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Upon the adjournment of the second Provincial Congress, April 7, 1775, authority was given to John Harvey, or in the event of his death to Samuel Johnston, to call another Congress whenever it became necessary. Harvey dying in May, the leadership of the revolutionary party devolved upon Johnston. Although a native of Scotland, Johnston had passed his life since early infancy in North Carolina, and felt for the colony all the affection and loyalty that men usually feel only for the land of their nativity. His public career, which began in 1759 with his election to represent Chowan County in the General Assembly, covered a period of forty-four years and embraced every branch of the public service. He was legislator, delegate to four provincial congresses, president of two constitutional conventions, member of the Continental Congress, judge, governor, United States senator. By inheritance, by training and by conviction he was a conservative in politics. He clung tenaciously to the things that were and viewed with apprehension, if not with distrust, any departure from the beaten path of experience. Holding the principles of the British Constitution in great reverence, he regarded the policies of the British ministry toward America as revolutionary in their tendency, and therefore threw the whole weight of his influence against them.
In the great crises of our history, immediately preceding and immediately following the Revolution, Johnston saw perhaps more clearly than any of his colleagues the true nature of the problem confronting them. This problem was, on the one hand, to preserve in America the fundamental principles of English liberty against the encroachments of the British Parliament, and on the other, to secure the guarantees of law and order against the well-meant but ill-considered schemes of honest but ignorant reformers. For a full quarter of a century he pursued both of these ends so patiently and persistently that neither the wrath of a royal governor, threatening p369 withdrawal of royal favor and deprivation of office, nor the fierce and passionate denunciations of party leaders, menacing him with loss of popular support and defeat at the polls, could swerve him a hair's breath from the path of what he considered the public good. He had in the fullest degree that rarest of all virtues in men who serve the public, courage — courage to fight the battles of the people, if need be, against the people themselves. While he never questioned the right of the people to decide public questions as they chose, he frequently doubted the wisdom of their decisions; and when such doubt arose in his mind he spoke his sentiments without fear or favor, maintaining his positions with a relentlessness in reasoning that generally carried conviction and out of defeat wrung ultimate victory. More than once in his public career the people, when confronted by his immovable will, in fits of party passion, discarded his leadership for that of more compliant leaders, but only in their calmer moments to turn to him again to point the way out of the mazes into which their inexperience had led them. An ample fortune made him independent of public office. He possessed a vigorous and penetrating intellect, seasoned with sound and varied learning. "His powerful frame," says McRee, "was a fit engine for the vigorous intellect that gave it animation. Strength was his characteristic. In his relations to the public an inflexible sense of duty and justice dominated. There was a remarkable degree of self-reliance and majesty about the man. His erect carriage and his intolerance of indolence, meanness, vice and wrong gave him an air of sternness. He commanded the respect and admiration, but not the love of the people."1
From a portrait
Such was the man upon whose shoulders now fell the mantle of John Harvey. It became necessary for him to exercise the authority with which he was clothed sooner than expected. The flight of the governor left the province without a government or a constitutional method of calling an Assembly. The battle of Lexington, followed by the destruction of Fort Johnston, produced a state of war. Both sides, recognizing this fact, were straining every nerve to get ready for the conflict. The situation, therefore, called for a larger authority than had been granted to the committees of safety. A new government had to be formed, a currency devised, an army organized, munitions of war collected, and a system of defense planned; and all these preparations had to be made p370 with a view to continental as well as to provincial affairs. The leaders of the Whig party on the Cape Fear were required daily to exercise authority and accept responsibilities that exceeded the powers granted them; and they realized earlier than their friends elsewhere the necessity for organizing a government that could act independently of the royal authority. Only a general congress could provide this government. Accordingly on May 31, 1775, Howe, Harnett and Ashe joined in a letter to Samuel Johnston — Harvey having died a few days before — suggesting that he call a congress "as soon as possible." Johnston, however, thought the suggestion premature, and was reluctant to take a step that would widen still further the breach with the royal government. Besides the Assembly had been summoned to meet July 12, and he thought it wise not to call a convention until then, as "many members of the Assembly would probably be chosen to serve in convention." But at his quiet home on the Albemarle, Johnston failed to appreciate the situation on the Cape Fear, where a state of war practically existed, and he hesitated. "I expect my Conduct in not immediately calling a Provincial Congress," he wrote, "will be much censured by many, but being conscious of having discharged my duty according to my best Judgment I shall be the better able to bear it." The Cape Fear leaders became impatient. On June 29, Howe, Harnett and Ashe wrote again to Johnston, taking him to task for his delay. "The circumstances of the times," and "the expectations of the people," they thought, ought to determine his conduct. The people, wrote the Wilmington committee, were "Continually clamouring for a Provincial Convention. They hope everything from its Immediate Session, fear everything from its delay." In the meantime Governor Martin prorogued the Assembly. Thereupon other committees joined in the request for a convention. Thus pressed, Johnston yielded and issued his call for a Congress to meet at Hillsboro, August 20th.
