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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 4 No. 6 (June 1904), pp3‑17

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 p3  North Carolina's Troops in South America
"The Lost Battalion"​1

By Chief Justice Walter Clark

North Carolina has always known how to make history. She has never troubled herself to write it. Hence much credit due her is unrecorded. There were certainly "brave men before Agamemnon." But we know not their names nor their deeds. They serve not to arouse the heart. For posterity they have in effect not lived, while Achilles, Hector, Nestor, Ulysses are alive to this day, more truly and more effectively alive, as regards their impress upon the age than most of the men whom we meet on the streets.

There are many forgotten chapters in North Carolina history which if recalled would brighten her fame. Among the many creditable incidents of her colonial history are the patriotism and enterprise shown in sending her troops on the successive expeditions to St. Augustine, to South America, and to join Braddock's march to the Ohio. We will in this paper be restricted to the South American expedition.

The only time prior to 1898 that troops from any part of the United States have ever served beyond the limits of this continent was in the expedition to Venezuela in 1740, known as the Cartagena expedition. North Carolina was represented there, and both by land and sea her troops did their duty.  p4 She sent 400 men, a contribution as large in proportion to the population of the colony at that time as if the State were now to furnish 50,000 troops. We know that these men served, that they took an active part in the sea attack upon Boca Chica, and that they subsequently aided in the deadly assault by land upon the fort of San Lazaro, when half the storming column was left dead or wounded on the field. We know that not a fifth of the gallant 400 returned. But we know with certainty the names of only two officers, of these brave North Carolinians. Indeed the expedition itself is almost unknown to the North Carolinians of the present day. It may not be amiss therefore to recall the little that has been left us of this early display of patriotism by the province of North Carolina.

History records few instances of official incapacity and mismanagement so gross as the ill-fated expedition to South America back in 1740, in which perished to no purpose, over three thousand Americans from the colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, and nearly seven times that number of English. Historians have not loved to linger over its details. Hence it is hardly noted in our books; yet it was a stern sad reality in its day.

Six times have troops from what is now the United States visited in hostility the territory of our neighbour on the north, viz., in King William's War, 1690; in Queen Anne's War, 1710; at the taking of Louisburg, 1744; in the old French war of 1755‑1763 (when Quebec fell, and Canada passed to the English), again during the Revolution, and in the war of 1812. In 1846 we invaded our Southern neighbor. The expedition against Cartagena is the only case in which our troops ever engaged an enemy on another continent.  p5 The war of 1898 was upon the islands of Cuba, Porto Rico and the Philippines.

In October, 1739, England declared war against Spain. The real object, all pretexts aside, was to open the ports of Spanish America to British vessels. These ports were hermetically closed to all except Spanish keels. The object was no small one from a mercantile standpoint, for Spanish America then reached from the Southern boundary of Georgia and the northern boundary of California down to Terra del Fuego and Cape Horn. From this vast territory there could be excepted on the mainland only the possessions of the Portuguese in Brazil, together with Jamaica and a few of the smaller Islands in the West Indies. The stake was a large one, and England could win only by destroying the colonial system of Spain.

It was a contest for the enrichment of the merchants and traders of England. Small interest had the North American colonies therein. But loving letters and proclamations were sent out calling on them for aid. Promptly on the outbreak of war Anson was sent to the Pacific coast, and Vernon to the Atlantic. Disaster at sea destroyed the hopes of conquest of the former, and turning his expedition into one for booty, and losing all his ships but one, he circumnavigated the globe, reaching home by way of the east, loaded with fame and enriched with spoils. Vernon, in November, 1739, with ease captured Porto Bello and Fort Chagres (near the present town of Aspinwall), both on the Isthmus of Panama, and became the hero of the hour. The following year Great Britain determined to send out a masterful expedition under the same victorious auspices.

In 1740, Great Britain, then at war with Spain, determined  p6 to strike a blow at the Spanish Colonial possessions. An expedition left Spithead, England, in October, 1740, for the West Indies, composed of 15,000 sailors commanded by Sir Chaloner Ogle, and 12,000 land troops under Lord Cathcart. There were thirty ships of the line and ninety other vessels. On arriving at the West Indies these were joined at Jamaica by 36 companies containing 3,600 men from the North American colonies.

