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Chapter 7

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

 p69  Chapter 8


Military activity had not been restricted to eastern North Carolina and Virginia. In South Carolina, General Greene had fought another battle. In this engagement at Eutaw Springs, there were a considerable number of North Carolinians under the command of General Jethro Sumner. Many of these same men had seen action at Guilford Court House; now they were better trained and better equipped. At Eutaw Springs they fought bravely and suffered heavy losses. Their gallantry in battle drew the highest praise from General Greene.

Several political changes had also occurred in the government of North Carolina. In June, 1781, the General Assembly had met at Wake Courthouse and elected Thomas Burke of Hillsboro to succeed Governor Abner Nash. Burke had long been active in the revolutionary movement, and had for some time repented North Carolina in the Continental Congress. One of his primary concerns after he became the chief executive was that of keeping the Tories quiet and under control of the Whigs. He investigated the most troublesome areas in the State. In September Burke returned to Hillsboro, determined to organize an extensive campaign against the loyalists.

Not far from Hillsboro, a small detachment of North Carolina militia under the command of General John Butler was encamped on the south bank of the Haw River. Burke had just arrived in Hillsboro when he received word that the two notorious Tories, David Fanning and Hector McNeil, were on their way to make a surprise attack upon Butler. A rider was sent galloping off to warn Butler.

Burke was mistaken. Butler was not the primary objective of Fanning and McNeil. They had their eye on a bigger prize — the governor himself! The Tories approached Hillsboro in the blackness of night. The next morning, Wednesday, September 12, 1781, a heavy fog blanketed the area. Fanning's men crept quietly through the mist, entering the town from every side. The townspeople were not aware of the presence of the raiders until there was a sudden burst of musket fire. Doors were hurriedly bolted as men rushed for their firearms to defend their homes and families.

 p70  Governor Burke's home was surrounded. Burke put up a vigorous defense, although his only support came from his aide-de‑camp, Captain Reid, an orderly sergeant, and John Huske, his secretary. Despite their efforts, this little group was soon over­powered, and the Tories had captured the Governor of North Carolina! Other prisoners were taken. The town jail was broken open and about thirty loyalist prisoners were released. The jailors then were locked in their own prison. A number of homes in the town were plundered of their valuables. About two o'clock in the afternoon, the Tories marched out of town, carrying their prisoner with them.

Alexander Mebane rode swiftly to warn General Butler. The governor must be rescued. Near Lindley's Mill on Cane Creek, some eighteen miles from Hillsboro, Butler prepared an ambush for the men of Fanning and McNeil. The Tories, tramping noisily along the trail, were unaware of the presence of their enemies until the opening volley threw them into a panic. At the first fire Colonel Hector McNeil fell from his horse with three musket balls in his body. The Tories scurried back out of range, but were soon rallied by Fanning.

Fanning first sent off his prisoners for safekeeping. Then he led one group across the creek upstream from the scene of the action. He circled around through the trees, and his sudden appearance in the rear of the Whigs threw Butler's men into the greatest confusion. They recovered quickly and for the next four hours there was a running battle along Cane Creek. Butler and his militia eventually were forced to withdraw, leaving behind twenty-five killed, ninety wounded, and ten men captured by the enemy. Fanning lost twenty-seven killed and nearly ninety wounded. He was himself wounded in the left arm. He had lost so much blood that he was in no condition to march. His men hid him in the forest and continued on without him. Hurrying to Wilmington, they turned over Governor Burke to Major Craig. A short time later the governor was sent to Charleston. So long as Burke remained a prisoner of the British, Alexander Martin of Guilford County, the Speaker of the Senate, was the acting governor of North Carolina.

It was while Martin was acting in this capacity that news was received of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown (at a much earlier date than it had been heard by Rutherford's men at Wilmington).  p71 In late October, a trooper on his way with dispatches for General Greene told of the surrender when he stopped briefly in the town. Hillsboro went wild, with a celebration featuring parades, bonfires, and the firing of many guns. "We were all so elated," wrote one of the celebrants, "that the time elapsed in frolicking."

In late January, 1782, Governor Burke returned to Hillsboro. After he had been taken to Charleston, he had been paroled to James Island, just outside that town. A parole meant that he had given his word of honor that he would not escape. In return for that promise, he was allowed to go anywhere he pleased on James Island. Also on the island were a number of renegade Tories who had taken a particular dislike to Burke. On one occasion they had fired into the house where he was staying, killing one of the governor's companions and wounding another. The British authorities paid little attention to Burke's protests. Feeling that his life would be in even greater danger should he stay on the island, he escaped and made his way back to North Carolina.