Nothing shows the progress that had been made toward revolution during the year more clearly than the full attendance at this Congress. Just a year, lacking but five days, had passed since the first Congress met at New Bern. At that Congress seventy-one delegates were present, while five county and three towns sent no representatives. But in the Hillsboro Congress of August, 1775, every county and every borough town were represented, and 184 delegates were present. No abler body of men ever sat in North Carolina. More than p371 half of them had served in the Assembly or in the first two Congresses. Among them were Johnston, Caswell, Howe, Hooper, Hewes, Burke, Harnett, John Ashe, Abner Nash and Willie Jones. Appearing for the first time in a revolutionary assemblage were Samuel Ashe, afterwards governor; Joseph Winston and Frederick Hambright, distinguished among the heroes of King's Mountain; Francis Nash, who fell gloriously leading his brigade at Germantown; Thomas Polk, Waightstill Avery, John McNitt Alexander, and their Mecklenburg colleagues, fresh from setting up a county government "independent of the Crown of Great Britain and former constitution of this Province"; John Penn, a recent arrival from Virginia, whose name is indissolubly associated with those of Hooper and Hewes as signers of the Declaration of Independence; Jethro Sumner and James Hogun, soldiers whose services on the battlefield helped to make that Declaration good. The Congress organized by the election of Samuel Johnston "president" — a significant change in the title of its presiding officer.
The delegates brought to their deliberations a spirit and a point of view almost national. No such thing as a truly national sentiment existed in America at that time, but the Hillsboro Congress approached it as nearly as any body that had yet assembled in the colonies. Among their first acts was to approve anew the Continental Association which the first Continental Congress had recommended, and to adopt and subscribe a test denying the right of Parliament "to impose Taxes upon these Colonies to regulate the internal police thereof"; declaring that "the people of this province, singly and collectively, are bound by the Acts and resolutions of the Continental and Provincial Congresses, because in both they are freely represented by persons chosen by themselves;" and solemnly binding themselves to support and maintain the policies and plans of the Continental Congress. Since the Continental Congress had resolved to raise an army and to emit $3,000,000 for its support, the Provincial Congress resolved unanimously that North Carolina would bear her proportionate share of the burden and made provision for the redemption of the sum allotted to her by the Continental Congress, and also authorized the raising and organization of two regiments of Continental troops. Throughout its proceedings, in its appeals to the people, in the organization of an army, and in the formation of a provisional government, p372 the one clear note sounding above all others was "the common cause of America."
Although the delegates were unanimous in expressing this sentiment, there was no such unanimity among the people, and Governor Martin had been alarmingly successful in his efforts to arouse and organize the disaffected elements. His agents were especially active among the former Regulators and Highlanders. Hillsboro and Cross Creek, therefore, were the chief centers of disaffection to the American cause. The Whig leaders, of course, recognized the importance of counteracting Governor Martin's influence in these sections. This was the chief reason for changing the meeting place of Congress from New Bern to Hillsboro. Immediately after organizing, therefore, Congress turned its attention to these problems. Consideration was given to the Regulators first, for Governor Martin had succeeded in persuading them that they were still subject to punishment for their late insurrection, and that their only chance of securing pardon was to aid the government in the present crisis. Congress adopted a resolution declaring all such representations false and promising to protect the Regulators "from every attempt to punish them by any Means whatever." A committee was appointed, of which Thomas Person, who had been a leader among the Regulators, was a member, to confer with such persons as entertained "any religious or political Scruples" against "associating in the common Cause of America, to remove any ill impressions that have been made upon them by the artful devices of the enemies of America, and to induce them by Argument and Persuasion" to unite with the Whig party in defense of their liberties. Another committee, numbering among its members Archibald Maclaine, Alexander McAlister, Alexander McKay, and Farquard Campbell, good Highlanders, all, was appointed to explain to the Highlanders who had lately arrived in North Carolina "the Nature of our Unhappy Controversy with Great Britain, and to advise and urge them to unite with the other Inhabitants of America in defence of those rights which they derive from God and the Constitution." Nor were the people at large to be neglected. Maurice Moore, Hooper, Howe, Caswell and Hewes were directed to prepare an address to the people of North Carolina, "stating the present Controversy in an easy, familiar stile and manner obvious to the very Meanest Capacity;" vindicating the taking up of arms by showing the necessity which had been forced upon the colonies by the British ministry, and p373 ascribing the silence of the legislative powers to the governor's "refusing to exercise the Functions of office." Unhappily these plans to unite the people were better conceived than they were executed; North Carolina remained divided throughout the Revolution and that strength and vigor which she should have contributed to the support of the general cause was largely consumed in civil strife at home.
