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This webpage reproduces a chapter of

North Carolina
in the American Revolution

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Division of Archives and History
Raleigh, 1959

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p1  Chapter 1

War Comes to North Carolina

Governor Josiah Martin was an angry man. Not only was he outraged, but he felt he had been mistreated. He had tried to govern the colony of North Carolina to the best of his ability, and he had been a faithful servant of his King, George III of England. Now he was caught in a movement more powerful than kings, a movement that was pulling him down into a great whirlpool of fury and hatred towards the British Empire. Governor Martin could not be held responsible for the spirit of rebellion spreading like an infectious disease throughout the colony; it was not of his doing — but it was his duty to stop it, if he could.

Actually, the people in all of the thirteen American colonies had become disgruntled and restless long before Governor Martin's arrival in North Carolina in 1771. The trouble had started in the legislative body of England — the British Parliament. Back in 1763, the English Government had needed money. They had just finished fighting the long and expensive Seven Years' War with France, a dreary piece of business that the colonists had called the French and Indian War.

Wars cost money and usually drain a country of its wealth. Since the British Government had spent money and sent soldiers to protect the Americans from the French and the Indians, they now felt that it was only right for the colonies to help pay the cost of the war. Acts were passed in the British Parliament placing taxes on certain American activities. Many of these laws concerned trade. North Carolina did not have the harbors or the background to develop a trading economy, and most of these early acts affected the colony very little. But the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act of 1764, the Currency Act of 1764, and the Quartering Act of 1765 were felt by the other colonies, especially the trading colonies to the north. As a matter of principle, the North Carolina Assembly, or legislature, protested that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies. Only the colonial legislatures, they declared, could tax the colonies.

In the spring of 1765 word was received that the British Parliament had passed a law that would affect greatly the daily life of the North Carolinians and of all the other colonists.  p2 This was the famous Stamp Act. Nearly every person would feel the effects of the act. For instance, no newspaper could be sold unless it bore the official stamp. Men and women could no longer get married unless their marriage license had been stamped. A student could not even graduate from one of the few colleges in America unless he paid a fee to have the stamp affixed to his diploma. Even more irritating and expensive, all papers used in business transactions had to bear the despised stamp.

The people of North Carolina joined the other colonists in violent protest. Down on the coast, in the port of Brunswick, government officials seized two ships whose papers had not been stamped. A milling throng of shouting people forced them to release the ships. In some colonies officials were not allowed to distribute the stamps. In others, people refused to purchase stamps and went about their daily business as if nothing had happened. Great mobs of people in some colonies shouted their disapproval of the Stamp Act. The men who dared to defy the might of the British Empire called themselves the "Sons of Liberty." So effective were the protests that the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. There was rejoicing in all the colonies, with people joining in parades and other celebrations. Some of them actually began to feel a little cocky because they felt that they had forced mighty England to back down. In their happiness, few of the colonists noticed that at the same time Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act, another piece of legislation had been passed. This was the Declaratory Act, which stated in no uncertain terms that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies any time they saw fit.

The colonists had little time to gloat over their victory. In the summer of 1767, Parliament struck back with the passage of the Townshend Acts. These laws placed a tax on many of the necessities of life. Again the Americans, including the people of North Carolina, raised their voices in protest. The cry of "No taxation without representation" began to echo throughout the colonies. No colonists sat in the British Parliament, therefore they were not represented and the taxes imposed by the British legislature were illegal. Only their own representatives, elected by the qualified voters in the colonies and sitting in the colonial legislatures, had the right to tax the people of America. Thus the people drew together in their opposition to England.  p3 They refused to buy goods manufactured by the British. And the Parliament again backed down. In March, 1770, all of the Townshend taxes were repealed except the tax on tea.

Governor Martin had arrived in North Carolina in 1771. This new governor was a young man, ambitious, and extremely anxious to do a good job in the service of his King. To the casual observer, things appeared quiet. But even a late arrival like Josiah Martin could soon see that the people were restless — they appeared to be waiting for the next move by Parliament.

