by Jean B. Kell
For the best account of the times, this narrative has been transcribed in full from the “author’s presentation copy” 1975: Carteret County during the American Revolution 1765-1785 (Illustrations were scanned from the book.)
|Site of "Muster Field" - Map by Giles Willis|
|The flag of the North Carolina militia|
|The Col. Thomas Chadwick House at|
the Muster Fieldas it stood in 1975,
just prior to being torn down. ◄See map.
|Site of "Muster Field" - Map by Giles Willis|
The Revolutionary period in Carteret County dates from March, 1765, when the British Parliament passed the fateful Stamp Act. The Stamp Act provided that official stamps be purchased and affixed to a variety of legal documents, including ship’s clearance papers and bills of lading.
Reaction and protest in the colonies was immediate and strong. It was certainly so in Carteret, where the effects of the Stamp Act could not fail to be felt. Shipping was the main business of its citizens, for every commercial activity depended on it. Naval stores were produced for shipping. Skins of deer and other animals were prepared for transportation to distant markets. Grain, corn, rice and other farm products were grown and fish caught and salted, no only for home consumption but to be traded for the necessities and luxuries of life.
Anything that concerned the sea affected the people of Carteret County. So when word was received that the British had closed the port of Boston, Carteret Countians joined with their fellow Americans in proclaiming that “the cause of Boston is the cause of all.”
The first record of activity growing out of these new concerns of the people of the County details the election of delegates to the First Provincial Congress, held in New Bern on August 25th, 1774. William Thompson and Solomon Perkins are listed as delegates from Carteret, but there appears to be some error in this. Solomon Perkins was from Currituck County, and it is believed that his surname was listed by mistake as that of the Carteret delegate. Solomon Shepard had been a Carteret representative to the Governor’s Assembly, along with Thompson, and was probably the second delegate to the Provincial Congress as well.
Thompson and Shepard took part in passing the resolutions of the Congress. When they returned to Carteret they brought word of the congressional resolves that after January 1st, 1775, no British or East India goods, except medicines, would be imported into the Colony, that the people would not purchase such articles, and that unless American grievances were redressed before the first of October, 1775, the people of North Carolina would cease exportation of tobacco, tar, pitch, turpentine and similar goods. They would, further, “not suffer East India tea to be used in their families” after September 10th, 1774. Any person in the province who refused to comply with these resolutions would be considered an enemy of his country.
Word of these resolves and others was quickly spread throughout the County. The resolve to the effect that King George the Third was rightful King no doubt gave hope that differences would soon be overcome, and that the delegates chosen to represent the Colony at the general Congress, to be held in Philadelphia, would help bring about reconciliation with Britain. A plan for committees to be set up in each county to enforce the measures taken was also resolved.
The Second Provincial Congress, held in New Bern on April 3rd, was also attended by William Thompson and Solomon Shepard. The Congress, among a number of recommendations, adopted the right of the people to hold meetings and endorsed the idea of safety committees, a name for the committees set up by the first congress. It authorized the creation of a Committee of Safety for each county, for each town, for each of the six military districts, and a Council of Safety for the whole province. This Council of Safety later became the supreme power in the state. Cornelius Harnett, its president, was for all practical purposes the governor of the state.
On February 21, 1776 John Easton and William Thompson of Beaufort were appointed to the Committee of Safety for the district of New Bern. The enforcing of the nonimportation and nonexportation agreement was on of the tasks of the Safety Committees. An April, 1776, letter addressed to the Halifax Congress from Carteret County shows that a Safety Committee was active at the port in Beaufort.
In April of 1775 Parliament passed an act cutting off the trade of the Colonies with that of Great Britain and the West Indies. North Carolina, New York and Georgia were excluded. The Colony of North Carolina was sent a message by her delegates attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia that the reason was obvious. Britain could not keep up her naval force without the supply of naval products from North Carolina. At this time the delegates begged the Colony to “form yourselves into a militia,” warning the people that ammunition must be preserved and that the “crisis of America is not at a great distance.”