By the royal instructions these companies consisted of a hundred men each, including 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, and 2 drummers, besides commissioned officers, consisting of one captain, two lieutenants, and an ensign. The British government, however, reserved the appointment of field and staff officers and one lieutenant and one sergeant in each company. The total was over 3,600 men. The provinces of New Hampshire, Delaware, South Carolina and Georgia sent no troops — the latter two probably because their forces were sent against St. Augustine (to which North Carolina also contributed men), and Delaware was probably counted in Pennsylvania, it being then known as "the three lower counties on Delaware." Why New Hampshire took no part is not explained.

It was ordered that the American troops should be embodied in four regiments or battalions, under the command of Sir Alexander Spotswood, to whom Colonel William Blakeney was to serve as adjutant-general. Spotswood had served under Marlborough at Blenheim, 1704; had been governor of Virginia, 1710 to 1723, and in 1714 had been the first white man to cross the Blue Ridge — a feat which procured him the honor of knighthood. He was an officer of rare talent, a scholar, and a man of high character. His career was unfortunately  p7 cut short by his death at Annapolis, 7 June, 1740, while waiting for his troops to assemble. He was succeeded in the command by Sir William Gooch, then Governor of Virginia — a post which he filled from 1729 to 1749. Blakeney, the adjutant-general sent out from England, was born in County Limerick, Ireland, 1672, and was therefore in his sixty-ninth year. He lived over twenty years after this expedition, to hold Stirling Castle for the King "in the '45," to surrender Minorca (of which he was governor) to the French, after a gallant resistance, in 1756, and to be raised to the peerage as Lord Blakeney. He died in 1761.

The Massachusetts troops were commanded by Captains Daniel Goffe, John Prescott, Thomas Phillips, George Stewart and John Winslow. The first lieutenancies of these companies were presumably filled under the general order by appointments sent out from England and are not named.

Rhode Island sent two companies of 100 men each. The Newport company, equipped in the spring, was commanded by Captain Joseph Sheffield, and the Providence company by Captain William Hopkins. The names of the other officers are not given, but it is mentioned that the first lieutenants of each company were sent out from England.

Connecticut sent two companies, commanded it would seem, by Captains Winslow and Prescott; and in this province also, in the Fall of 1741 and February, 1742, a proclamation was issued to raise recruits under Captain Prescott, who had been sent home by General Wentworth for that purpose from Jamaica.

New York sent one company in September and four more on 10 October. These last were joined by those of the New Jersey troops which were to embark at Amboy (the West Jersey  p8 troops were to go down the Delaware River to meet them). On 12 October the expedition sailed to join Colonel Gooch with the Maryland and Virginia troops. New York raised £2,500 for the service and Massachusetts voted £17,500, Connecticut gave £4,000 toward bounties (premia they styled it) and the expences of the two companies she sent. Application was made to New York also for recruits in 1741. New Jersey raised two companies, and voted £2,000 and recruits; for they were also duly called for there, as elsewhere, Captain Farmer being sent home for that purpose. Pennsylvania sent eight companies, but refused any appropriation. Of the Pennsylvania troops 300 were white bond-servants who were given their liberty on condition of enlistment, much to the dissatisfaction of the province. Maryland voted £500 and sent 3 companies. Virginia sent 400 and appropriated £5,000 for their support. The captain of one of her Companies was Lawrence Washington, the half brother of George Washington. Lawrence, who was then twenty years of age, distinguished himself in the capture of the fort at Boca Chica, and was also in the deadly assault on San Lazaro, when 600 men, half of the assaulting column were left on the ground. He was fourteen years older than his more distinguished brother.

North Carolina sent four companies. Gov. Johnson in his letter to the Duke of New Castleº 5 Nov. 1840, states that three of these companies were raised in the Northern part of the province, i.e., in the Albemarle section. The other it seems was recruited in the Cape Fear section. There is some reason to believe that Col. James Innes of subsequent fame served as Captain of this company. All four companies embarked on transports in the Cape Fear, 5 Nov., 1740, and sailed directly for Jamaica where they joined Admiral Vernon's squadron.

 p9  The contribution of money by North Carolina to this expedition was as large in proportion as her levy of men. On 21 August, 1740, Gov. Johnson informed the Assembly of the King's desire that North Carolina should assist in the war. This the Assembly promptly assented to, and a tax was laid of 3 shillings on the poll, but owing to the scarcity of money it was provided that the tax could be paid either "in specie or by tobacco at ten shillings the hundred, rice at seven shillings and six pence the pound, dressed deer skins at two shillings and six pence the pound, tallow at four pence, pork at seven shillings the barrel, or current paper money at seven and a half for one." Warehouses for receiving the commodities were directed to be built in each county.

