Forbidden love impacted Chapel Hill’s history

General Smith D. Atkins and Eleanor Swain.


by Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor

While looking for love stories in all the right places, one stood out – a unique love affair that impacted the history of Chapel Hill. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) has documented a story of forbidden love that shaped some of the early history in our area.

Our love story begins during the occupation of Chapel Hill by Union forces on Easter Sunday, 1865. On April 16, a week after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, these federal forces under the command of Brigadier General Smith D. Atkins rode into the town.

Upon meeting with the University of North Carolina President David Lowry Swain, the federal officials assured him they were there to protect the university. During the next few days, five thousand federal troops entered the town, most of whom camped to its north.

According to a book written by Eleanor’s great-great-granddaughter, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General, Suzy Barile (2009), Eleanor was twenty-one years old and Atkins was 30.

As the story is told by Barile (and details are limited), Atkins was sent to Swain’s home to arrange for the quartering of the troops. He met Eleanor Swain (also known as Ella), Atkins daughter, and they fell in love at first sight.

“He was so taken with Eleanor that he ordered his regimental band to serenade her every evening and presented Swain with a gift of two horses, one for him and one for his daughter. Eleanor announced their engagement as Atkins departed Chapel Hill, and the couple married in August 1865,” according to a blog from a lecture at the North Carolina Department of Natural History.

“Smith Dykins Atkins (1835-1913) was born in Horseheads, N.Y., and educated at Rock River Seminary in Mount Morris, IL. He was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1854 and enlisted as a private in the Eleventh Illinois Infantry in April 1861. He attained the rank of captain in 1861, major in March 1862, and became brigadier general in January 1865,” according to the Jane Addams project that provides General Atkins’s biography.

In a letter dated May 12, 1865, provided by Barile, Ella stated: “I had nothing to hide when the Yankees came among us except myself, this I had no fear of being stolen, but see the result!”

According to Barile, Eleanor’s family, residents of Chapel Hill, and even the occupying troops did not favor this North-South romance.

Research by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center recounts that the ties to the Confederacy ran deep in Chapel Hill.  It is reported that her mother would not sit at the same table with Atkins.

Eleanor defied all of their opinions and announced she would marry Atkins anyway. Eventually, Swain gave permission for his daughter to marry.

“..the federal general [Atkins] occupying Chapel Hill married the college president’s daughter. White Chapel Hillians were said to have spit on invitations, and students hanged Swain and his new son-in-law in effigy,” the Jackson Center account said.

“… Swain didn’t let the Yankee addition to his family weaken his allegiance to white supremacy. He had owned 32 enslaved people before the war, and when occupying Union forces banned whipping after it, Swain and two UNC trustees went to ask the U.S. president to reinstate legal beatings,” said the research document.

The community displayed intense hatred for the wedding, which may have played into the subsequent disastrous consequences for the university. It saw declining enrollment and was forced to close shortly after Swain’s death a few years later. Swain was also the former governor of North Carolina. Gov. Swain’s papers are still held by the State Archives today.

After their marriage on August 23, 1865, the couple escaped to Freeport, IL, where Atkins became postmaster and editor of the Freeport Journal. They had six children. Three of the children lived to adulthood. Eleanor died of influenza at age 38 and Aktins never remarried, according to Wikipedia and the blog.

According to Find a Grave, Ella Swain was buried in [Historic] Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

*This story was compiled from several online documents and linked in the article.

**This article inadvertently omitted acknowledgment and inclusion of quotes from a lecture from the author Suzy Barile that the North Carolina Department of Natural History hosted. It has been updated to reflect the correct attributions.

Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news. 


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2 Comments on "Forbidden love impacted Chapel Hill’s history"

  1. I noticed a problem with two of the citations. The two that claim to cite information from the North Carolina Museum of History instead link to a post from a blog that is dedicated to Asheville and Buncombe County history. Ms. Cassell might have been misled by the fact that the post opened with a link to the museum and a mention that Suzy Barile would be speaking there about her book.

    I also noticed that this piece contains a passage that would be considered plagiarism in academic writing. The short biography of Atkins’ life up to his meeting Swain is taken verbatim from the blog post.

    Finally, it seems highly unlikely to me that antipathy toward Swain caused the declining enrollment that forced the university to close in 1870. How many of the university’s potential students would even have been from the Chapel Hill area. I know very little about UNC’s history, but other state-affiliated universities during this period drew from wider geographic areas. Also, other southern universities suffered similar problems (look at Roger Gieger’s _The History of American Higher Education_, p. 280). And did Chapel Hill citizens hold so much of a grudge that they continued to stay away from UNC even after Swain’s death in 1868?

  2. Traci Davenport | February 16, 2024 at 1:52 pm | Reply

    Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was published and written locally. Of course much was exhibited on the couple at the Chapel Hill Museum and their story was the basis of a shared event with Preservation Chapel Hill many years ago. Surely the Chapel Hill Historical Society has plenty on this well-worn love story. No need to go to Raleigh or the sate museum for Chapel Hill’s history. Some of it is still here.

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