Word of the battle of Lexington and Concord and news that the Royal Governor, Josiah Martin, had fled from Tryon Palace in New Bern to Fort Johnston at Cape Fear, reached the county. The people were beginning to reflect the raising tide of patriotism sweeping the country. When the Third Provincial Congress was called at Hillsborough August 20th, 1775, there were five men representing Carteret County: John Easton, William Thompson, Brice Williams, Solomon Shepard and Enoch Ward.
In response to the call from the Continental Congress to the Colonies for troops, the Congress at Hillsborough authorized two regiments of five hundred men each for the “Continental Line” and six battalions of 500 “minute men” each. They recommended that all male inhabitants procure bayonets for their guns and be ready to turn out at a minute’s warning. Twenty-five shillings was allowed each private soldier and non-commissioned officer to purchase “a hunting Shirt, Leggins, or Splater dashes and Black Garters, which shall be the Uniform; and that the Manual exercise for the said Minute Men be that recommended by His Majesty in 1764.” An allowance of ten shillings per annum was made “for a good smooth bore or musket, and twenty shillings for a Rifle, to the owners for the use of their Guns.”
The immediate collection of back taxes to procure funds was ordered. The Assembly also authorized the issuance of $125,000.00 in bills of credit. To redeem these bills, a poll tax was levied on each taxable, and severe penalties were imposed for refusal to accept the bills or for counterfeiting them.
The Assembly appointed field officers for the companies of 50 men to be called minute men. The officers appointed for the company to be raised in Carteret County were William Thompson, Col.; Solomon Shepard, Lt. Col.; Thomas Chadwick, First Major; and Malachi Bell, Second Major.
This did not mean something entirely new was to happen in Carteret County, for Colonel Thompson had been commanding officer of two companies of militia that had served under the Royal Governor during the uprising of the Regulators in 1771, and had taken part in the Battle of Alamance.
The time had come for the men of the County to make a choice, as the men throughout the thirteen Colonies were forced to do. Would they join the ranks of the Patriots, or Whigs as they were called, or would they stay loyal to their King? Fired at one moment by the thought of long standing “grievances,” another moment by long years of loyalty to the Mother Country, it was a hard choice to make. If they joined the Patriots and their cause was lost, where would they be? If they stayed loyal to their King and the British were able to quell the uprising, would they not be in a better position? But if the Patriots won their cause, where would they be then? Unless a man was completely fired with the cause of his Country, in spite of every argument advanced by his friends and family, this was a hard, very hard, decision to make. It meant the tearing apart of families and the breaking up of relationships. It was making men suspicious of one another.
The Whig’s overwhelming victory over the Loyalists at the Battle of Moore’s Creek in February, 1776, was a decisive factor in the choice of many. Men of the county responded to the call, come joining the militia, others signing up to march with the North Carolina regiments in the Continental army under General Washington. Others were drafted into service.
The training ground for the militia was not in the town of Beaufort but at Crow Hill, Thomas Chadwick’s plantation on Goose Creek off North River, a number of miles east of the county seat. Here the muster ground, today called the “mustard field,” was located. The only way to reach Crow Hill was by boat. In this way men came from all parts of the county to drill hidden away from the prying eyes of the Loyalists.
Another resolve at the Third Congress directly affected the County. A bill was passed providing a “premium of seven hundred and fifty pounds be given to any person who shall erect and build proper works for Manufacturing common Salt on the sea shore.”
Salt had been imported into the Colonies up to this time, and was a most necessary commodity. It was the only way of preserving fish, meat and other foods. The people could not exist without it. Traders were warned not to take advantage of the wartime shortage and the price was fixed at three shillings and four pence per bushel. Robert Williams, a planter and merchant living in Carteret County, was familiar with the process of obtaining salt from seawater, having made a study of the process used in France, Portugal and Spain. Shortly after his arrival in the County from England in 1763, he constructed a salt works on ten acres of land, part of which is now the Davis property toward the east end of Front Street. The Davis tax bill still lists the property as the “Saltworks property.”
Carteret County was represented by William Thompson, Solomon Shepard and John Blackhouse when the Fourth Provincial Congress met at Halifax on April 23rd, 1776. At this time Robert Williams with William Thompson of Carteret County and Waightstall Avery and Richard Blackledge of New Bern were appointed commissioners to erect works necessary to produce salt.
