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The sunburst emblem on coat buttons worn by North Carolina troops in the Civil War apparently had no meaning or symbolism. That's great.

It has allowed the state of North Carolina to invent some symbolism 125 years later.Throughout 1990, as North Carolina commemorates the 125th anniversary of the end of the nation's bloodiest and most bitter war, the sunburst will appear on coffee mugs and T-shirts available at Civil War historic sites and on news releases from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

Mugs, which are $5, are already available at several sites, including Bentonville Battleground Historic Site near Newton Grove and Bennett Place near Durham.

T-shirts, which are $8, are available at Bentonville, site of the last big Southern offensive of the war, and will be soon on sale at Bennett House, where Southern Gen. Joseph Johnson surrendered to Union Gen. William T. Sherman.

In North Carolina, a state with a large black population, the Civil War is a touchy subject. Blacks resent attempts by descendants of Confederate rebels to glory a conflict fought in part over slavery.

State officials believe the sunburst symbol is something both blacks and whites can feel comfortable with during the yearlong commemoration, however.

``The emblem represents the toils of women on the home-front and the trials endured by the men who marched into war,' the department says in an announcement about the symbol. ``The sunburst symbol also represents a new beginning that peace and freedom brought to blacks at the end of the war.'

Frenise Logan, who teaches history at N.C. A&T State University, says he thinks there will be no problem with the widespread use of the sunburst if the state makes its meaning absolutely clear.

On seeing the emblem, a black citizen may ask himself, ``What did this mean to many of the black Americans who lived during the time,' Logan said.

He also said he hopes the state will conduct a broad range of commemorative activities during the year.

State officials seem to be seeking a balance. A symposium titled ``The African-American Experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction' will be at the Stagville Center in Durham Feb. 24. A concert will be at Somerset Place near Creswell Sept. 1. Somerset was one of the largest slave plantations in the state.

The war won't be depicted as all glory and romance. The horrors of a Confederate field hospital will be retold at Bentonville March 17.

A lot of North Carolinians experienced the horrors of battlefield hospitals. The state sent 144,000 men to war, more than any Southern state. About 40,000 were killed.

North Carolina also was one of the chief uniform makers for the South, and much of the work was done by women in the homes. They sewed on the sunburst buttons.

Civil War buffs and historians are stumped as to why the sunburst symbol was chosen, however.

Mickey Black, a longtime Civil War historian, believes the button dates to a few years before the Civil War and was first worn by prewar state militiamen.

Original buttons are still found in spots wherever troops mustered, slept and had toilet facilities, including the old prison grounds in Salisbury, the N.C. State Fairgrounds and the site of Crabtree Valley Mall. The latter two sites in Raleigh were Confederate installations during the war.

Mike Briggs, a Civil War buff in Greensboro, said buttons have been found all over Guilford County, particularly in McLeansville and Jamestown, along the routes Johnson's troops used during the last days of the war.


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