Men were going quietly about the colony organizing the people. They bore names to remember: Cornelius Harnett, John Harvey, Robert Howe, Richard Caswell, Alexander Lillington, Edward Vail, John Ashe, Joseph Hewes, Samuel Johnston, Edward Buncombe, William Hooper, and James and Maurice Moore. These men, and others like them, were trying to set up an organization to hold North Carolina together in the event there was a break with England — a break that many felt was sure to come. Some were selected to serve in groups known as "Committees of Correspondence." These committees communicated with similar groups in other colonies, and kept each other informed of latest developments in their neighborhoods. They also began to work up plans of action when and if the anticipated break with England should come. It should be kept in mind that there was no national government in America at this time. Each of the thirteen colonies had a separate government. But a spirit of unity was being built up through the activities of the Committees of Correspondence.

When the break with the Mother Country finally did come, it occurred far from North Carolina. The East India Company, one of the great English trading companies of that day, was in trouble. Their warehouses in England had great stores of unsold tea. To help the company unload this surplus, Parliament gave it the exclusive right to sell tea in the American colonies. The New England colonies — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — were engaged in commercial activities. Their very existence depended upon the goods they could sell and carry in their ships. This act by the British Government angered these northern merchants. They felt that no English company had a right to the profits to be found in the colonies. And besides, if one monopoly were granted, monopolies could likewise be given to other English companies.

 p4  This resentment eventually was expressed in violent action. On a chilly December night in 1773, a group of Boston citizens, poorly disguised as Mohawk Indians, marched down to the wharves. They then boarded a British ship, and working swiftly and quietly, they dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston harbor. This seemed to set a pattern. Similar "tea parties," although on a small scale, were held in other colonies. The patriotic ladies of Edenton, North Carolina, did their bit by vowing to drink no more of the detested British tea.

The British government was in no mood to sit by idly and allow such actions to go unpunished. To them, the colonies were like the children of the British Empire. When children are naughty, they should be spanked. Punishment for the Americans took the form of the so‑called "Coercive Acts." The Port of Boston was closed to all trade, and a number of restrictions were placed upon the colonial government of Massachusetts. Although these acts were designed primarily to punish the people of Massachusetts, many felt that the same sort of restrictions could be placed on any colony in America. Angry people in every colony held meetings of protest. Aid was sent to Boston. From North Carolina sailed the ship, "Penelope," laden with a cargo of corn, flour, and pork to help feed the citizens of the Massachusetts town.

It was obvious to most thinking people that a break could take place between England and the colonies at almost any moment. Even more important, they realized that so powerful a nation as Great Britain could easily conquer the colonies by striking them one at a time. Then, too, no protest would carry much weight with Parliament unless it were a protest by all the colonies. They had to strengthen themselves through some form of union. Messengers, clattering along forest roads on swift horses, brought the word that Virginia and Massachusetts were calling upon the other colonies to join them and present a united front to England. Each colony was to select delegates to represent them in a Congress. Because it was to contain representatives from all the English-speaking colonies on the continent of North America, it was to be called the "Continental Congress."

When Governor Martin heard of this meeting, he resolved to do everything within his power to prevent the people of North Carolina from sending delegates. Say what you will about Josiah Martin, he was a devoted servant of his King. And it was his  p5 responsibility to put a stop to anything against the interests of his Sovereign. He threw every possible legal obstacle in the path of those who would oppose the British government. He refused to issue a call for a meeting of the North Carolina Assembly, which was supposed to elect the delegates to the Congress. No Assembly — no delegates.

But the governor was dealing with an aroused populace; people who felt their rights had been trampled into the dust. Such men were determined that no mere royal governor would stand in their way. On August 25, 1774, representatives of the people met in a Provincial Congress in New Bern — the very town in which the Governor's Palace was located. These defiant, but still respectful, men drew up a statement in which they declared they still recognized George III as their rightful Sovereign, but they heatedly denied the right of the British Parliament to tax them. Only the North Carolina Assembly, they argued, had that right. In addition to this declaration, they also drew up an agreement stating that they would no longer buy from or sell to British merchants. Having stated clearly where they stood in the dispute with England, these men elected William Hooper, Richard Caswell, and Joseph Hewes to represent North Carolina in the Continental Congress. Josiah Martin did not realize it, but he was no longer the governor of North Carolina. True, he still held the title, and he still occupied the Governor's Palace, but he had lost control over the people of the colony.

