A provisional government had been established by the Congress which met at Halifax in August 1775, but that government was only temporary. All the political leaders of the colony realized that a more permanent form of government was necessary. This was impossible, however, so long as North Carolina remained a colony, her people subjects of the King of England. Technically, they were still members of the British Empire, and could do nothing towards establishing a permanent government until they had declared themselves independent. This situation existed in all thirteen colonies, but it was North Carolina who unlocked the gates of independence.
On April 4, 1776, another Provincial Congress met in Halifax. The delegates to this assembly were brave men, their confidence partially inspired by the victory at Moore's Creek Bridge. Although they may not have realized it, they were now to take the biggest political step of their lives. On April 12, 1776 (a day to remember), this Congress adopted a resolution which has since become known as the Halifax Resolves. The Provincial Congress of North Carolina instructed their delegates to the Continental Congress to concur, or agree, with any action that might be taken towards independence. This was the first giant step toward independence taken by any colony. In a sense, it was a suggestion to the Continental Congress that it make a similar move.
Virginia took the next step. On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Provincial Congress, meeting in Williamsburg, instructed its delegates in the Continental Congress to propose independence. In the meantime, the North Carolina delegation had arrived in Philadelphia and had laid their instructions before the Continental Congress. The instruction that they concur in any move toward independence was received with enthusiasm by the delegates from the other colonies.
On a warm June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia rose from his seat in the Congress. In a voice loud and firm he proposed "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states. . . ." After some debate, the resolution was adopted and a committee was selected to draw up a p22 declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia wrote most of the document, but he was aided by Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted that from this time forward the American colonies would be independent states. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, they adopted the Declaration of Independence. William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn signed the document as representatives of North Carolina.
William Hooper, one of the three North Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Joseph Hewes, another of the three North Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence.
News of the Declaration of Independence travelled slowly, but wherever the people heard the news, they received it enthusiastically. In New York the soldiers of General Washington pulled down a lead statue of King George III and sent it off to be melted into bullets. In some towns there were parades and various other forms of celebration. Although riders on swift horses carried the news of the Declaration, it did not reach North Carolina until July 22. The North Carolina Council of Safety at Halifax ordered that it be read to all the people of the colony. The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in North Carolina occurred at Halifax on August 1, 1776. A large crowd gathered to hear Cornelius Harnett, President of the Council of Safety, read the document. As he finished a mighty cheer went up from the assembled people. Then, with Harnett on their shoulders, they paraded happily through the streets of the town. Within a few weeks the Declaration of Independence had been read in every town in North Carolina.
The first Provincial Congress to meet after the Declaration of Independence assembled at Halifax on November 12, 1776. A big task lay before them. Now that the colonists had declared themselves p23 free men, they had to make provisions for governing themselves as a free people. A committee was appointed to draw up a State Constitution. The chairman of the committee was Richard Caswell, although there were some who said that Thomas Jones of Edenton did most of the work in drawing up this new outline of government. When the committee had finished its work, it was presented to the Congress. Many changes were made in the original document as the other members of the Congress debated the Constitution line by line and almost word by word. On December 12, 1776, a Bill of Rights was voted upon and passed. The next day the Constitution received the approval of a majority of the delegates.
The Bill of Rights stated the rights of a free people. Many of those rights which previously had been denied by the King and Parliament were now listed as basic freedoms of the people of North Carolina.
The Constitution outlined a framework of government. The new government of North Carolina was to be composed of three branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary. The executive department was to be composed of a governor, a council of state, a secretary, a treasurer, and an attorney general. All these officials were to be elected by the Legislature. The primary duties of these men were to see that the laws of North Carolina were properly executed.
Laws were to be made by the legislative branch of the government — the General Assembly. This was to be a bicameral, or two‑house legislature. Before any measure could become law, it had to receive a majority vote in each house of the Assembly. One of these houses, the Senate, was composed of one delegate from each county in the state. The other body was to be called the p24 House of Commons, with two members from every county. Those towns considered important enough also were allowed representatives in the House of Commons. There were six of these — Edenton, New Bern, Wilmington, Salisbury, Hillsboro, and Halifax — and they were termed "borough towns." Any free man, white or colored, who owned as much as •fifty acres of land and had lived one month in the county and at least one year in the State could vote for senators. Any free man who had lived in the State for one year and had paid his taxes was allowed to vote for delegates to the House of Commons. Not every man could be elected to the General Assembly. A senator was required to have lived in the county for at least a year and to own at least •300 acres of land. The same length of residence was required for members of the House of Commons, but they had to own only •100 acres of land.
The judiciary was the legal division of the State and was charged with the enforcement of the laws. It included all of the judges of the State and the attorney general. The judges of the higher courts were elected by the Legislature. The judges of the lower, or county courts, were the justices of the peace. They were appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of the county representatives in the legislature. All the judges could remain in office for life so long as they behaved themselves.
