carolina unit alone, Dollar said.
“Recreating history helps to understand history,” said Dollar, who participated in a re-enactment in Gettysburg earlier this year. “In Morrisville, the effort to preserve, educate and share the history has been successful. Perhaps it should be a lesson for us as a nation.”
Each spring and fall for the past two years, Morrisville has hosted a history presentation.
Mayor Jackie Holcombe said the town has dedicated itself to historic preservation. The Morrisville History Center opened in June 2011 in the lobby of town hall. The town has also worked to get some landmarks, such as the Old Christian Church, designated as historic landmarks.
The history center has exhibits, touch-screen activated videos and a viewing room for longer filmsthat discuss the town’s history and role in the Civil War.
“The history center helps us to tell the story of Morrisville in a way it hasn’t been told before,” Holcombe said.
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