The forces were united in the harbor of Kingston, Jamaica, 9 January, 1741, under Admiral Vernon. Had he at once proceeded to Havana, as intended, it must have fallen, and Cuba would have passed under English rule and the treasures sent from New Spain would have been intercepted. But with strange incompetence Vernon lay idle till Havana was fortified and garrisoned and then he started east in search of the French fleet off Hispaniola. Finding that it had left for France, towards the end of February he sailed to attack Cartagena on the coast of Venezuela.​a

[image ALT: A map of the Caribbean.]

On the way he fell  p10 in with the French fleet. France was still at peace with Great Britain though not very friendly. This fleet refused to show its colors. A fierce fight ensued in which many men were killed and wounded. The next morning the French fleet sowed its colors, whereupon the Admirals gravely apologized to each other and each fleet took its course. This is a characteristic incident of those times. Smollett, the celebrated historian and novelist, was serving in the British fleet as assistant surgeon and has left us an accurate description, it is said, of this sea fight in the naval battle depicted by him in Roderick Random.

On 4 March, 1741 the fleet anchored off Cartagena, which had three hundred guns mounted. Instead of pressing the attack Admiral Vernon lay inactive until the 9th, giving opportunity for better fortification and re-enforcements to the enemy. He then landed troops on Terra-Bomba, near the mouth of the harbor known as Boca-Chica (or little mouth), and attacked the land batteries also with his ships. In this attack Lord Aubrey Beauclerc, commanding one of the ships was slain. In the land attack 200 American troops, led by Captain Lawrence Washington, were mentioned for their gallantry. The passage, however, was carried 25 March, and three days later the troops were landed within a mile of Cartagena, which lay at the other end of the spacious harbor, which is really a bay several miles in length. The town was protected by the formidable fort San Lazaro. The enemy abandoned Castillo Grande, the fort on the opposite side of the bay. Had there been proper concurrence between the attacks, made by the land forces and the fleet, San Lazaro would have been readily taken, but the worst of feeling prevailed between General Wentworth and Admiral Vernon, and  p11 thus there were two poor commanders instead of one good one, as was so essential to success. The town was bombarded three days, terrifying the inhabitants and injuring church steeples and convents. After repeated demands by Admiral Vernon that a land attack should be made, sailing into the inner harbor Admiral Vernon disembarked the land forces. Lord Cathcart having died, command of these forces had passed to Gen. Wentworth. The ill feeling and rivalry between Wentworth and Admiral Vernon thwarted every movement. An attack was made on Fort San Lazaro 9 April but it was not aided by the fleet and was repulsed, losing half of the twelve hundred men of the storming column on the field, among them its gallant leader Col. Grant.2

[image ALT: A map of the town of Cartagena (now in Colombia) as it was in the 18c.]

A larger, fully readable map (1 MB) opens in another window.

The whole expedition was shamefully mismanaged. The troops were brave but the leaders were incompetent. The heat  p12 and disease of the climate now slew more than the sword. The army finally withdrew but it numbered on reaching Jamaica only 3,000 of the original 15,000. Of these only 2,000 survived to return home. The loss among the sailors was also heavy. The number of North Carolina troops who returned home is not known but it is presumed that their ratio of loss equaled that of the rest of the army. Of the 500 men sent by Massachusetts only 50 returned. Such, in brief, is an outline of this ill-starred expedition. Admiral Vernon incidentally touches later American history by the fact that his name was bestowed on his residence which afterwards took its place in history as Mount Vernon. It is the irony of fate which thus links his name with immortal fame, for few men so incompetent ever trod a quarter-deck as that same vice-admiral of the Blue, Edward Vernon. He was subsequently dismissed from the service — cashiered.

