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This webpage reproduces an article in
South Atlantic Quarterly
Vol. 1 No. 2 (Apr. 1902), pp156‑161

The text is in the public domain.

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p156 North Carolina in the Revolution

By Professor William E. Dodd, Ph. D.

Whatever may be said of North Carolina's devotion to the cause of the Confederacy in 1860‑65, and no people ever sacrificed more (Prussia sent about the same proportion of her population to the wars of Frederic the Great, 1756‑63), it can not be said that she gave general and heroic support to the cause of Independence. No State played other than a selfish role in our first war. It was not a nation's struggle but that of a large faction of the nation — a war waged by fits and starts and not by the greatness and heroism of one man. Foreign students are not wide of the mark when they say that Washington was the only great, heroic figure in all that seven years drama of Liberty. No comparison can be made between the behavior of our fathers in 1776 and the people of Holland in the sixteenth century, when a whole people rose in arms and continued in arms during the lifetime of three generations, paying half their total income into the coffers of the State. In America it was the self-sacrifice and co‑operation of a few far‑seeing individuals that gained the struggle. The people remained at home and systematic taxation was almost unknown. Nathaniel Macon was one of these people and the motives which kept him quietly studying law at Bute Court House during the years of 1777‑80 were the same which kept most other North Carolinians at home, the same which prompted the Connecticut militia to go trooping back to their farms as soon as Washington's army crossed the Hudson in 1776.

At the outbreak of the Revolution North Carolina, like most of the other States, was aroused to an extraordinary degree of enthusiasm. The Royal Governor, Josiah Martin, was supplanted at once, as many another had been in the history of the State; a new government was speedily set up and within twelve months ten thousand troops were enlisted and actually in service, some in Virginia, others in South Carolina and several regiments in the Continental army in the North. Great zeal for the popular cause was manifested; elections were held every six months and when the first Provincial Congress assembled not a member was absent. p157There were then in North Carolina nearly three hundred thousand inhabitants which gives a fighting population of about sixty thousand. Ten thousand volunteers was a creditable contribution to the general cause; but it did not represent by any means the military strength of the new government, and this too when the country was ablaze with patriotic ardor. The following year the zeal of the people was cooling and in 1778 the total number of privates in Washington's army from North Carolina was nine hundred; of officers there were five hundred and fifty all unwilling to serve regularly except as officers in their full rank. At home James Iredell gave up this year a Superior Court judgeship because the emoluments were insufficient; Samuel Johnston, his brother-in‑law, refused to serve as State treasurer though he admitted that the emoluments were ample. William Hooper, too, resigned his seat in the Continental Congress. In order to fill the vicinities in the ranks of the North Carolina regiments, the Continental Congress offered bounties of one hundred dollars each for volunteers, but without success. Then the State was called on to fill up her quota, and twenty-six hundred and forty men were ordered to be drafted from the militia for terms of nine months with the promise of exemption from further service during a period of three years, and in addition a bounty of fifty dollars was guaranteed each man. All these rewards were designed to make the drafting less odious and to encourage faithful service at least for the short term. The increase in the number of North Carolinians in the national service as a result of these recruiting measures was by the end of the year four hundred men and officers. Several additional companies were raised and were during the autumn of 1778 encamped at Salisbury, Hillsboro, and one or two other points; but when Congress failed to send its promised bounties promptly, most of the troops returned to their homes on furlough — a semblance of discipline this last. In 1779, and after the news of Saratoga and of the French alliance had permeated the State, this same indifference continued. During the spring and summer of that year an effort was made to send a strong force to South Carolina for the relief of Savannah. General Sumner, of Warren, the ranking general in North Carolina, was put in command. Seven hundred and fifty-seven of the furlough men above mentioned joined him; of which four hundred p158and twenty‑one were on hand when it came to an actual engagement. On April 10 the nine-months term of the men expired and notwithstanding the great needs of the situation and the urgent entreaties of their commanders to re‑enlist, every man, we are told, set out for his home. This kind of service continued unimproved until 1780.1 But serious as this was it was not worse in North Carolina than in New York and New Jersey during the same years. The Pennsylvania farmers, too, fought in the same way. These healthy and wealthy Germans, with their neighbors, listened carefully for news from Washington's army, and when it appeared that the Americans were about to win a speedy success, they set out troops for the front; but if bad news met them on the way, they disappeared like prairie dogs among their native hills.2 Without question the cause of the supine support of the great national movement by the people of North Carolina was the neutralization of the forces of the patriots: (1) by the effects of the War of Regulation in 1767‑71, (2) by the presence of large numbers of Scottish Royalists in the middle and upper Cape Fear regions, (3) by the opponents of democratic government, i.e. by the influence of a determined minority led by Hooper, Johnston, Iredell and others.

