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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of North Carolina

The Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York, 1919
Volume I by
R. D. W. Connor

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter 20
Committees of Safety

In order to provide an executive authority to enforce its policy, the Provincial Congress of August, 1774, recommended that "a committee of five persons be chosen in each county" for that purpose. The Continental Congress in October recommended a similar system throughout the thirteen colonies. In North Carolina the plan as finally worked out contemplated one committee in each of the towns, one in each of the counties, one in each of the six military districts, and one for the province at large. In all our history there has been nothing else like these committees. Born of necessity, originating in the political and economic confusion of the time, they touched the lives of the people in their most intimate affairs, and gradually extended their jurisdiction until they assumed to themselves all the functions of government. They enforced with vigor the resolves of the Continental and Provincial Congresses, some of which were most exacting in their demands and burdensome in their effects. They conducted inquiries into the actions and opinions of individuals, and not only "determined what acts and opinions constituted a man an enemy of his country, but passed upon his guilt or innocence, and fixed his punishment." They raised money by voluntary subscriptions, fines and assessments for the purchase of gunpowder, arms, and all the other implements of war. The militia had to be enlisted, organized, equipped and drilled. In short, a revolution had to be inaugurated and it fell to these committees to do it. "Usurping some new authority every day, executive, judicial or legislative, as the case might be, their powers soon became practically unlimited." Governor Martin characterized them as "extraordinary tribunals." In every respect they were extraordinary, insurrectionary, revolutionary. Illegally constituted, they assumed such authority as would not have been tolerated in the royal government and received such obedience as the king with all his armies could not have exacted. Yet not only did they not abuse their power, they voluntarily  p355 resigned it when the public welfare no longer needed their services. They were the offspring of misrule and rose and fell with their parent.

Records are extant, in some cases complete, in others very meager, of the organization of committees in eighteen counties and four towns. Especially active and effective were the committees of New Hanover, Rowan, Tryon, Pitt, Craven and Surry counties. The people were thoroughly alive to the importance of the step they took in organizing these committees. The men whom they selected represented the wealth, the intelligence, and the culture of their communities. Some of them achieved eminence in the history of North Carolina. The chairman of the Wilmington-New Hanover committee was Cornelius Harnett. Among his colleagues was William Hooper. Joseph Hewes, like Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a member of the Edenton committee. The dominant spirit of the Halifax committee was Willie Jones, for many years the most distinguished of the radical leaders in the colony. Among the members of the Craven committee was Abner Nash, afterwards governor. Robert Howe, afterwards a major-general in Washington's army, served on the Brunswick committee. Benjamin Cleaveland, famous as one of the "heroes of King's Mountain," was chairman of the Surry committee. Many others scarcely less distinguished served on these "extraordinary tribunals." They were men of approved character and ability. Entrusted with despotic power, they fulfilled their trust with fidelity, exercising tyranny over individuals that they might preserve the liberty of the community. They uniformly discharged their duties with firmness and patience, with prudence and wisdom, and in the interest of the public welfare.

The policy of both the Continental Congress and the Provincial Congress aimed to promote economy and industry, to encourage and stimulate manufactures, to discourage extravagance and luxury, and to enforce the non-importation and non-exportation associations. Upon the committees of safety fell the task of making this policy effective. It was neither an easy nor an agreeable task, for some features of the policy were extremely irritating in their operations and at times produced restlessness among the people. It required as much tact as determination for the committees to execute their orders with vigor without at the same time losing the support of their constituents. In this double task they met with a remarkable degree of success. "Agreeable to the Resolves of the Continental Congress," Surry County undertook to "suppress all  p356 Immorality and Vice, and all kinds of sporting, Gaming, Betting or Wagering whatsoever." Although the New Hanover committee strictly enforced the resolves against "expensive diversions and entertainments," forbidding horse-races, billiards, dancing and other amusements, the people submitted without complaint. "Nothing," declared the committee, "will so effectually tend to convince the British Parliament that we are in earnest in opposition to their measures, as a voluntary relinquishment of our favorite amusements. * * * Many will cheerfully part with part of their property to secure the remainder. He only is the determined patriot who willingly sacrifices his pleasures on the altar of freedom." An interesting experiment was initiated by the committee of Chowan County which undertook to rase a fund to be used "for the encouragement of Manufactures," securing £80 sterling "for that laudable purpose." Premiums were accordingly offered for the first output in the province within eighteen months of 500 pairs of wool cards and a like number of cotton cards and for the first 2,000 pounds of steel "fit for edged tool," all of which the committee obligated itself to purchase at a good profit. These premiums, said the committee, were "too inconsiderable" in themselves to induce any person to establish such manufactories but it offered them in the hope that other counties, "stimulated by the same laudable motives to promote industry," would increase them by offering similar rewards. Many of the committees found it necessary to take a determined stand to prevent profiteering in such essential articles as salt, steel, and gunpowder, not only by fixing prices, but also by seizing for public use such supplies as were found within their jurisdictions.