[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders engraving of an old man wearing a military jacket and a prominent star decoration. He is George III King of England.]

George III King of England during the American Revolution.

Nevertheless, Governor Martin fought hard for his King. He used every trick he knew to try to bring the North Carolinians back into line. He called a meeting of the Assembly, perhaps feeling that he could persuade them to reconsider their rash ideas. The members of the Assembly had other plans. The day before the Assembly was to meet, they met in another Provincial Congress. This unauthorized meeting brought harsh words from the governor. The Congress, in turn, replied in words equally harsh and bitter. After this exchange of mutual disrespect, the Provincial Congress issued a statement of vibrant independence. In this they asserted the right of the people to hold meetings and to present their complaints to the King.

Almost immediately after adjourning as a Provincial Congress, the same men reassembled as the North Carolina Assembly. In fact, they acted as though they were the Provincial Congress repeating themselves. Certainly, insofar as Martin was concerned,  p6 they were no better than the Congress. He was furious as they repeated almost the same statements they had issued as a Congress. As governor, Josiah Martin had the right to prorogue, or dismiss, the Assembly whenever he felt they were overstepping their authority. This he did now, feeling that they had insulted his royal master, and that he had to do something to bring the people of North Carolina back into line.

Even as the governor racked his brain for a method by which he could halt this tide of rebellion, events in faraway Massachusetts made his task virtually impossible. Under the command of General Thomas Gage, British soldiers had been stationed in Boston. General Gage had received orders to collect all arms and ammunition which might be used against British troops, if fighting did break out. The people of Massachusetts had stored military supplies in the little towns of Lexington and Concord, not too far from Boston. On the night of April 18, 1775, British soldiers slipped quietly out of the city, hoping to take these supplies without trouble. Riders in the night, led by a round-faced Boston silversmith named Paul Revere, galloped through the countryside, warning militia and minutemen that the redcoats were on the march. In the early morning of April 19th, on the village greens of Lexington and Concord, the British were temporarily brought to a halt by the determined citizens of these towns. Muskets were fired; men dropped to the ground. The British charged with the bayonet, and then marched on. These few scattered shots on two tiny village greens were not really a battle. Nevertheless, they started a war, and so important were the results that the poet Emerson immortalized them as "the shot heard 'round the world."

It was some time before the people of North Carolina heard of this skirmish. In 1775 news traveled slowly, on foot, horseback, or by boat. Even riders astride the fastest horses did not bring the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord to North Carolina until late May. Then the North Carolinians, as did the other colonists, began to clean their rifles and muskets and to check their ammunition. Now they had to fight or else forsake their fellow colonists in the north to the fury of British vengeance.

People in the vicinity of Charlotte in Mecklenburg County were as mad as hornets. In May, 1775, they held a meeting. Out of this meeting came ringing resolutions declaring that the officers  p7 of the King no longer held any authority in North Carolina. Anyone who thought otherwise, they said, would be considered an enemy to his country. They also urged the people to elect military officers who held no affection for Great Britain.

All over North Carolina men began to choose sides. Those who had rebelled against the authority of the King of England called themselves the "Whigs." Others, who could not bring themselves to rebel against their King, were referred to as loyalists, or more often, "Tories." Still others remained neutral as long as they could, supporting neither one side nor the other.

It was obvious that angry words would be followed by the louder sounds of muskets and rifles. To keep his family from harm, Governor Martin sent his wife and children to New York. He set up a half dozen cannon before the Palace in New Bern. The same night, these were taken away quietly by the Whigs. The governor was determined that the remaining cannon should not be used against British soldiers. He therefore ruined them by driving iron spikes through the touch holes so that they no longer could be fired. Under the protection of a dark night, he buried his powder and shot in the cellar and beneath the cabbage bed in the garden. Then, alarmed at the growing spirit of rebellion, he fled to the protection of Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River.