The two most important matters before the Congress were the organization of an army and the formation of a provisional government. "Our principal debates," wrote Johnston, "will be about raising troops." As a preliminary to this step, the Congress first issued what may not inaptly be called a declaration of war. It declared that whereas "hostilities being actually commenced in the Massachusetts Bay by the British troops under the command of General Gage; * * * And whereas His Excellency Governor Martin hath taken a very active and instrumental share in opposition to the means which have been adopted by this and the other United Colonies for the common safety, * * * therefore [resolved that] this colony be immediately put into a state of defense." Two regiments of 500 men each were ordered "as part of and on the same establishment with the Continental army." Col. James Moore was assigned to the command of the first, Col. Robert Howe to the second. Both won military fame in the war that followed. Six regiments of 500 minute-men each, were ordered to be raised in the six military districts, in which the province was divided. These districts with their colonels were: Edenton District, Edward Vail, colonel; Halifax District, Nicholas Long, colonel; Salisbury District, Thomas Wade, colonel; Hillsboro District, James Thackston, colonel; New Bern District, Richard Caswell, colonel; Wilmington District, Alexander Lillington, colonel. Of these officers only Caswell and Lillington attained distinction. The minute-men were to be enlisted for six months, and when called into active service were to be under the same discipline as the continental troops. In addition to these 4,000 troops, provision was made for a more effective organization of the militia, and for raising and organizing independent companies.
The problem of financing these military organizations early occupied the attention of the Congress. A committee appointed to make a statement of the public funds reported that the province owed large sums to individuals, but how much it had on hand with which to meet these claims the p374 committee could not say, as the accounts of the provincial treasurers were not accessible. It also found that there were "divers large sums of money due from sundry sheriffs," and urged that steps be taken to compel speedy settlements. Congress, however, had little confidence in ever receiving any considerable sums from this source and accordingly to meet the expenses necessary for defense of the province resorted to the old familiar policy of issuing paper money. The amount determined upon was $125,000 in bills of credit, for the redemption of which the faith of the province was pledged. Significant of the drift of sentiment was the change from the English pound to the Spanish milled dollar as the standard of value. The new bills were to pass at the rate of eight shillings to the dollar, and for their redemption a tax of two shillings was to be levied annually on each taxable from 1777 to 1786, "unless the money should be sooner sunk." Any person who should refuse to receive the bills in payment of any debt, or "speak disrespectfully" of them, or offer them at a greater rate than eight shillings for a dollar should "be treated as an enemy to his country." Persons convicted of counterfeiting, altering, or erasing them, or of knowingly passing such counterfeited, or altered bils, were to "suffer Death, without Benefit of Clergy."
To agree upon a plan of civil government was a more difficult task than the organization of the army. Most men will frankly confess their ignorance of military matters, and willingly submit to the opinions of expert, but no American would consider himself loyal to the teachings of the fathers were he to admit himself incapable of manufacturing offhand a perfect plan of civil government. Congress, therefore, found no lack of plans and ideas. On August 24th a strong committee was appointed to prepare a plan of government made necessary by the "absence" of Governor Martin. The committee reported September 9th. The plan proposed and adopted continued the Congress as the supreme branch of the government with a few changes that will be noticed. The executive and judicial authority was vested in a Provincial Council, six district committees of safety, and the local committees of safety.
Congress was to be the supreme power in the province. Henceforth it was to meet annually at such time and place as should be designated by the Provincial Council. Delegates were to be elected annually in October. Each county was to be entitled to five delegates, and each borough town to one. p375 The privilege of suffrage was limited to freeholders. The members of Congress were to qualify by taking an oath in the presence of three members of the Provincial Council, acknowledging allegiance to the Crown, denying the right of Parliament to levy internal taxes on the colonies, and agreeing to abide by the acts and resolutions of the Provincial and Continental Congresses. Each county and each town was to have one vote in Congress. No constitutional limitation was placed on the authority of Congress, and as the supreme power in the province it could review the acts of the executive branches of the government.
The executive powers of the government were vested in the committees. The committees of the counties and towns were continued practically as they were. Some limitation was placed on their power by making their acts reviewable by the district committees with the right of appeal to the Provincial Council. They were empowered to make such rules and regulations as they saw fit for the enforcement of their authority, but they could not inflict corporal punishment except by imprisonment. Within their own jurisdictions, they were to execute the orders of the district committees and the Provincial Council. They were to enforce the Continental Association and the ordinances of the Provincial and Continental Congresses. Each committee was required to organize a sub-committee of secrecy, intelligence and observation to correspond with other committees and with the Council. They were vested with the power to arrest and examine suspected persons and if deemed necessary to hold them for trial by a higher tribunal. Members of the committees were to be elected annually by the freeholders.
Above these local committees was placed a system of district committees, one in each of the military districts, composed of a president and twelve members. The members were to be elected by the delegates in Congress from the counties which composed the several districts. They were to sit at least once in every three months. Power was given to them, subject to the authority of the Provincial Council, to direct the movements of the militia and other troops within their districts. They were to sit as courts for the trial of civil causes, for investigations into charges of disaffection to the American cause, and as appellate courts over the town and county committees. They shared with the Council authority to compel debtors suspected of intention to leave the province p376 to give security to their creditors. Finally, they were to superintend the collection of the public revenue.