One of the most important phases of the work of the committees of safety was the enforcement of the Non-Importation Association. Large quantities of goods were imported in violation either of the spirit or of the letter of the prohibition — some by merchants who had ordered them before the prohibition became effective, some were brought in only in technical violation of the resolve, while others were imported by disloyal merchants purposely to test the determination of the patriots. All alike was seized and sold at public auction for the benefit of the public fund. "The safety of the people is, or ought to be, the supreme law," wrote a Wilmington merchant whose goods were thus seized; "the gentlemen of the committee will judge whether this law, or any act of Parliament, should, at this particular time, operate in North Carolina." Some Cape Fear planters who thought upon one pretext  p357 or another to get around the resolve forbidding the importation of slaves, were promptly summoned before the New Hanover committee to "give a particular account" of their conduct, and as promptly required to re-ship their negroes out of the province by the first opportunity. When Parliament, in an effort to break up the Continental Association, passed an act "to restrain the trade and commerce" of certain colonies, from which North Carolina and some others were exempted, the Wilmington-New Hanover joint-committees at a largely attended meeting "resolved, unanimously, that the exception of this colony, and some others, out of the said act, is a mean and base artifice, to seduce them into a desertion of the common cause of America"; and therefore determined "that we will not accept of the advantages insidiously thrown out by the said act, but will strictly adhere to such plans as have been, and shall be, entered into by the Honorable Continental Congress, so as to keep up a perfect unanimity with our sister colonies."

In their work the committees met with just enough opposition to enable them to make a display of firmness and energy. Neither wealth nor position could purchase immunity from their inquisition, neither poverty nor obscurity was accepted as an excuse for disobedience. Social and commercial ostracism was the favorite weapon, and few there were with spirit and courage determined enough to withstand it. Andrew Miller, a prominent merchant of Halifax, refusing to sign the Association, the committee though composed of his neighbors and former friends resolved to have "no commerce or dealing" with him and to "recommend it to the people of this County in particular and to all who wish well of their Country to adopt the same measure." Governor Martin cited this incident to the ministry as evidence "of the spirit of these extraordinary Tribunals." Three merchants of Edenton, who had imported goods contrary to the Association, were summoned before the Chowan County committee, required publicly to acknowledge their fault and to promise obedience in the future. Craven County committee ordered that all persons who refused to sign the Association be disarmed. The sanctity of the church itself failed to serve as a cloak to cover disaffection and disloyalty. Rev. James Reed, missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and rector at New Bern, refusing to conduct service on the Fast Day set apart by the Continental Congress, the Craven committee severely censured him for "deserting his congregation," and requested the vestry to suspend him "from his ministerial  p358 function"; while the Rowan County committee compelled a Baptist preacher named Cook who had signed a "protest against the cause of Liberty," to appear and express his regret "in the most explicit and humiliating Terms." When the Wilmington committee submitted to the people of Wilmington a test pledging the signers to "observe strictly" the Continental Association, eleven of the most prominent men in the community refused to sign. They were promptly ostracized as "unworthy of the rights of freemen and as inimical to the liberties of their country"; and held up before the public that they might be "treated with the contempt they deserve." There were no braver men than some of those cut off from their fellows, but they could not stand out against the open scorn of their neighbors; within less than a week eight of their number gave way and subscribed the test. The committee justified their course as being "a cement of allegiance" to the Crown and as "having a tendency to promote a constitutional attachment for the mother country."