1. The War of Regulation was the result of unjust taxation and oppressive methods of collecting the same. The East, wealthy and populous, was divided into plantations which were cultivated by negro slaves; the West, poor and also populous, was composed of small farms whose owners did all their own work, receiving for their produce very small incomes after the great expense of carrying it to distant markets was deducted. The east was an oligarchy; the west a democracy. The ancient method of raising the revenue for the expenses of the province had been by levying a uniform poll tax. As the difference between the two sections of the province became greater the more unjust did this method of taxation appear. The west after years of petition and complaint raised the standard of revolt in 1769. This first opposition p159to the east was compromised and apparently settled by the shrewd and able Governor Tryon. But when conditions grew steadily worse and to injustice was added systematic extortion the revolt broke out afresh in 1771 with three thousand men in arms. Tryon called on the eastern counties for sufficient quotas of troops which were cheerfully granted. May 16, 1771 the governor, with most of the great plantation owners of the east as his lieutenants, completely defeated and routed the Regulators. Speedy and bloody execution was administered to the more important leaders who could be apprehended. An ironclad oath was forced upon the people of the disaffected district which included Orange, Guilford, and parts of Rowan and Granville counties — a population of at least twenty thousand souls. The east triumphed over the west. When the Revolution broke out these people bound by most solemn oaths and smarting under the injustice of recent proceedings, remained, most of them, neutral; and some actually enlisted under the royal standard. This caused the neutralization of a large section of the State, which is not difficult to understand when it is remembered that the same men who commanded in Tryon's army in 1771 were commanding divisions of the Patriot army in 1776. The best short account of the Regulator War yet published is that by Colonel Saunders in his Prefatory Notes to the North Carolina records, Vol. VIII. Mr. Marshall De Lancey Haywood has in press a fuller account of this movement.

2. The defeat of the Scots in 1715 began the migration of that sturdy race to North Carolina; but the final overthrow of their armies at Culloden in 1746 broke forever the spirit of revolt and sent thousands in quest of new homes in the west. Large numbers settled in the Cape Fear regions of North Carolina. They had all taken the stringent oath of allegiance to the House of Hanover, either before they set out for America or before they were granted lands in Carolina. The Scotch were royalists and had suffered untold miseries in defense of the rights of the Stuarts. Their cause was hopelessly lost and they accepted the Georges, it seems, in good faith on condition of oblivion of the past and the possession of lands in their adopted country. They occupied Cumberland (significant name for the Scotch) and neighboring counties embracing most of the lands lying between Bladen and p160Rowan counties and extending southward to the borders of South Carolina. When Governor Martin was expelled from the State and proclaimed, like King James II in 1689, "abdicated," the Scotch made Martin's cause their own, as their ancestors had done for the House of Stuart. Wheeler tries to prove them good patriots by producing an intensely revolutionary document signed by leading citizens of Cumberland; but a glance at the signatures discovers not a single "Mac" or a Campbell, which disproves the proof. February 27, 1776 it came to a pitched battle at Moore's Creek Bridge some miles below Fayetteville. Two thousand Highlanders, as they were still termed, were overwhelmed by an inferior force of whigs. The victory was so complete and the tide of whig enthusiasm throughout the east and north so strong that no more attempts were made by the Scotch to assist the royal cause for some time to come. There were, too, in their midst so many older settlers who sided with the Revolutionists that any general movement was very difficult. Nevertheless the presence of so many staunch friends of the House of Hanover neutralized a large amount of the State's strength and this the more completely since the disaffected region was contiguous to that of the humiliated Regulators and to the tory counties of South Carolina.

3. A very respectable party of the whigs, who had assisted the American national movement in its beginning when petitioning for redress of grievances with the avowed object of organized opposition, was alienated when men began to speak of independence and a democratic republic, or a number of republics. Many of the most respectable and best educated people of upper eastern North Carolina, with Samuel Johnston as their leader, either secretly advocated continued obedience to England or publicly supported the most conservative measures. A similar party existed in and about Wilmington, with William Hooper as their leader, and this was the ground for Jefferson's later declaration that Hooper was a great tory, and of course it was known that all Hooper's brothers openly supported the royal cause. These conservatives were strong enough to name the delegates to the Continental Congress during the earlier years of the war, Hooper being the leading delegate. Johnston's defeat in his plan of controlling the Hillsboro convention, and his more open defeat in Chowan for a p161seat in the Halifax convention so disappointed him that he was from that time on what would be called in modern times a "disgruntled politician" and was continually objecting and complaining in his retirement at every step taken by the dominant party. He refused to meet concessions made to him in the form of the most lucrative office in the gift of the government, as has been said. What Johnston thought, a numerous party of family and political connections living in all parts of the State also thought. Now the Revolutionary war was pre‑eminently a war of leaders, and the popular enthusiasm seldom extended beyond State lines. With several wealthy, educated, and able men leading a positive opposition to the main measures of the new government, or even a passive opposition, which no one will dispute, at that critical juncture of our political development, it was well-nigh impossible to enforce energetic plans.

Geographically considered the patriots had actual control of only a small portion of North Carolina — the Southside, i.e., a section of country containing a population of some seventy to eighty thousand people. But its central county boasted that it had not a tory within its borders. The upper Cape Fear and the Regulator country to the neighborhood of Guilford Court House was the scene of almost constant civil strife during most of the Revolutionary war. This cut off from actual co‑operation with the northern part of the State the bold Mecklenburgers and the Catawba backwoodsmen. South Carolina, too, was the home of disaffection, and lying contiguous to the royalist counties in North Carolina, the strength of the tories was through it much increased.

These influences, a half spiteful neutrality or open opposition on the part of the Regulators, positive and organized support of the British cause by the Scotch, and a paralyzing influence of lukewarm leaders, combined with intensely local patriotism, were the causes of the almost shameful lethargy of North Carolina during the long period of 1777 to 1780.


The Author's Notes:

1 N. C. State Records XIII and XIV Prefatory note. The statements above made are borne out by numerous documents all through these volumes.

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2 Letters of David Griffith to Levan Powell Randolph-Macon Historical Studies.


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