Robert Williams, on hearing that he was a commissioner, began immediately to prepare for the construction of a salt works. On May 27th, 1776, he wrote to Cornelius Harnet, President of the Council of Safety. He reported his progress to date and requested that he be made superintendent, and that John Easton be made paymaster. “If there is no salt,” Williams warned, “it will require but little force to subdue and starve the province.”
During the Halifax Congress the first official state action was taken for independence when it was resolved that the Colony delegates be empowered to concur with delegates from other Colonies in declaring independence.
At this time it was decided that the Council of Safety have full power to do and execute all acts necessary for the defense and protection of the Colony.
Five independent companies were ordered raised on the seacoast, one to be stationed between Currituck and Roanoke Inlets, one at Ocracoke, one at Core Sound between Ocracoke and Swansboro, and two more on the lower coast of North Carolina. For Ocracoke, officers were James Anderson, Captain; Benjamin Bonner, First Lieutenant; James Wahob, Second Lieutenant; and John Brag, Ensign. For Core Sound Company, Enoch Ward was Captain, Ruben Benthal, First Lieutenant; Benjamin Chainey, Second Lieutenant; and Charles Dennis, Ensign. John Cooper was commissary to the two companies and John Easton, paymaster. These companies consisted of one Captain, two lieutenants, one ensign, four sergeants, four corporals, two drummers, one fife and sixty-eight rank and file. The captains of these companies were encouraged to exert themselves in taking armed vessels of the enemy, and provisions were made that they would receive prize money from vessels captured other than those belonging to Americans or friendly powers. Each captain was ordered to purchase, at the expense of the public, three good, suitable boats, providing the cost did not exceed ten pounds each. Captains were given responsibility for recruiting their own company.
During the Congress a letter from the Committee of Beaufort in Carteret County was referred to a committee whose members were John Campbell, William Thompson, James Coor, Matthew Locke, Thomas Person, John Spicer and Solomon Shepard. They stated that they were of the opinion
that the situation of that town, and the Inlets adjacent, are such, that it appears absolutely necessary that a considerable military force should be stationed at or near said town, to prevent our enemies from landing there, supplying themselves with provisions, and committing hostilities and depradations in that part of the Province; and that until further provision is made for the defence of that county, the company of 50 men raised by the committee of said county be continued for that purpose, so long as the said committee shall judge it necessary.
They also stated,
that the turpentine now lying at Beaufort, belonging to William Gibbs, should be landed at his expense, and for his use, at some secure place where it may not fall into the hands of the enemy; all which is submitted to Congress [who] ordered, the said report lie for consideration.
William Thompson was placed on a number of committees, one to supply the defense and state of the seacoast, another to draw up instructions for the recruiting of officers.
John Easton and Brice Williams of Carteret were “appointed to receive, procure and purchase fire arms for the use of troops” and given a list of four regulations to follow:
1. That they receive into their possession all such arms as have been taken from the Tories, and keep them safely till they shall be demanded by persons hereafter to be appointed by this Congress for that purpose; and they they have power to give discharges upon such receipts to all persons intitled to them.
2. That they purchase all fire arms which are good and sufficient, and fit for immediate use; and also such as may be repaired, and put in such order as to be useful. Provided, that no guns fit for immediate use may be purchased from any militia man, where by he may be able to plead such circumstances in excuse for not attending his duty as a militia man when called upon.
3. That such arms as they shall purchase which are put of repair, they shall immediately put into the hands of workmen to make fit for use, and by every means in their power expedite the same.
4. That the arms so taken, when repaired, shall be valued by indifferent persons, shall be paid to the proprietors.
Resolved, That as there are a number of persons called Quakers, Moravians and Dunkards, who conscientiously scruple bearing arms, and as such have no occasion for fire arms, that they be informed, that it is the sense and confident expectation of this Congress, that they will dispose of their fire arms to the said commissioners, they receiving the full value thereof, but that no compulsion be exercised to induce them to this duty.