But in May, 1775, the last bond of such allegiance was snapped, and the last sentiment of such attachment destroyed, by news that came from Massachusetts. American blood had been shed at Lexington and through the colonies expresses rode day and night, carrying the news of the battle, of the rising of the minute-men, and of the retreat from Concord. In no other way did the committees of safety give a better illustration of their usefulness than in the transmission of this news. From colony to colony, from town to town, from committee to committee, they hurried it along. New York received the dispatches at midday, New Brunswick at midnight. They aroused Princeton at 3 o'clock in the morning. Trenton read them at daybreak, Philadelphia at noon. They reached Baltimore at bed-time, Alexandria at the breakfast hour. Three days and nights the expresses rode on, down the Potomac, across the Rappahannock, the York and the James, through scenes since made famous, and on to Edenton. Edenton received the dispatches at 9 A.M., May 4th, and hurried them on to Bath with the injunction to "disperse the material passages through all your parts." Bath hastened them on to New Bern with a message to send them forward "with the utmost dispatch." "Send them on as soon as possible to the Wilmington Committee," directed New Bern to Onslow. "Disperse them to your adjoining counties," echoed Onslow to Wilmington. At 3 o'clock P.M., May 8th, the messenger delivered his dispatches to  p359 Cornelius Harnett, chairman of the Wilmington committee. Delaying just long enough to make copies, Harnet urged him on to Brunswick. "If you should be at a loss for a man and horse," he wrote to the Brunswick committee, "the bearer will proceed as far as the Boundary House. You will please direct Mr. Marion or any other gentleman to forward the packet immediately to the Southward with the greatest possible dispatch. * * * For God's sake send the man on without the least delay and write to Mr. Marion to forward it by night and day." Brunswick received the papers six hours later and although it was then "9 o'clock in the evening" the chairman of the committee urged the bearer onward to Isaac Marion at Boundary House to whom he wrote: "I must entreat you to forward them to your community [committee] at Georgetown to be conveyed to Charlestown from yours with all speed." Thus the news was sped to the southward, inspiring the forward, stirring the backward, and arousing the continent. The committees made the most of their opportunity. Governor Martin complained that the rebel leaders received the news more than a month before he did, and that he received it "too late to operate against the infamous and false reports of that transaction which were circulated to this distance from Boston in the space of 12 or 13 days." The first impression took "deep root in the minds of the vulgar here universally and wrought a great change in the face of things, confirming the seditious in their evil purposes, and bringing over vast numbers of the fickle, wavering and unsteady multitude to their party."

The battle of Lexington was the beginning of war. For this result the patriots of North Carolina were not wholly unprepared, for the committees had made efforts to be ready for "the worst contingencies." The Rowan committee seized all the gunpowder in Salisbury. Tryon County raised money to purchase powder for the public use. Surry ordered that if any members of the committee "should find out any Ammunition in this county they shall be justifiable in securing the same for the Public Service." Other committees were no less active in this essential work. The most effective work was done by the Wilmington-New Hanover committees which foresaw that the first armed conflict in North Carolina would probably come on the Cape Fear, and determined to be prepared for it. They required the merchants to sell their gunpowder to the committees for the public use, they bought it from other committees, imported it from other colonies, and employed agents to manufacture it. They hired men to  p360 mould bullets. They seized the public arms, and they compelled every person who owned more than one gun to surrender all but one for the public service. They smuggled arms and ammunition from other colonies and the West Indies in such quantities that Governor Martin lamented "that effectual steps have not been taken to intercept the supplies of warlike stores that * * * are frequently brought into this colony", and asked for three or four cruisers to guard the coast, for the sloop stationed at Fort Johnston "is not sufficient to attend to the smugglers in this [Cape Fear] river alone." The committees also undertook to re-organize the militia. Rowan called for 1,000 volunteers to "be ready at the shortest Notice to march out to Action." The Pitt County committee required the militia companies to choose new officers to be approved by the committee. The Wilmington committee required "every white man capable of bearing arms" to enlist in one of the companies that had been organized; and early in July, 1775, gave as one reason for a provincial congress which Harnett, Ashe and Howe urged Johnston to call, "that a number of men should be raised and kept in pay for the defense of the country." So active and successful were the committees in organizing military companies that Governor Martin issued a proclamation denouncing the "evil minded persons" who were "endeavouring to engage the People to subscribe papers obliging themselves to be prepared with Arms, to array themselves in companies, and to submit to the illegal and usurped authorities of Committees."