Fort Johnston offered little protection. It was badly in need of repair and there was only a small supply of ammunition. Several of the soldiers stationed there flatly refused to fight against their friends and neighbors. They left quietly at the first opportunity. Nevertheless, Governor Martin, who at one time had been an officer in the British army, began to make preparations to defend himself.

The flight of the governor had left the colony without a legal government. Groups called "Committees of Safety" began to take over. They were organized in every community as a means of keeping law and order, and to raise men to fight the British. When the Wilmington Committee of Safety discovered that Governor Martin had taken refuge within Fort Johnston, they realized something had to be done to prevent its becoming a British stronghold. A strong fort could offer protection to soldiers being landed from British warships. It was with this possibility in mind that the Wilmington Committee of Safety sent out a call for men to aid in the destruction of the fort. Still not too sure of  p8 the legality of their own position, they also sent a letter to Governor Martin, informing him that they planned to destroy the fortifications and take the cannon for their own use.

Martin was no fool in military matters. He was not rash enough to believe he could defend the fort with his small garrison. Neither did he have time to make all the necessary repairs. He removed the cannon from their carriages, and then ordered that all the ammunition and supplies be rowed out to the "Cruizer," a small British warship anchored in the river. From the deck of this vessel he watched a large group of rebels under the command of Robert Howe, Cornelius Harnett, and John Ashe approach the walls of the fort. A short time later, flames leaping up into the hot July sky told him that Fort Johnston soon would be no more than a pile of smoke-blackened timbers and ashes.

The burning of the fort indicated that the people of eastern North Carolina had made their choice. This act of defiance had transformed them from loyal subjects of George III into rebels against His Majesty's government. On August 8, 1775, Governor Martin issued a fiery proclamation which he hoped would be read by most of the people of the colony. In this he angrily accused the Committees of Safety of being responsible for the destruction of Fort Johnston. The Wilmington Committee, he said, was the worst of the lot. Yet, on the other hand, he felt that most of the people of North Carolina still retained their allegiance to the King. But what the royal governor really needed was men with guns. Words scratched out with a goose quill pen are not half so effective as bullets.

On the other side of the fence were the patriots, or as Martin called them, the rebels. These men felt the need for some stronger government than the local Committees of Safety. With this thought in mind they called for a second Provincial Congress to meet in Hillsboro on August 20, 1775. As soon as they were assembled the Congress elected Samuel Johnston of Chowan Creek as their president and presiding officer. For the next three weeks this Congress sat in Hillsboro. One of the first things that every member did was to sign a "test oath," stating that despite the ill feeling existing between England and the colonies, the members of this Congress were still loyal to George III. But, they declared, no part of the British government had the right to impose taxes on the American colonies without the consent of the colonies.

 p9  Despite these statements of loyalty, the members of the Congress voted to take steps to purchase arms and ammunition. Money had to be raised to pay for the weapons. They also replied to Governor Martin's proclamation of August 8th with a statement of their own. They pointed out that the governor was really attempting to set the people of North Carolina against each other. Because of this, they ordered Martin's proclamation taken to some public place and there burned by the public hangman.

To prevent the colony from falling to pieces, a Committee of Safety was organized for the whole of North Carolina. This group of thirteen members was to perform the same functions for which the governor had formerly been responsible. The Congress also provided for the enlistment of an army of 10,000 men, and considered ways to raise the money with which to pay these soldiers. They urged that 10,000 "minutemen" be organized, and ready to answer the call to arms at a moment's notice. Thus did the colony prepare for war.

War in 1775, as always, was an ugly business. No one wanted to suffer the hardships that came with soldiering, nor did any want to run the risk of being killed. Yet these men of North Carolina believed so strongly in their rights as a free people that they were willing to fight and even die for them. It was in this spirit and with these ideals that the leaders of North Carolina prepared their people for war.

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