Resolved, That the sum of £300 be advanced to the draft of the said commissioners for each county, they giving bond and security for the due application of the same, and that such bonds be to the President of this Congress and that the Delegates of each county shall take care that such bond is given, and shall exert themselves to aid and assist the said commissioners to carry these resolves into execution. – Colonial Records
Word that the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia was received on July 22, 1776, when the North Carolina Committee of Safety was meeting at Halifax. The committee immediately adopted a resolution declaring that all “good people of the Colonies were absolved from allegiance to the British Crown.” They ordered that all Safety Committees of counties and towns have “the same to be proclaimed in a public manner.”
Records tell of the crowd’s reaction when the Declaration was read in Halifax on August 1st:
On the appointed day an immense concourse of people assembled at Halifax to witness the interesting ceremony of a public proclamation of the Declaration of Independence.
The provincial troops and militia companies were all drawn up in full array, to witness the scene and to swear by their united acclamations to consummate the deed.
At mid-day Cornelius Harnet ascended a rostrum which had been erected in front of the Court House, and even as he opened the scroll, upon which was written the immortal words of the Declaration, the enthusiasm of the immense crowd broke forth in one loud swell of rejoicing and prayer. The reader proceeded to his task, and read the Declaration to the mute and impassioned multitude with the solemnity of an appeal to Heaven. When he had finished, all the people shouted with joy, and the cannon, sounding from fort to fort, proclaimed the glorious tidings that all the Thirteen Colonies were now free and independent States. The soldiers seized Mr. Harnett and bore him on their shoulders through the streets of the town, applauding him as their champion, and swearing allegiance to the instruments he had read. (Colonial Records)
The Colonies were now “on their own;” the final ties with Britain had been broken. The words of Patrick Henry, “united we stand, divided we fall” were true, so true.
The Fifth Provincial Congress met in Halifax on November 12th, 1776. The election of delegates was a bitter contest. Those sent from Carteret County were Solomon Shepard, Brice Williams, William Borden, John Easton and Thomas Chadwick.
During the session, which was not adjourned until December 23rd, the Declaration of Rights (Bill of Rights) was adopted (on December 15th) and on December 17th the North Carolina State Constitution. Richard Caswell was appointed governor and a council of state selected with Cornelius Harnet as president. The new State government began to function in January, 1777, and the first General Assembly was held in New Bern on April 7th.
From the time of the battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February in 1776 until the threat of invasion by Cornwallis in the summer of 1780 there was no military activity in the State. There was, however, plenty of activity in regard to raising troops for the Continental line, training minute men of the local militia to be ready for call, and activities by and against Loyalists (Tories).
The people of Carteret County were never free from the fear of invasion. The unfortified inlets and harbors were an invitation to the enemy. Only the fact they were known to be treacherous kept them open to shipping throughout the war years.
Enemy ships were constantly hovering along the coast, waiting to capture vessels entering or leaving the harbors. On occasion they made their way in, but up until the Battle of Yorktown there was no major attempt to harm the people of the County.
Marauding parties from British ships landed from time to time on the Outer Banks to seek water, wood, meat and other provision. Difficulties of communication and a consequent lack of understanding of the war, made it possible for the British to have the help of some people on the Banks in supplying the ships.
The ports of Beaufort and at Ocracoke remained active. At times when northern ports were blocked, supplies for the Continental army were brought in through these inlets, shipped by way of sounds and rivers to South Quay, sixteen miles overland to Suffolk, by boat up the Nansemond River into the James, then overland North to Washington’s army.
Ships came from the northern ports, the West Indies, France and Spain, bringing merchandise for the Colonies. Ships owned by men of the County continued to trade especially with the ports of the non-British West Indies. Reports of the ships in Beaufort by Captain Charles Biddle, in his [auto] biography, show that there was more shipping during the war than people realized. The ships of privateers were numerous. These ships were outfitted with cannons, and their captain sailed under a Letter of Marque and Reprisal which gave him the authority to capture enemy ships in the name of the Colonies. Ships left and returned to port in convoy. Men of the County made up the largest part of the crews, men from boyhood had followed the sea.