Nor were the committees unmindful of the necessity of preparing the minds of the people for war. In this respect, too, success crowned their efforts. Even historians who think North Carolina did not give "general and heroic support to the cause of independence," declare that at the outbreak of the Revolution the people were "aroused to an extraordinary degree of enthusiasm."​1 This enthusiasm Governor Martin charged particularly to the committees of safety. To Lord Dartmouth he wrote on June 30, 1775, that the people "freely talk of Hostility toward Britain in the language of Aliens and avowed Enemies," and later he attributed this spirit to "the influence of Committees" which, he said, "hath been so extended over the Inhabitants of the Lower part [Cape Fear section] of this Country, * * *  p361 and they are at this day to the distance of an hundred miles from the Sea Coast, so generally possessed with the spirit of revolt" that the spirits of the loyal and well effective to Government droop and decline daily" while "the authority, the edicts and ordinances of Congresses, Conventions and Committees are established supreme and omnipotent by general acquiescence or forced submission, and lawful Government is completely annihilated."

Martin wrote these dispatches from Fort Johnston at the mouth of Cape Fear River where, frightened from the Palace at New Bern by the New Bern committee, he had taken refuge. His flight was one of the turning points in the revolutionary movement in North Carolina; it closed the last door against reconciliation. To trace the events which induced him to take this extraordinary step, we must turn back to the beginning of the year 1775. It must not be supposed that the people of North Carolina were a unit in support of the revolutionary movement. The movement received its chief strength from the eastern counties where men of English descent, trained in English institutions and imbued with English ideals of government, predominated, and from the counties which had been largely settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants whose religious principles and church organizations had given them training in democratic ideals and institutions. But from the Scotch-Highlanders and the Germans, neither of whom understood what the quarrel was about, it received scant sympathy, while the old Regulators naturally distrusted a cause which counted among its most conspicuous advocates the author of the "Riot Act" and those who, acting under its authority, had but recently so completely crushed their own revolt against oppression. By the opening of the year 1775 these elements of the population began to make themselves heard. Addresses signed by 1,500 inhabitants of Rowan, Surry, Guilford, Anson and other inland counties, expressing the utmost loyalty to the king and utter detestation of all revolutionary proceedings, were sent in to the governor, who received similar assurances from the Scotch-Highlanders along the Upper Cape Fear.

Encouraged by these evidences of loyalty, Martin began to contemplate a more aggressive policy. On March 16th, therefore, he wrote to General Thomas Gage, at Boston, "if your Excellency shall assist me with two or three Stands of arms and good store of ammunition, * * * I will be answerable to maintain the Sovereignty of this Country to his Majesty if the present spirit of resistance * * * shall urge matters  p362 to the extremity that the people of New England seem to be meditating." While Martin was anxiously awaiting Gage's reply, events in North Carolina hastened to a climax. In April met the last royal Assembly and the second Provincial Congress, and in May came news of the battle of Lexington. Rumors were afloat that the governor contemplated armed action against the people, and it was whispered here and there that he was even planning to arm the slaves against their masters. Everywhere the people were arming, organizing companies and drilling for war. "The Inhabitants of this Country on the Sea Coast," wrote Martin, from New Bern, May 18th, "are * * * arming men, electing officers and so forth. In this little Town they are now actually endeavouring to form what they call independent Companies under my nose, and Civil Government becomes more and more prostrate every day." While everybody's nerves were on an edge from these events and rumors, Martin's action in dismantling some cannon at the Palace in New Bern so alarmed the New Bern committee that it set a watch over him to report his every movement. In the latter part of May a messenger from the governor of New York arrived at the Palace and sought an interview with Martin. From him Martin learned that Gage had complied with his request and ordered arms and ammunition to be sent to him from New York. Whether they would be sent by a man-of‑war or by a merchant ship Martin's informant could not say, but thought probably by the latter as the people of the northern colonies had a mistaken idea of the loyalty of the people of the South. This information was exceedingly disconcerting. Martin felt certain that the supplies, unless brought by a war vessel, would be seized by the committees as he himself "had not a man to protect them." He was also greatly perturbed by rumors that the committees in all the colonies were planning to seize the persons of the royal governors. Prompt action, therefore, was necessary to save his military supplies and to assure his personal safety. His decision was perhaps wise from a personal point of view, but disastrous to his cause. Sending his family in haste to New York, and dispatching his secretary to Ocracoke Inlet, the entrance to the port of New Bern, to prevent the supply ship from entering there, he himself fled in secret to the protection of the guns of Fort Johnston.