The Provincial Council was the chief executive authority of the new government. It was to be composed of thirteen members, one elected by the Congress for the province at large, and two from each of the military districts. Vacancies occurring during the recess of Congress were to be filled by the committee of safety for the district in which the vacancy fell. Military officers, except officers of the militia, were ineligible for membership. The members were to qualify by subscribing the oath prescribed for members of Congress. The Council was to meet once every three months, and a majority of the members was to constitute a quorum. Authority was given to them to direct the military operations of the province, to call out the militia when needed, and to execute the acts of the Assembly that were still in force with respect to the militia. They could issue commissions, suspend officers, order courts-martial, reject officers of the militia chosen by the people, and fill vacancies. But their real power lay in a sort of "general welfare" clause which empowered them "to do and Transact all such matters and things as they may judge expedient to strengthen, secure and defend the Colony." To carry out their powers, they were authorized to draw on the public treasury for such sums of money as they needed, for which they were accountable to Congress. In all matters they were given an appellate jurisdiction over the district committees, and in turn were subject to the authority of Congress. Their authority continued only during the recess of Congress, and Congress at each session was to review and pass upon their proceedings.
Such was the government that was to organize, equip and direct the military forces raised by Congress and to inaugurate the great war about to burst upon the colony. As Saunders says, the die was now cast and North Carolina was at last a self-governing commonwealth. The people had so declared through representatives whom they had chosen after a campaign of forty days. Nobody was taken by surprise, for all knew that the Congress elected in that campaign would formulate a provisional government. This action was taken fully eight months before the Continental Congress advised the colonies to adopt new constitutions. "The more the action of this great Hillsborough Congress is studied, and the events immediately preceding," writes Saunders, "the more wonderful p377 seems the deliberate, well-considered, resolute boldness of our ancestors."2
The efficiency of the new government depended, of course, upon the men chosen to administer it. The members of the Provincial Council were elected Saturday, September 9th. Samuel Johnston was chosen by the Congress for the province at large. The other members were: Cornelius Harnett and Samuel Ashe, for the Wilmington District; Thomas Jones and Whitmill Hill, for the Edenton District; Abner Nash and James Coor, for the New Bern District; Thomas Person and John Kinchen, for the Hillsboro District; Willie Jones and Thomas Eaton, for the Halifax district; Samuel Spencer and Waightstill Avery, for the Salisbury District. On October 18th the Council held their first session at Johnston Court House and elected Cornelius Harnett president.
Cornelius Harnett thus became the first chief executive of North Carolina independent of the British Crown. Governor in all but name, he exercised greater authority than the people have since conferred on their governor, and occupied a position of honor and power, but also of great responsibility and peril. He had long been in the public service. Entering the Assembly in 1754 as the representative of the borough of Wilmington, he had represented that town in every Assembly since that date. His legislative career covered a period of twenty-seven years, embracing service in the Assembly, in the Provincial Congress, and in the Continental Congress. From 1765 he was conspicuous in every movement in opposition to the colonial policy of the British ministry. He led the resistance to the Stamp Act on the Cape Fear; was chairman of the Sons of Liberty and their leader in enforcing the Non-Importation Association; and was among the foremost in organizing and directing the activities of the Committee of Correspondence. Perhaps his chief service was rendered as chairman of the Wilmington-New Hanover committees of safety. Of these he was the acknowledged master spirit. By his activity in "warning and watching the disaffected, encouraging the timid, collecting the means of defence, and communicating its enthusiasm to all orders," he made this local committee the most effective agency, except the Provincial Congress itself, in getting the Revolution under way in North Carolina. Governor Martin recognized in him the chief source p378 of opposition to the royal government, marked him out for special punishment, and induced Sir Henry Clinton to except him, together with Robert Howe, from his offer of general amnesty to all who would return to their allegiance. As president of the Provincial Council, he fully sustained his reputation for executive skill, energy and foresight. From the outbreak of the Revolution Harnett had taken a broad and liberal view of the relations of the colonies to each other, and he inspired his colleagues on the Council with the same continental spirit that was the chief characteristic of his own statesmanship. He was foremost among the advocates of a united Declaration of Independence, and wrote the first resolution adopted by any of the colonies favoring such a step by the Continental Congress. As a delegate to the Continental Congress he bore an important part in framing the Articles of Confederation, which he regarded as "the best confederacy that could be formed, especially when we consider the number of states, their different interests [and] customs."
Harnett was not politically ambitious. He loved ease and pleasure, and had sufficient fortune to enjoy both. Public office, therefore, as such, made no appeal to him. He did not need its emoluments. He cared little for its distinctions. Indeed, the offense which he held brought more of sacrifice than of gain, more of drudgery than of glory. Desire to serve his country, regardless of the cost to himself, alone held him to the duties, burdens and dangers of the public service. With a profound faith in popular government, he had in his nature none of the elements of the demagogue. He appealed neither to the prejudices nor to the passions of mankind. His work lay not on the hustings, nor in the legislative hall, but rather in the council chamber. His chief service was executive in nature. In the performance of his duties, we are told, "he could be wary and circumspect, or decided and daring, as exigency dictated or emergency required." Such work as he did was the backbone of the Revolution, without which the eloquence of the orator, the wisdom of the legislator, and the daring of the soldier would have been barren of results. Yet it was work that offered but little opportunity for display, and brought but little fame. For Cornelius Harnett its only opportunity was for service, its only reward a wasted body and a martyr's grave.