Among other things, the new Constitution defined the relationship between the new State government and the Continental Congress. We had no President of the United States, nor any real national government to carry on the war — only the Continental Congress. This Congress was actually more of a combined effort by the states than an independent legislative body. No one considered it to be superior to the states, and everyone felt the state governments were more important. Yet all of the states left the operation of the war on a national scale to the Continental Congress, even though that body lacked many of the necessary powers. North Carolina's representatives to the Continental Congress were elected by the State Legislature.
Although many faults can be discovered in North Carolina's first Constitution, it must be remembered that it was drawn up by men who had little or no experience in such matters. Considering this, we can only conclude that they did a magnificent job. The Constitution they wrote served North Carolina for fifty-nine years. It was not until 1835 that the State felt it necessary to revise the original document.
p26 The last official act of this Provincial Congress was to elect the first governor of North Carolina under the new Constitution. Their choice fell upon the hero of the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Richard Caswell.
After the adjournment of the Congress, Governor Caswell set out for New Bern. There he was to establish his residence in the fabulous Governor's Palace which had been completed by Governor William Tryon in 1770. The people at New Bern gave him a welcome that would have done credit to a king. At least thirty of the leading citizens met him •six miles out of town and escorted him the remaining distance into New Bern. As the party entered the town, a mighty shout went up from the people lining the streets. From every church steeple came the rhythmic clanging of bells. Muskets cracked as soldiers fired a salute. Every vessel anchored in the harbor flew the new red and white striped Continental Flag, and every ship that carried a cannon boomed out a welcome to the new governor. The night was not so noisy, but from nearly every window in town a candle burned and flickered out a message of joy. After the conclusion of the formal celebration, the citizens of the town gathered to offer Governor Caswell their congratulations and best wishes.
It was actually several months before the State government really began functioning. On April 7, 1777, the first General Assembly of the State of North Carolina assembled in New Bern. They faced all those problems that confront any state in war time. There were soldiers to be recruited, equipped, and trained. Military supplies had to be collected and distributed to the army. There were laws to be passed. Something had to be done about the Tories. Although they had been defeated at Moore's Creek Bridge, there were still enough of them to cause trouble, if the opportunity presented itself. On the mountain frontier there was ever-present danger from Indians who held no love for the white men who had invaded their hunting grounds.
The first meeting of the General Assembly also brought to light some of the weaknesses of the State Constitution. In a time of stress and warfare a strong leader was needed, yet the Constitution had so restricted the governor of the State that it was impossible for him to exercise the proper authority. This weakness of the governor had been a reaction to the experience of the people as colonists of Great Britain. They felt that the royal governors had been invested with too much authority and they p27 were determined to have an executive who could be controlled by the people. As a result of this attitude, Governor Caswell found himself faced by problems he did not have the power to correct.
The people themselves did not live in peace and harmony under their new Constitution. Many disagreed with the form of government that had been adopted by the new State. Others did not like the manner in which the war was being conducted. This was especially true of those who lived on the western frontier. They were trying not only to carve a living out of the wilderness, but also to protect themselves against attacks by Indians. They complained that the State was not furnishing adequate military protection against the raids of the savages. They also argued that the mountain men were not properly represented in the government of North Carolina.
The question of money was one of the greatest problems faced by the new State. North Carolina began its existence as a state with an empty treasury. Because of this scarcity of money, North Carolina could only follow the example set by the Continental Congress and the other states — they began to issue paper money. Paper money backed with only the promise to pay, rather than gold or silver, is worth little. The Continental Congress issued so much worthless paper money that we still use the expression "Not worth a Continental" to describe something worthless. North Carolina, as did the Continental Congress, found she was forced to issue more and more paper currency. The more that was printed, the less it was worth. By 1780 a man had to have at least 800 dollars in North Carolina paper money in order to buy one dollar's worth of merchandise. One newspaper carried the story of a man in New Bern who was paying 4,000 dollars a week for his board— in paper money. Money, however, was but one of many problems.
The most pressing problem facing any state at war is the military. Each year the Continental Congress called for more men to be furnished the Continental army. North Carolina and the other twelve states were each assigned quotas of men to provide for the Continental army. It was by no means an easy task to enlist the necessary number of soldiers. In fact, North Carolina and most of the other colonies were never successful in filling their quotas. Men were not eager to leave their families and farms to fight the British. Army pay was little enough to p28 begin with, and was worth even less because of the almost valueless money. A large part of the wanted no part of an army fighting against that of their King. And so it went. Nevertheless, during the war North Carolina raised a total of ten regiments for the Continental Line, furnishing between 6,086 and 7,663 men to the army.
Not all of the men who carried arms in the American Revolution fought as soldiers of the Continental army. By far the greater number who served did so as members of the militia. The militia included nearly every man in the state. When an able-bodied man reached the age of sixteen, he automatically became a member of the local militia. They were poorly trained. They sometimes had only one "muster," or training session, each year, and they often were drilled by men who knew nothing of the art of warfare. Militiamen were required to furnish their own weapons, and these ranged from rickety old muskets to the deadly accurate rifles of the frontiersmen. In many instances, the law said they could not be forced to fight outside the boundaries of the State unless they consented. As a result of haphazard organizations and preparations, the men of the militia usually were considered poor soldiers. They were seldom dependable in the face of an advancing enemy. Still, it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 North Carolinians took the field as militia against the enemy during the Revolutionary War.