A large majority of the men in the County were involved with the sea: shipbuilders, shipowners, importers and shippers, pilots and whalers as well as captains and crews. When the call came for men, those who were part of this seafaring life line of the Colony were really not available to serve. Yet, many joined the independent companies or the militia, the latter knowing they might be called at any time.
The Assembly’s earlier resolve to leave the militia to guard the coast did not stay in effect. Other men were drafted or enlisted to fill the County quota for the Continental Line. Throughout the war these “drafts” were called up to march to New Bern, then to “Kinston” and on to Halifax. From there they went northward to join Washington’s army to fight in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or wherever needed. The march North was long and hard, as was the trek back home, for those fortunate enough to survive.
One call recorded was in May, 1778. Thirty men were called from Carteret County. Each was to receive a pair of shoes and stockings, a hunting shirt, waistcoat with sleeves, a pair of breeches and trousers, a hat and a blanket, five yards of tent cloth, one axe and a pot or camp kettle, all to be furnished locally.
Letters from Colonel Thomas Chadwick (dated June 1778) tell more:
The Carteret drafts is to join the Craven and both march by way of Kingston but cannot advise what day they will arrive, perhaps by the 10th. No guns for service. ………..
The difficulty in obtaining clothing and other necessaries for the recruits will put it out of my power to march them before the 15th at which time I propose to march them on. (Governor’s Letter-Book I)
By this time (1778) there was a great shortage of supplies for the Army. During the past few years there had been constant calls to the people of the Colonies to help feed and clothe the men of the Continental Line.
The Independent Companies formed in 1776 were active. Late in that year Captain Ward and his men captured the Captain and crew of the brig Aurora, a victualling vessel carrying supplies for the British Navy at New York, which was stranded on the seashore about twelve miles southwest of Ocracoke Inlet with a cargo of food and rum valued at £1000.
In October 1777 the North Carolina Gazette reported the event:
Since our last, Captain Ward of the Independent Company of Core Banks, has taken a prize schooner called the “Liverpool,” commanded by Captain Mayes from Providence to New York loaded with fruit and turtle for Lord Howe. This vessel put into Cape Lookout Bay, under the sanction of a pretended friend, but Captain Ward’s viligance soon discovered her to be an Enemy, and in the night boarded her with some of his company and took her. She is about thirty tons, has been fitted as a Privateer, and now mounts swivels and is reported to be a fast sailor.
In spite of these activities and the presence of the Companies on the Banks to ward off the enemy intending to get water and cattle, the Companies at Currituck, Ocracoke and the Core Banks were ordered to disband in November of 1777. Captain Biddle notes in his biography that Captain Ward and his men, released from duty, went to sea.
Shortly after this time the Craven County Militia was ordered to proceed with the greatest secrecy to guard the banks and remove all cattle and sheep to keep them from getting into enemy hands, apparently disregarding the fact that these animals were a source of food for the residents of the Banks.
Early in February 1778, Cornelius Harnet, one of North Carolina’s representatives of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia wrote:
Cape Lookout is one of the fine harbors on the American coast and would be a noble asylum for Continental and private ships of war, to wood and water as also a place of security and for trading vessels chased by the enemy. I am distressed beyond measure to find our sea coast much neglected to please (I fear) a few individuals who may be interested in the matter.
Harnet’s letter reminds us that all during the war the cause of the Patriots was beset with undermining by the activities of the Loyalists (Tories).
The situation at Cape Lookout was changed by an act of providence (or possibly planned) because of the curtailing of trade between France and the Colonies as a result of the war. The lack of fortifications on the coast was deplored in an April 1, 1780, letter from Le Chevalier D’Anmours, French consul for the Colonies to Governor Richard Caswell.
In March, 1778, an advertisement appeared in the North Carolina Gazzette stating that “a Frigate from France has arrived in Cape Lookout Bay with goods to be sold in Beaufort.” This vessel was commanded by Captain Cottineau with Le Chevalier de Cambray as artillery captain. These men, seeing the need for protection of the Bay, petitioned the Governor and Assembly to erect a fort, offering freely their knowledge and the help of 80 of their men in constructing the fort. On April 23, 1778 an act was passed by the Assembly for fortifying Cape Lookout Bay. On the 30th, the Assembly elected John Tillman captain of the new Fort Hancock and Zepheniah Pinkham First Lieutenant. George Robinson was later made second Lieutenant, but he resigned in October and John Denny took his rank.