The Provincial Council were forced to work under the most unfavorable conditions. To begin with there was not a place p379 in the provinces, except possibly the Palace at New Bern, suitable for their sessions. From necessity, as well as from policy, they became a migratory body. The members were subjected to almost every personal inconvenience and discomfort. But these were among the least of their difficulties. Almost without any of the means with which governments usually administer public affairs, they were compelled to struggle against political and economic conditions that might well have daunted the most determined. They had to rely for success on a public sentiment which they themselves, to a large extent, had to create, and at the same time to enforce measures that were at once burdensome and irritating. They had no powerful press to uphold their hands. The people were scattered over an immense area, with means of communication crudely primitive. There were no public highways except a few rough and dangerous forest paths frequently impassable. Their principal river was held at the mouth by hostile ships of war, and at the head of navigation by an enemy bold, hardy, and enthusiastic in the king's cause. The East was dominated by an oligarchy of wealthy planters and merchants, living in an almost feudal state, supported by slave labor; the West was a pure democracy, composed of small farmers, living on isolated farms, tilled by their own hands. Both East and West, aristocracy and democracy, were equally determined in their opposition to the British government, but between the two, right through the heart of the province, were projected the Scotch Highlanders and the former Regulators — the one eager to prove their loyalty to the throne against which they were but recently in rebellion, the other equally as eager to wreak vengeance upon the men who had but lately crushed and humiliated them at Alamance. The province was a rural community without a single center of population. There were no mills or factories. The only port of any consequence was in the hands of the enemy. Thus the Council's task was to organize an army among a people divided in sentiment and unused to war; to equip it without factories for the manufacture of clothes, arms or ammunition; to train it without officers of experience; to maintain it without money; and to direct its movements in the face of an enemy superior in numbers, in equipment, and in military experience.
The Council was created as a war measure, and its principal work related to military affairs. The province was threatened in front and in the rear. In front Governor Martin p380 was organizing the Highlanders and Regulators for a descent on the lower Cape Fear, and Governor Dunmore of Virginia was encouraging an insurrection of slaves on the Albemarle. In the rear bands of Tories were overrunning Western South Carolina and threatening the frontier of North Carolina, while the Indians, instigated by British agents, were showing signs of restlessness. Foreseeing that the province would "soon be invaded by British troops," the Council issued orders to Colonel Moore and Colonel Howe of the continental regiments to resist "to the utmost of their power" any attempt to invade the province; directed the committees of Wilmington and Brunswick to stop all communications, "on any pretense whatever," between the people and the governor, and "to cut off all supplies of provisions to any of the ships of war lying in Cape Fear River;" and commanded Colonel Griffith Rutherford and Colonel Thomas Polk of the Salisbury District to raise two regiments for defense of the frontier. Had they been less than tragical, these high-sounding orders, in comparison with the Council's means for enforcing them, would have been ludicrous. The Council found the minute-men and continental troops practically without clothes, arms, ammunition, or any of the necessary equipment of war, the people "destitute of sufficient arms for defense of their lives and property," and the outlook for supplying them unpromising enough. They drew upon every conceivable source. They bought and borrowed, made and mended, begged and confiscated, and though their efforts fell far short of what the emergency required, yet they were sufficient to enable the western militia to march to the aid of South Carolina on the famous "Snow Campaign", to enable Colonel Howe to drive Lord Dunmore out of Norfolk, and to enable Colonel Moore to win a brilliant campaign against the Highlanders at Moore's Creek Bridge. South Carolina and Virginia were profuse in their thanks to President Harnett for important assistance in their hour of need, while Governor Martin expressed great "mortification," and declared it was a matter "greatly to be lamented."
With war impending, both sides began to give anxious thought to the attitude of the Indian tribes along the frontier. The British expected their active aid, the Americans knew they could hope for nothing better than their neutrality. Unfortunately, in the competition which immediately arose the Americans were at every disadvantage. It was they who, coming in daily contact with the red man, had driven him p381 from his hunting grounds, destroyed his property, burned his towns, reduced his women and children to slavery, and slain his warriors. Eternal enmity seemed to be decreed between them. On the other hand, since the expulsion of the French in 1763, the Indians had been trained to look to British officials and agents as the sole representatives of authority standing between them and the encroachments of the American borderer. Licensed British traders dwelt in almost every Indian village, married Indian women, adopted Indian customs, and made the Indians' interests their own. The British government, too, had been especially fortunate in its agents among the Indians. In the Northern Department Sir William Johnson and in the Southern Department Captain John Stuart were known to the Indians as generous, sympathetic friends, ever watchful over their interests. From the Americans, therefore, ever steadily encroaching upon their possessions, the Indians knew they could expect nothing but rivalry and oppression; from the British they had been taught to expect assistance and protection.