Martin reached Fort Johnston on June 2d, and began at once to concoct new schemes for reducing the province to obedience. His activity took the form of a thundering proclamation,  p363 in which he denounced the committees of safety and warned the people against their illegal proceedings; of an application to General Gage for a royal standard around which the loyal and faithful might rally; and of an elaborate plan for the organization of the Highlanders and Regulators of the interior for military service. His plans were approved by the king who promised such assistance as might be necessary. They gave great alarm to the Whigs. "Our situation here is truly alarming," wrote the Wilmington committee; "the Governor [is] collecting men, provisions, warlike stores of every kind, spiriting up the back country, and perhaps the Slaves; finally strengthening the fort with new works in such a manner as may make the Capture of it extremely difficult." "Nothing," declared Harnett, "shall be wanting on our part to disconcert such diabolical schemes." The committee kept such close watch over his movements that Martin declared no messenger or letter could escape them. They intercepted his dispatches, frustrated his plans, and in general made life so miserable for him that he bemoaned his situation as "most despicable and mortifying to any man of greater feelings than a Stoic." "I daily see indignantly, the Sacred Majesty of my Royal Master insulted, the Rights of His Crown denied and violated, His Government set at naught and trampled upon, his servants of highest dignity reviled, traduced, abused, the Rights of His Subjects destroyed by the most arbitrary usurpations, and the whole Constitution unhinged and prostrate, and I live, alas! ingloriously only to deplore it."

On June 20th, the committees of New Hanover, Brunswick, Bladen, Duplin, and Onslow counties, in session at Wilmington, declared that the governor had "by the whole tenor of his conduct, since the unhappy disputes between Great Britain and the colonies, discovered himself to be an enemy to the happiness of this colony in particular, and to the freedom, rights and privileges of America in general." Determined, therefore, to treat him as an enemy, the Wilmington committee passed an order forbidding any communications with him. Expulsion from the province was the logical result of this order, and the leaders were soon ready to take this step also. In a letter to Samuel Johnston, July 13th, urging him to call a provincial convention, the Wilmington committee said: "We have a number of Enterprising young fellows that would attempt to take the fort [Fort Johnston], but are much afraid of having their Conduct disavowed by the Convention." But what these "enterprising young fellows" were afraid to attempt, Cornelius Harnett, John Ashe and Robert Howe made  p364 up their minds to do. Captain John Collet, the commander of the fort, who felt all the professional soldier's contempt for the militia and all the Britisher's contempt for the provincials, took no pains to conceal his feelings. A long series of studied insults had exasperated the people of the Cape Fear against him, but they had borne them all patiently. But now news came that at Governor Martin's command, he was preparing the fort "for the reception of a promised reinforcement," the arrival of which would be the signal for the erection of the king's standard. The committee regarded this as a declaration of war, and "having taken these things into consideration, judged it might be of the most pernicious consequences to the people at large, if the said John Collet should be suffered to remain in the Fort, as he might thereby have an opportunity of carrying his iniquitous schemes into execution." They accordingly called for volunteers to take the fort, and in response "a great many volunteers were immediately collected."