When the fort was built, Cottineau suggested a garrison of 50 or 60 men and offered siz of his four pounders (cannons) to be used until other armaments arrived. He also offered to leave two swivels [small moveable cannon mounted on a base] with necessary balls when he left to fulfill his initial plan of serving under George Washington.
There is no report of activity at the fort, but it seemed to fulfill its purpose—keeping the enemy from the Bay. Tillman reported that “the cruisers take a peep at us sometimes” and John Easton reported the “cruisers constantly hovering about our coast” when he wrote to the Governor and Assembly in regard to money to pay the garrison.
The Colony of North Carolina at this time was under threat of invasion by Cornwallis. The Governor and member of the Assembly did not accord high priority to fortifications on the coast. Funds were more desperately needed for the army. On May 4, 1780, the Assembly resolved “that on the first day of June next the Garrison of Fort Hancock be disbanded and discharge.”
Again the coast of the County was completely exposed to the enemy. In 1776 Robert Williams added a pleading query in his letter to Cornelius Harnet and Council in regard to salt, asking “Is one company of Soldiers sufficient to guard Old Topsail Inlet, the town of Beaufort and the Salt Works?”
Through the years of the war the plea of the County was the same. A letter from residents of Beaufort (September, 1777) and a petition signed by 45 residents of the County (December, 1777) each stated the situation and begged for fortifications to protect the harbor. These requests were initially gratified, at least in part, by the building of Fort Hancock. But when the fort was no longer garrisoned, the people wrote again stating: “the remaining Inhabitants of the said (Carteret) County” ask that the “Quota of drafted men may remain in the County. Nearly all young and old able-bodied men have gone to Sea, and the remainder being either aged or infirm.” They went on to say that “if our present Quota of Men are taken from us, we shall be entirely disabled to withstand the weakest effort of our Enemy.”
Charles Biddle, a sea captain from Philadelphia, who had married a Miss Hannah Shepard of Beaufort and was living there at this time, took a positive attitude toward the situation. In October, 1779 he relates in his diary that “at this time, being everyday liable to an attack, I persuaded the people of the town and neighborhood to build a small fort. We all worked at it, and soon made a tolerably good one. There were four six pounders belonging to the United States which we mounted on it.”
Another resident, Captain Gibbons, “under pretense of his being afraid of an attack, had a pair of four pounders mounted on his piazza, and frequently in the night, when drunk, would fire them off to the great disturbance of the peaceable people of the town.”
Captain Biddle also tells of a great many prisoners sent to Beaufort to board a ship under a flag of truce to sail to New Providence. These men, with the English and Irish seamen belonging to vessels in the port, frequently caused disturbances. He speaks of the marines who sailed with him as being “most of them young men of respectable families, born about Beaufort, very stout, active, and resolute fellows,” who “would risk their lives for me.” Later he tells of a ship sailing from the harbor: “The crew were all sober men, belonging to the town,” he relates. “They went from my door in high spirits expecting to return in a few weeks, but none of them ever returned. I suppose all of them perished that night in the Gulf Stream.”
He writes later of another ship from the port bound for Curacao. “Nothing” he tells us, “was ever heard of the vessel or crew after she sailed from Beaufort.”
The last plea for protection recorded from the County was in November, 1780. North Carolina was then deeply involved in the war. On October 7th, just one and one-half miles from its southern border, the Battle of King’s Mountain was fought. The overwhelming victory of the Patriots revived America’s hopes.
During the following months when General Nathaniel Green’s army eluded Cornwallis and his men in a chase across the State, all available men were called. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, though a victory for Cornwallis, broke his spirit. Because of his need for supplies and provisions, he marched his army to Wilmington to make contact with the British fleet. There he lamely proclaimed the “conquest” of North Carolina and the restoration of Josiah Martin as Governor, a proclamation roundly ignored by the North Carolina Governor and Assembly. On April 25 Cornwallis left Wilmington, marching his men to Virginia where on October 19, 1781, after losing the Battle of Yorktown, he surrendered his army to General Washington.