Accordingly when the severance came the Indians, almost to a tribe, threw their power into the scale with the Crown. As early as June, 1775, the British government decided to call them into active service. Presents and clothing were distributed among all the tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf; hatchets, arms and ammunition were issued to the warriors, and liberal bounties were offered for American scalps. All along the border the Indians awaited the command to begin their work of fire and slaughter. In August, 1775, the Cherokee sent to Alexander Cameron, the deputy agent resident among them, a "talk," assuring him that they were ready at a signal to fall upon the frontier settlements of Georgia and the Carolinas. Circulars were distributed among the border Tories, apprising them of the plans and directing them to repair to Cameron's headquarters to join in the assault. Fortunately, the Cherokee "talk" fell into the hands of the Americans and warned them of the impending danger.
The Americans themselves had not been inactive. Indian affairs had received the attention of both the Continental Congress and the Provincial Congress. The former divided the colonies into three Indian departments and appointed agents in each. In the Southern Department the agents were John Walker of Virginia, Willie Jones of North Carolina, Robert Rae, Edward Wilkinson and George Galphin of South Carolina. The Provincial Congress at Hillsboro directed p382 that all persons who had any information about Indian affairs should submit it to Willie Jones. Accordingly Thomas Wade, Thomas Polk and John Walker laid before him information relative to the "hostile intentions" of Governor Martin and the Indians which was of "so serious and important a Nature" that it was referred to the Congress for consideration. The necessity for placating the Indians was urgent. Congress, therefore, appropriated £1,000 to be used by Willie Jones in the purchase of presents for them. The southern agents also were active. Galphin and Rae held a "talk" with the Creek Indians at Augusta, and in November, 1775, all five agents met a delegation of Creek warriors at Salisbury. The burden of their "talks" was neutrality; "you have been repeatedly told the nature of the disputes between the father and his children," they said, "and we desire you to have no concern in it."
One of the results of these efforts to placate the Indians was the "Snow Campaign" to which allusion has just been made. In October, 1775, the Council of Safety of South Carolina, in accordance with their agreement with the Cherokee, dispatched a large supply of powder and lead to the Lower Towns of that nation. The Loyalists of Western South Carolina, who were led to believe that the Whigs were planning to bring the Indians down upon them, embodied in force under Major Joseph Robinson and Captain Patrick Cunningham, intercepted the supply wagons, seized the powder and lead, compelled a Whig force under Major Andrew Williamson, who had been sent to disperse them, to seek refuge in the fort at Ninety-Six, and after a vigorous siege forced him to capitulate. Their success spread alarm among the Whigs of both the Carolinas. The South Carolina Congress immediately dispatched a force of 2,500 men under Colonel Richard Richardson to the scene, while 700 men from Western North Carolina hastened into South Carolina to co-operate with him. This force was composed of 220 Continentals under Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Martin, 200 militia of Rowan County under Colonel Griffith Rutherford, and 300 Mecklenburg militia under Colonel Thomas Polk. Thus reinforced, in spite of the inclement weather and the indifferent equipment of his men, Colonel Richardson pushed forward vigorously against the enemy, breaking up such parties as ventured to oppose him and capturing several of their leaders. The campaign came to an end with a battle at Cane Brake on Reedy River, •about four miles within the Cherokee reservation, p383 in which Colonel William Thomson surprised and destroyed a Loyalist force under Cunningham. Colonel Richardson, considering the campaign now at an end and its object accomplished, dismissed the North Carolina troops and marched his own men back to their homes. In his campaign he had captured most of the Loyalist leaders and about 400 of their followers. Governor Martin in a letter to Lord Dartmouth wrote that the reinforcements from North Carolina "put the Rebels of the Country in sufficient force to disarm the loyal people who had made so noble a stand and who were collecting strength so fast that they must have carried everything before them if it had been possible to afford them the least support. This check of the friends of Government in that Province is greatly to be lamented." In local tradition the campaign became known as the "Snow Campaign" because of the heavy fall of snow in which it was waged.
In the meantime another force of North Carolinians had gone to the aid of the Virginians in their campaign against their royal governor, Lord Dunmore. Like Martin of North Carolina and Campbell of South Carolina, Dunmore had fled from the province and sought refuge on board a man-of‑war. During the summer he assembled in Chesapeake Bay a flotilla which enabled him to capture Norfolk, the chief town of the province with a population of 6,000. On November 7th, from his cabin on the Fowney, he issued a proclamation in which he declared war on the people of Virginia, denounced as traitors all persons capable of bearing arms who did not repair at once to his standard, and offered freedom to "all indentured servants, negroes, or others appertaining to rebels." His emissaries were also busy trying to incite the slaves of the Albemarle section of North Carolina to insurrection. To prevent the success of his schemes a force of Virginia militia under Colonel William Woodford fortified Great Bridge near Norfolk, where they were joined by 150 minute-men from North Carolina under Colonel Nicholas Long and Major Jethro Sumner. On December 8th a force of British regulars attempted to drive them away, but were repulsed with loss and forced to retreat into Norfolk. Three days later Colonel Robert Howe, with the Second North Carolina Continentals, arrived at Great Bridge and took command. Howe pushed forward immediately, compelled the British to evacuate Norfolk, and entered the town December 14th. "Lord Dunmore had abandoned the town," wrote an officer, describing these events, "and several of the Tories had fled on board their p384 vessels, with all their effects; others of them are applying for forgiveness to their injured countrymen." For this service Colonel Howe received the thanks of the Virginia Convention. Dunmore could not afford to leave the rebels in possession of Norfolk. On New Year's day, 1776, therefore, he began a bombardment of the town. "About four o'clock in the afternoon," wrote an officer on His Majesty's ship Otter, "the signal was given from the Liverpool, when a dreadful cannonading began from the three ships, which lasted till it was too hot for the Rebels to stand on their wharves. Our boats now landed and set fire to the town in several places. It burnt fiercely all night and the next day; nor are the flames yet extinguished; but no more of Norfolk remains than about twelve houses, which have escaped the flames." The destruction of Norfolk served no military purpose but it inflamed the people of Virginia and North Carolina and hastened the development of sentiment for independence.