This ill-fated expedition added one word to the English language. According to the army and navy regulations of that day rum was served out twice a day to the 15,000 sailors and 12,000 soldiers. By Admiral Vernon's orders, it was, for the first time, diluted with water before being issued, to the intense disgust of the recipients. He wore a grogram overcoat and the men dubbed the thin potation old "grog." After many unflattering comments upon the leading, Smollett adds "Good brandy and good rum mixed with hot water, composing a most unpalatable drench, was the cause of failure." We, however, can see the cause in a far truer light.

Prior to 1760, the regimental rolls were not preserved in the British War Office, hence we know very little of the distinctive composition of the American contingent. We know  p13 that there were eight regiments of British troops and four battalions of Americans. The latter were composed of thirty-six companies and contained 3,500 or 3,600 men. Of these, it appears from the letter of Col. William Blakeney to the Duke of New Castle of 23 October, 1740, there were four companies from Virginia, eight from Pennsylvania, three from Maryland. These were to go out under Col. Wm. Gooch, the Lieut. Gov. of Virginia. There preceded these five companies from Boston, two from Rhode Island, two from Connecticut, five from New York, three from New Jersey. The four companies from North Carolina arrived last of all. On arrival the Northern companies were to be commanded by Col. Gooch, and those from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina were to be commanded by Col. Blakeney. On 14 December, 1740, Col. Blakeney wrote from Jamaica that Col. Gooch with the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia troops had arrived and the North Carolina troops were daily expected.​3 They subsequently arrived but exactly when is not known. Lord Cathcart died at Jamaica, 20 December, 1740, and was succeeded by Gen. Wentworth. From a letter of Gov. Gooch to the Duke of New Castle it appears that the Colonial companies were placed in battalions without reference to the respective provinces from which they came and were distinguished as the "American Regiments." From an extract of a return of Col. Gooch we find that in the 2d Battalion was Lt. Col. Coletrain "with the remainder of his company, viz.: two Lieutenants, two Sergeants, two Corporals, one Drummer and forty Centinels from North Carolina." This is the only name of an officer except Captain Robert Holton which is distinctively given as being in command of  p14 North Carolina troops. It is not certain that Coletrain was from the State, for in one of the published accounts of that day it is stated of these "American Regiments" that the "field officers were all men of long service, named by his Majesty, and sent from Britain. The companies were raised chiefly by the interest and at the charge of their respective captains; of whom some were members of the Assembly in the province where they resided; others lived upon their own plantations and had commands in the militia; and some few had been concerned in traffic." His Majesty, it is further stated, "sent out thirty cadets of family who were provided with positions as Lieutenants in American Companies." It is charged by a pamphleteer that "the greatest part of the private soldiers enlisted in North America were either Irish Papists or English who had been under a necessity of leaving their own country." This if true of any of the provinces, could not have been so as to the North Carolina companies. Gov. Johnston of North Carolina, in his letter to the Duke of New Castle, 5 Nov., 1740, says: "I have good reason to believe that we could have easily raised 200 more if it had been possible to negotiate the bills of exchange in this part of the continent, but as that was impracticable we were obliged to rest satisfied with four companies," which he further states, "are now embarked and just going to sea."