When news of the Yorktown surrender reached Carteret County and all North Carolina, the joyful people felt the war was over and independence won. The Carteret County militia under Colonel John Easton had returned on October 5th and was apparently disbanded, the men returning to the sea and to other peacetime occupations throughout the County.
The war was over. The peace, however, was far from secure. General Washington implored the people of the Country to remain alert and armed. The Continental Army was not disbanded. It would, the General maintained, be a most fool-hardy thing to do. The draft quotas were still being filled. The young men who had been drafted or who had enlisted in the army did not return home. Those taken prisoner were not released. Without them the number of young, strong able-bodied men in the County was not high.
Even after Cornwallis’ surrender the British were still in possession of Charlestown and New York. Their ships were still active and needed supplies. Shipping had increased but was still in danger. Though a feeling of peace prevailed throughout the State, it is hard to understand the people along the coast relaxing their vigilance. Yet this was apparently the case with the people of Carteret County. Their wartime fears had been unfounded. The Enemy had not reached their shores. Their warehouses of naval stores were now safe, the supply of salt secure. They relaxed with the other people of the State. All winter they went about their work. Except for those awaiting the return of soldiers, the thought of war was a thing of the past.
Spring came early only as it can in Carteret County, fields were planted, keels for new vessels laid. Life was returning to normal.
On Wednesday morning April 3, 1782 a group of whalers on Shackleford Banks rested in the sun, near the remains of Fort Hancock, exchanging tales and waiting for the cry, “Thar She blows.” As they calmly watched, a ship and two schooners entered Cape Harbor (now called Bight) and dropped anchor. From the ship a small boat was launched, manned by five men. As they approached the shore, the whalers went down the beach to meet them. The boat landed, the crew jumped out and with the help of the whalers the boat was pulled up on the sand. The captain and his crew greeted the whalers. He reported that they were from New England and that the ship and schooner were prizes which they had taken. They wanted to pass through Old Topsail Inlet to the port of Beaufort. The whalers advised them to wait for the next daylight high tide and gave directions for crossing the bar. They then walked up the beach to the Davis house for a drink, all drinking to the success of the visitors and fine prizes they had taken for their Country.
The next day at high tide the townfolk of Port Beaufort, gazing toward the inlet, watched as the ships approached the Bar. At that time there was no island in front of the town. Carrot Island was at the east end of town starting above Fulford Street where the Hammock house stands. Except for a small “bunch of bushes” on what was known as the Island of Marsh at the west end of town, there was an unobstructed view of the Inlet and the Banks on either side. The townfolk saw pilots board the vessels and guide them across the bar to anchor under Borden’s Banks, fronting the town. The curiosity of the watchers was aroused, for no landing boats were launched. A great many inhabitants decided that the only way to find out who was on board these ships, where they were from and why they had come to their port, was to follow their usual custom to sail and row out to the vessels.
Major Dennis and his companion, Captain Dedrick Gibble, from a high porch, viewed the scene. Something strange was going on. The local boats went out, but not one returned. Upon discussion, the two men decided they might be enemy vessels. A sloop and small boat had joined them. Captain Gibble decided to look the situation over and left for the ships carrying a flag of truce.
Dark was fast approaching; Gibble did not return. Becoming alarmed, Major Dennis hurried to the Easton’s plantation, reporting the several circumstances to Colonel Easton. Easton quickly dispatched riders throughout the County for help and to warn people. Hurrying to town, he gathered what men he could find, armed them with guns turned over to him when the Independent Companies disbanded.
It was now dark. Easton and his eight men began to patrol the shorelines. The sound of approaching boats was heard near the mouth of Taylor’s Creek (east of Fulford Street). They headed for the entry placed there. The officer of the landing party was trying to convince the sentry that they were friends.