Following hard upon the "Snow Campaign" and the destruction of Norfolk, came the defeat of the Highlanders at Moore's Creek Bridge, February 27, 1776.a The victory of Moore's Creek Bridge was an event of much greater significance than is generally accorded it in the histories of the revolution, and Frothingham is guilty of no exaggeration when he calls it "the Lexington and Concord" of the South. So far from being an isolated event, it was part of an extensive campaign planned by the king and ministry for the subjugation of all the southern colonies which but for the victory at Moore's Creek Bridge would probably have succeeded.
Governor Martin in his cabin on the Cruizer had never once relaxed his efforts to restore the king's authority in North Carolina. Some Loyalists, who in spite of the vigilance of the committees found means of communicating with him, assured him that the people were tired of the rule of "the little tyrannies" called committees which they had set up and were eager for him "to relieve them from the self-made yoke which they now found intolerable." Encouraged by such reports, Martin submitted to the ministry a well-conceived plan for the reduction not of North Carolina only, but also of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia. According to this plan, he was to raise 10,000 Tories, regulars and Highlanders in the interior of North Carolina; Lord Cornwallis was to sail from Cork, Ireland, with seven regiments of British regulars escorted by a fleet of seventy-two sail under command of Sir Peter Parker, and Sir Henry Clinton p385 was to sail from Boston with 2,000 regulars and take command of the combined forces, which were to effect a junction at Wilmington about the middle of February. On January 3, 1776, Martin received dispatches from Lord Dartmouth informing him that his plan had been heartily approved; that Clinton and Cornwallis had received their orders accordingly, and that he might proceed with his part of the program. Accordingly he promptly issued commissions to Donald MacDonald, a veteran of Culloden whom Clinton had sent from Boston to take command of the North Carolina Highlanders; to Allan MacDonald, husband of the Scottish heroine, Flora MacDonald, and to twenty-four others in Cumberland, Anson, Chatham, Guilford, Orange, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Surry and Bute counties, empowering them to raise and organize troops and ordering them to press down on Brunswick by February 15th. A few days later he received word that the Loyalists were in high spirits, were fast collecting, and were well equipped with wagons and horses. They planned to leave 1,000 men at Cross Creek and with the remainder to march at once upon Wilmington; the governor might feel assured that they would place that rebellious town in his possession by February 25th at the latest. On February 18th, 1,600 Highlanders, led by Donald MacDonald, encouraged by the presence and the stirring words of Flora MacDonald herself, with bagpipes playing and the royal standard flying in their midst, marched gaily out of Cross Creek and took the Brunswick road for Wilmington. Upon receiving information of this movement, Governor Martin with the men-of‑war which were stationed at the mouth to Cape Fear moved up the river and dropped anchor opposite Wilmington to be ready to support his friends.
In the meantime the Whig leaders had not been inactive. Colonel James Moore of the First Regiment of Continentals had been closely watching the movements of the Highlanders and was fully informed of their plans. On February 15th he took a position on the southern bank of Rockfish Creek, where he was soon joined by enough minute-men under James Kenan, Alexander Lillington and John Ashe to raise his little army to 1,100 men. Colonel Alexander Martin was approaching with a small force from Guilford County; Colonel James Thackston with another small force was hastening from the southwest, and Colonel Richard Caswell was on the march with 800 militia from the New Bern District. Moore was in p386 supreme command and directed the movements of all these detachments.
On February 19th MacDonald approached to within •four miles of Moore's encampment on Rockfish Creek. Now began a series of movements in which Moore out-generaled MacDonald, displayed military capacity of a high order and clearly won the honors of the campaign. Some years later a dispute arose among the friends of Alexander Lillington and Richard Caswell as to which of the two was due the credit of the victory over the Highlanders. It has since taken its place along with Alamance and Mecklenburg among the historic controversies in our annals. The truth is that the real hero of Moore's Creek Bridge was neither Lillington nor Caswell, but Moore. This is said without any purpose to detract from the just fame of either of those eminent patriots. Their work was plain and could be seen of all men; Moore's part in the campaign, owing to his absence from the scene of the actual fighting, was not so evident and can not be understood without a careful study of the events of the week preceding the battle. It was he who directed the movements which on the morning of February 27th brought Caswell, Lillington and Ashe with 1,100 minute-men face to face with MacDonald's 1,600 Highlanders at Moore's Creek Bridge, •eighteen miles above Wilmington.