The committee's preparations alarmed Governor Martin. Nobody realized better than he that the fort could not be held against a determined attack. Yet its defense was a matter of honor and its surrender would have a bad effect in the province. Besides it held artillery "considerable in value," with a quantity of movable stores and ammunition. "Its Artillery which is heavy," wrote Martin, "might in the hands of the Mob be turned against the King's Ship, and so annoy her as to oblige her to quit her present station which is most convenient in all respects." Then, too, an unsuccessful defense meant the capture of the governor himself. In this perplexing situation, Martin decided to remove the stores to a transport, to withdraw the garrison, dismantle the fortifications, and seek refuge on board the Cruizer. These plans he successfully carried into effect on July 16th. Almost at the very hours of his flight, Lord Dartmouth was writing to him: "I hope His Majesty's Government in North Carolina may be preserved, and His Governor and other officers not reduced to the disgraceful necessity of seeking protection on Board the King's Ships."

Smarting keenly under his disgrace, Martin hastened to put on record the punishment he desired to inflict on those most responsible for it. From the cabin of the "Cruizer, Sloop of War, in Cape Fear River," July 16th, he wrote to Lord Dartmouth:

"Hearing of a Proclamation of the King, proscribing John Hancock and Sam[ue]l Adams of the Massachusetts Bay, and seeing clearly that further proscriptions will be necessary before Government can be settled again upon sure Foundations  p365 in America, I hold it my indispensable duty to mention to your Lordship Cornelius Harnett, John Ashe, Robert Howes​2 and Abner Nash, as persons who have marked themselves out as proper objects for such distinction in this Colony by their unremitted labours to promote sedition and rebellion here from the beginning of the discontents in America to this time, that they stand foremost among the patrons of revolt and anarchy."

Rumors of Martin's plans at Fort Johnston having reached the committees of New Hanover and Brunswick, they determined to take steps to prevent their execution. A call for volunteers was promptly answered by 500 minute-men. Before setting out for the fort, Col. John Ashe, who commanded the New Hanover contingent, dispatched to Governor Martin a declaration of their purpose. The fort, he said, had been built and maintained by the people of the province to protect them in time of war and to aid their trade and navigation in time of peace, but these ends had been defeated by Captain Collet. He had illegally invaded the rights and property of private persons by wantonly detaining vessels applying for bills of health; by threatening vengeance against magistrates whose actions in the execution of the duties of their offices he happened to disapprove; by setting at defiance the high sheriff of the county in the execution of his office; by treating the king's writs served on him for just debts with shameful contempt and insult; by unparalleled injustice in detaining and embezzling a large quantity of goods which having been unfortunately wrecked near the fort, had from every principle of humanity the highest claims to his attention and care for the benefit of the unhappy sufferers; by his base encouragement of slaves to elope from their masters and his atrocious and horrid declaration that he would incite them to insurrection. These things, and many others of like character, had excited the indignation and resentment of the people but they had submitted to them for a time in the hopes that the Assembly would grant relief; but now they learned that Captain Collet was dismantling the fort and they proposed to prevent it. Replying to this communication, Martin declared that Captain Collet was acting at his command and he hoped, therefore, the people would not proceed with their design of attacking the fort.

 p366  John Ashe's answer was an order to all the masters and commanders of ships in the Cape Fear to furnish their boats to convey his men and arms down the river to Fort Johnston. On July 18th, 500 minute-men under his command rendezvoused at Brunswick and during the night marched on the fort and applied the torch. Early in the morning of July 19th, Martin was aroused from his quarters on the Cruizer by the announcement that Fort Johnston was on fire. Hurrying to the deck he watched the rapid spread of the flames as they reduced the fort to ashes. The "rabble," he wrote, burned several houses that had been erected by Captain Collet, and thus, in the words of the Wilmington committee, "effectually dislodged that atrocious Freebooter." "Mr. John Ashe and Mr. Cornelius Harnett," wrote the enraged governor, "were ring-leaders of this savage and audacious mob."

The Author's Notes:

1 Dodd, W. E.: "North Carolina in the Revolution," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. I, p156.

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2 "Robert Howes," wrote Martin, "is commonly called Howe, he having impudently assumed that name for some years past in affectation of the noble family that bears it, whose least eminent virtues have ever been far beyond his imitation." Col. Rec., Vol. X, p98.

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