To the west, in the mountain country, the militia held better reputations as fighting men. They had to be in order to survive. The British had sent agents amongst Indians and persuaded them to take the warpath against the white men who had settled upon their hunting grounds. In July, 1776, the Cherokees began to pour down upon the mountain settlements, massacring the inhabitants, and burning their homes. In September of that year, General Griffith Rutherford and Colonel Andrew Williamson gathered a force of 2,400 men and marched into the Cherokee country. Most of these soldiers were from North Carolina, although there were some from South Carolina and Virginia. On their swing through the Cherokee country, they set fire to crops and burned at least thirty‑six Cherokee towns. The savages made one stand against the white men, but they were crushed in the brief battle and fled to the westward. Finally, on July 20, 1777, the Cherokees signed a peace treaty, in which they gave up much of the land they had claimed as their hunting grounds.
p29 Not all the Indians gave up so easily. Dragging Canoe and several other chiefs retired westward and joined the Chickamaugas. Other Indians joined them. They later returned to harass the frontier settlements, with the result that in 1779 the states of North Carolina and Virginia sent 900 men under Colonel Evan Shelby to wipe out these warriors. They surprised the Chickamaugas, defeated them in battle and burned their villages. They did not catch Dragging Canoe, who escaped and remained a thorn in the side of the western inhabitants. There were other battles with the Cherokees, who were continually being stirred up by British agents who were furnishing them with supplies, arms, and ammunition. One war party was routed by Colonel John Sevier in an engagement in the valley of the French Broad River on December 8, 1780. Nevertheless, the Indians were never so strong as they had been before Griffith Rutherford's expedition in the summer of 1776.
Many of the soldiers of North Carolina never fought on the soil of their native state. These were the North Carolinians who had enlisted in the Continental army. Their first real military experience had been gained in 1775 when Colonel Robert Howe's regiment was sent to Virginia to aid the people of that colony in driving out their last royal governor, the Earl of Dunmore. The following year 700 North Carolinians aided in putting down a revolt by the "Scovellites," a group of back-country Tories in South Carolina. Because part of this expedition was conducted during a •two‑foot snowfall, it has sometimes been referred to as the "snow campaign."
They also fought in South Carolina as a sequel to the Moore's Creek Bridge campaign. When the British fleet left the Cape Fear area in the spring of 1776, they sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, to attack that city. They had expected an easy fight, but they found a large number of hard-fighting Americans defending the city, who drove off the sailors and soldiers of George III. Included in the defenders of Charleston were 1,400 soldiers from North Carolina under the command of the recently-promoted Brigadier General Robert Howe. When Major General Charles Lee, commanding the Continental army in the South, was recalled to the northern part of the country by General Washington, General Howe was promoted to this job. Shortly afterward he was promoted to major general. He remained as the commanding general in the South until December 29, 1778, p30 when he was forced to surrender Savannah, Georgia, to a British force. Major General Robert Howe held the highest rank of any North Carolinian serving with the Continental army.
The activities of the North Carolina soldiers were not confined to the South. From 1777 to 1780, soldiers of the State served under General Washington in the North. In June, 1777, a North Carolina brigade under the command of General Francis Nash marched northward and joined the main Continental army. At that time the British army was driving toward the important City of Philadelphia. On September 11th, Washington made a stand against the enemy at Brandywine Creek. Although the Americans were driven back, the newly arrived soldiers from North Carolina won praise for their courage and gallantry in this battle.
A month later, General Washington attacked a British force in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Again, Washington lost the battle, but during the fighting the brigade under General Nash had made the greatest advance of any unit in the American army. The battle cost the North Carolinians their leader. General Nash was carried from the field suffering a mortal wound. Three days later, he died.
After Nash's death, the North Carolinians were placed under the command of General Lachlan McIntosh of Georgia. During the terrible winter of 1777‑1778 they experienced the many hardships suffered by the American army at Valley Forge. During that miserable winter, they lived in crudely-built log huts, with never enough to eat; indeed it was often that they had nothing at all to cook. With their feet frequently wrapped in rags, they huddled around smoky campfires, trying to keep alive until the spring. Some died from the effects of their wounds; far more died as a result of smallpox and other diseases.
Spring finally came, and in June, 1778, the British left Philadelphia and began to march overland to New York. On a hot, sultry June day, General Washington struck them at Monmouth Court House in New Jersey. Once again he failed to defeat the enemy, but once again the North Carolina troops held firm at critical moments in the battle.
The action at Monmouth Court House was the last major battle fought by General Washington in the North. From this time on, the greatest military activity was to be in the South — and North Carolina was destined to feel the hard stamp of war.
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