On the afternoon of February 26th, in obedience to Moore's directions, Caswell took up a position at the west end of Moore's Creek Bridge, toward which MacDonald was approaching, while Ashe and Lillington held the east end. About daybreak the following morning MacDonald reached within striking distance of Caswell's camp, expecting to find him with the creek in his rear between his forces and those of Lillington and Ashe. But in the night Caswell, leaving his campfires burning, as Washington afterwards did at Trenton, (a fact which Caswell's friends commented on at the time), crossed the bridge and joined Lillington and Ashe. He then had the planks of the bridge removed, leaving only the sills in place. The Highlanders having formed for the attack on the west bank of the stream were greatly surprised when they marched into a deserted camp and immediately concluded that the enemy had fled. Leading his troops, Donald McLeod, who commanded, MacDonald being too ill to take the field, reached the bridge while it was still dark. "Who goes there?" challenged Caswell's sentinel. "A friend," replied McLeod. "A friend to whom?" answered the voice in the darkness. "To p387 the king," replied the Highlander. Receiving no further reply and thinking the challenge might have come from one of his friends, McLeod called out in Gaelic. Still no answer. Raising his gun, he fired toward the spot whence the voice came and made a dash across the bridge. The Whigs fired and McLeod fell. Those who attempted to follow him were cut down and fell into the creek below. More than thirty of the bravest were shot down. The others losing heart, shamefully abandoned their sick general and fled. The victory could not have been more complete. Of the Whigs only one man was killed and one wounded. The total loss of the Highlanders in killed and wounded was estimated at fifty. Their army was completely scattered. Moore arriving on the field shortly after the battle pressed the pursuit so vigorously that 350 guns, 150 swords and dirks, 1,500 excellent rifles, a box containing £15,000 sterling, 13 wagons, 850 soldiers and many officers, including their commanding general, fell into his hands. Two days after the victory Caswell reported it to President Harnett of the Provincial Council and on March 2d Colonel Moore sent to him a more detailed account of the campaign. Both these reports were widely published throughout the colonies and everywhere encouraged the advocates of independence.
Martin's plan for the subjugation of the province was excellent, but it failed because the Loyalists were too eager and the regulars were not eager enough. During the month of February, while the ill-fated Highlanders were marching to their doom at Moore's Creek Bridge, Sir Henry Clinton, with the two thousand regulars he was to bring from Boston, was leisurely coasting southward, now calling at New York for a talk with former Governor Tryon, now peeping in at Chesapeake Bay to pass the time of day with Governor Dunmore; while Sir Peter Parker, whose fleet was to bear Lord Cornwallis's seven regiments to the Cape Fear, was still lingering at Cork. Consequently when Clinton finally arrived at Cape Fear in April and Cornwallis in May, they found that they were too late. The Highlanders rising prematurely had been crushed, and the Americans forewarned were under arms in large numbers. Clinton therefore dared not attempt a landing, and after wasting more than a month plundering the plantations of prominent Whig leaders along the Cape Fear, weighed anchor and set sail for Charleston. With him sailed Josiah Martin, the last royal governor of North Carolina.
p388 The victory at Moore's Creek Bridge was the crowning achievement of the Provincial Council. But for the sleepless vigilance and resourceful energy of President Harnett and his colleagues in organizing, arming and equipping the troops, MacDonald's march down the Cape Fear would have been but a holiday excursion. As it was, the royal governor had again measured strength with the people and again was beaten. High ran the enthusiasm of the Whigs, and high their confidence. Ten thousand men sprang to arms and hurried to Wilmington. "Since I was born," wrote an eye witness, "I never heard of so universal an ardor for fighting and so perfect a union among all degrees of men." Clinton and Cornwallis came with their powerful armaments, but finding no Loyalist force to welcome them at Cape Fear, they sailed away to beat in vain at the doors of Charleston. The victory at Moore's Creek Bridge saved North Carolina from conquest, and in all probability postponed the conquest of Georgia and South Carolina for three more years. Of this victory Bancroft wrote: "In less than a fortnight, more than nine thousand four hundred men of North Carolina rose against the enemy; and the coming of Clinton inspired no terror. * * * Almost every man was ready to turn out at an hour's warning. * * * Virginia offered assistance, and South Carolina would gladly have contributed relief; but North Carolina had men enough of her own to crush insurrection and guard against invasion; and as they marched in triumph through their piney forests, they were persuaded that in their own woods they could win an easy victory over British regulars. The terrors of a fate like that of Norfolk could not dismay the patriots of Wilmington; the people spoke more and more of independence; and the Provincial Congress, at its impending session, was expected to give an authoritative form to the prevailing desire."3
1 Life and Correspondence of James Iredell, Vol. 1, p37.
2 Prefatory Notes to Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. X, p. viii‑ix.
3 History of the United States, ed. 1860, Vol. VIII, p289.
a A more detailed account of the battle, with maps, is given in "The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge", The North Carolina Booklet, III.11.
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