Breaking a parole reflected upon one's honor and integrity. Many people strongly criticised Governor Burke for his action. Other prominent people came to his defense. General Greene became involved in a long dispute with the British commander at Charleston over his treatment of Burke. The governor paid little attention to his critics and busied himself with the duties of his office.

The war, for all practical purposes, was over with the surrender of Cornwallis. Yet, there remained the problem of the Tories. David Fanning recovered from his wound and resumed his operations in the Hillsboro district, terrorizing many, and killing some, of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, his career was fast drawing to a close. By May, 1782, Fanning fled to South Carolina, and eventually removed to Nova Scotia where he lived the remaining years of his life.

In April, 1782, Alexander Martin was elected the fourth governor of the State of North Carolina. A difficult task lay before him. He found himself the chief executive of a state with no money in its treasury, with no permanent capital at which he could establish a seat of government, and whose lands had been ravaged by marching armies. There was the very great problem of supplying General Greene with men and food. Even after the  p72 British evacuated Charleston on December 14, 1782, Greene was required to maintain a small army in the field. Most of the soldiers were released from military duty, but it was not until April, 1783, that the last North Carolina soldier was discharged.

That same April saw Governor Martin lay before the General Assembly a copy of the peace treaty between the American colonies and Great Britain. This was the document which stated that North Carolina and the twelve other American colonies were now "free, sovereign and independent states." The war was now over officially.

The American Revolution in North Carolina had contained all the phases of a bitter civil war. It had seen the transition of North Carolina from a royal colony to a sovereign state. The war had been fought under the guidance of the State's first four governors: Richard Caswell, Abner Nash, Thomas Burke, and Alexander Martin.

A constitution for the new State had been adopted which had provided the basis for a new system of government and law. Politics and political divisions had arisen among the people, each party wanting to govern the new State in the manner it thought best.

The greatest political division had been between the Tories and the Whigs. This split had the unhappy result of many families breaking up, and sometimes had turned father against son and brother against brother. Members of the same family had fought on different sides in the same battles. In the beginning, the Whigs had attempted to win the loyalists over to their side; when persuasion failed, they turned to sterner measures. Laws were passed exiling Tories from the State (many did leave), and their property was taken from them.

Some people of more peaceful inclinations did not take up arms for either side. There were people like the Quakers, whose religious beliefs did not approve the taking of life. Equally peaceful were the Moravians of Salem and, when they refused to favor either group, they were persecuted by Whigs and Tories alike.

One of the greatest problems of the war had been financial. North Carolina, as had most of the colonies, won her independence by fighting a war with practical an empty treasury. The decline of foreign trade had eliminated a market in which the people could sell their products and little new money found its way into the State. The great quantity of paper money printed  p73 during the war so decreased in value that by 1783, a soldier was receiving the equivalent of six cents a month for serving his country's cause! The scarcity of money made taxes difficult to collect and eventually they were paid "in kind," with such produce as corn, wheat, flour, pork, beef, etc.

The war had seen the rise of a great deal of manufacturing in the home. Stores early had sold out their stocks and, when trade declined, there was nothing else brought in for them to place on their shelves. When a shipload of goods did enter port, its cargo usually went to supply the army. Suits and dresses made of homespun became the style and often homemade shoes cramped aching feet.

There also had been the problem of the army. Quotas had to be raised for the Continental army. Supplies had to be failed the men in the field. Militia had to be organized, trained, and equipped. Although the militia troops were never long in the field, most of them marched out against the enemy at one time or another. It has been estimated that nearly 22,000 North Carolinians (Continental and militia) saw service during the War of the Revolution.

The State had even attempted the organization of a navy. However, there never was a very large fleet and its primary purpose had been to protect the ships coming into Ocracoke Inlet. Altogether, three ships were launched, the "Pennsylvania Farmer," the "Washington," and the "Caswell." A number of privateers put to sea from North Carolina ports. These were privately-owned ships armed with cannon. They were authorized by the state to capture British merchant ships, which they were allowed to sell, keeping a percentage of the proceeds. The best known privateers operating out of North Carolina bore names such as, the "Sturdy Beggar," "Chatham," "Bellona,"º "Rambeau," "Fanny," "Betsey," "General Nash," "Lydia," and the "Nancy."

An enemy army had ravaged the State. Homes had become smoke-blackened ruins because their owners would not support the British King. Armies, both American and British, had lived off the land, consuming the crops, sometimes before they were even ready for harvest.

 p74  Some of the most promising young men of North Carolina had died on the field of battle. Others returned home, crippled for life.

To rebuild and heal old wounds: These were the great tasks facing the people of North Carolina in the spring of 1783. It was to take time and much hard work. But it could be done by a sovereign state among the United States of America.

And they were free!

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