The most striking incident of the campaign — apart from its terrible mismanagement and loss of life — was the land attack upon the fortifications of Cartagena. General Wentworth, in a note to Admiral Vernon, 2 April, 1741, demanded that a detachment of 1,500 Americans will be landed, under the command of Col. Gooch, to assist him. On 6 April, he acknowledges the landing of the Americans, who took part  p15 in the storming of San Lazaro 9 April. This is thus described by Smollett: "Stung by the reproaches of the admiral (Vernon), Gen Wentworth called a council of his officers, and with their advice he attempted to carry Fort San Lazaro by storm. Twelve hundred men headed by Gen. Guise, and guided by some Spanish deserters or peasants, who were either ignorant, or which is more likely, in the pay of the Spanish Governor whom they pretended to have left, marched boldly up to the foot of the fort. But the guides led them to the very strongest part of the fortifications; and what was worse, when they came to try the scaling ladders with which they were provided, they found them too short. This occasioned a fatal delay, and presently the brilliant morning of the tropics broke with its glaring light upon what had been intended for a nocturnal attack. Under these circumstances, the wisest thing would have been an instant retreat; but the soldiers had come to take the fort, and with bull-dog resolution they seemed determined to take it at every disadvantage. They stood, under a terrible plunging fire, adjusting their ladders and fixing upon points where they might climb; and they did not yield an inch of ground, though every Spanish cannon and musket told upon and thinned their ranks." One party of grenadiers even attained a footing on the top of a rampart, when their brave leader, Col. Grant, was mortally wounded. The grenadiers were swept over the wall, but still the rest sustained the enemy's fire for several hours, and did not retreat till six hundred, or one-half of their original number, lay dead or wounded at the foot of those fatal walls. It is said that Vernon stood inactive on his quarter-deck all the while, and did not send in his boats full of men till the last moment when Wentworth was retreating. The heavy rains  p16 now set in, and disease spread with such terrible rapidity that in less than two days one-half the troops, on shore were dead, dying, or unfit for service. The expedition was then given up, and the survivors re-embarked and sailed for Jamaica. They were later landed in Eastern Cuba, at a place christened Cumberland Harbor, probably Guantanamo, and strong appeals were made to the colonies for re-inforcements.

Three thousand recruits, part of them from the North American colonies, were sent Wentworth, and he also organized and drilled 1,000 Jamaica negroes with a design of attacking Santiago de Cuba, but this was abandoned. Thus ended probably the most formidable and thoroughly equipped expedition which up to that time Great Britain had sent out. Everything was expected of it. Under good leader­ship it might have taken Cuba, and have anticipated by more than a century and a half the end of the rule of the Spaniard in that island. Its failure is only comparable to that sustained by Nicias in Sicily, as narrated by Plutarch. Vernon's utter defeat overthrew the Walpole ministry.

It is certain that the North Carolinians were among the American troops taking part in the assault. It also appears from Admiral Vernon's reports that the American Colonies contributed several sloops to the fleet, but how many and by whom commanded is not stated. After his return to Jamaica, he writes to the Duke of Newcastle, 30 May, 1741, that "without the aid of some of the Americans we could not get our ships to sea." Yet he had the effrontery to write, suggesting that the survivors of the Americans should be colonized in Eastern Cuba, as "North America is already too thickly settled, and its people wish to establish manufactures which would injure those at home" (in Britain). In fact,  p17 many Americans, probably sailors in the sloops, were drafted by the British ships going to England.

Thus early in her career, 164 years ago this fall, North Carolina came to the front. She responded to the King's call for aid, with men and means to the full of her ability. Her soldiers served, as they have always done since, faithfully, aye, brilliantly. Beneath the tropical sun, in the sea fight, at the carrying of the passage of Boca Chica, in the deadly assault upon San Lazaro, amid the more deadly pestilence that walketh by noonday, North Carolinians knew how to do their duty and to die. The merest handful returned home. But their State has preserved no memento of their deeds. The historian has barely mentioned them. Possibly the names of three of our soldiers have been preserved. The recollection of so much heroism should not be allowed to die. North Carolina should yet erect a cenotaph to these her sons, to the

"Brave men who perished by their guns

Though they conquered not —"

to the "unreturning brave" who sleep beneath the walls of St. Augustine, by the Cartagenian summer sea beneath the walls of San Lazaro, and amid the rolling hills where Braddock fell.

Walter Clark

Raleigh, N. C.
10 October, 1904.

The Author's Notes:

1 This is substantially the same article that appeared in The University Magazine, 1894. A more complete account of the expedition, by the writer, will be found in Harpers Magazine for October, 1896. [image ALT: an underscored blank]W. C.

[decorative delimiter]

2 179 killed, 459 wounded, 16 prisoners.

[decorative delimiter]

3 11 N. C. State Records, 42‑45.

Thayer's Note:

a Cartagena is not in Venezuela, but in Colombia, as it was when this article was written. In 1740‑1741 on the other hand, there was no Venezuela or Colombia yet: the city was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. I regret that on my only visit to Cartagena I took no camera; my only photograph of its massive fort is therefore of a very small piece of it, with yours truly gazing into the camera — from the other side, for once (online: Letters from Colombia, June 11, 1993).

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Page updated: 20 Oct 11