Easton sensed the deception, called the sentry to him and ordered his men to fire. Out through the night the shots rang as they poured shot on the landing party, who responded with a very heavy fire from their musketry. The enemy then retired about a half mile eastward and landed on Carrot Island. They crawled undiscovered through the bushes and began to ford the creek three hundred yards from the point Easton had posted a man. The other Carteret men were patrolling their various sections. Two were near the spot where the enemy was attempting to land. Just as the first rays of day dawned, shots from the sentry’s gun alarmed Easton, who rushed up with four men, spotted the fording party and ordered all to fire. The commander of the enemy (Major Stuart) was wounded in the hand and a private so severely wounded that he died the next day (after requesting that he be buried standing in salute to his King). One of Easton’s men received a slight wound in his thigh. The enemy advance and continued to fire.
Easton and his men, greatly outnumbered, returned the fire as they made their way to the town battery, the fort built by Captain Biddle and the townsmen. Arriving there at 4:30 they found Captain Dennis with three more men without weapons. Two men arrived and reported the enemy assembling behind Captain Gibble’s house. At this time they saw Captain Singletry coming along the beach toward the house. They watched helplessly as her was charged by the enemy. The whole group of raiders rushed from the house and surrounded Singletry and took him prisoner. Easton ordered the cannon pointed in that direction fired. Looking in the direction of the harbor, Easton and his men saw small boats leave the fleet (boats of the townsmen who were being held as prisoners). They approached the shore landing where they chose, the British spreading into all sections of the town, bent on pillage.
Being completely overpowered by numbers and resolving to escape capture, Easton and his men retired from the battery, reaching Gabriel’s house about a half mile from town. On the way they spotted men loaded down with plunder. They overpowered and captured two of them.
At two o’clock Colonel Ward arrived with twenty men. They decided to make their own post at the town bridge, with an advance post three quarters of a mile from the main body. At the town bridge on the outskirts of town, where other men could join them, they set up camp. Women with children and old folks began to arrive with tales of ruthless plunder. They told of the British entering their homes, taking furniture and any object they could carry, smashing all those pieces too large to move, slitting open feather beds and strewing the feathers through the house and in the streets, grabbing women and tearing their clothes from them and searching their petticoat pockets. All came in great distress to the protection of the camp.
By morning Easton had gathered eight light horsemen who were kept constantly patrolling and reconnoitering the enemy’s situation. Messengers were sent with orders for the Bogue and White Oak companies to remain on the west side of the Newport River under Major West to prevent the enemy from plundering and destroying the public granary. A guard of thirteen men was established at Harker’s Island to observe the enemy’s actions there and guard the storehouses.
Mrs. Thompson arrived at camp with a message dated April 6, 1782 from Captain William Bull, who was being held prisoner on the British ship Peacock. Captain Bull wrote that the commander of the fleet, D. McLean, wished him to communicate his intentions. McLean, Bull said, was not going to destroy the town and asked that no force be brought against his men. He only wished to exchange prisoners. All this after the town had been ruthlessly plundered!
Colonel Easton replied in a message dated Camp Town Bridge, April 6, 1782, that he would be willing to have a conference for the exchange of prisoners if McLean would name the time and place.
From British headquarters at Fort Bele, on April 6, a message came from Major Stuart stating that “your flagg will be received at 12 o’clock tomorrow.”
From Easton (Camp Town Bridge, April 7): if they “think if necessary” to deliver Mr. Gibble, who went to the ship under flag, he would appoint two officers to meet at the schoolhouse at one o’clock that day.
Major Stuart agreed to meet, but the British were unwilling to release Mr. Gibble, and also demanded that two of the town’s prisoners captured plundering be returned as deserters. Easton would not agree to this and the negotiations failed. Hostilities commenced again. A cannon shot from Biddle’s fort, now occupied by the enemy, fell in the camp. Militia from other parts of the County began to arrive. A reconnoitering party reported the enemy on the east end of town staying close within their works. Major Mountflorence arrived and reported the enemy very busy moving their plunder to the ships.
Word was received that the enemy had attempted to land at Harkers Island, but were repulsed by the men stationed there.
Captain Foot, commanding twelve men in two boats, went out in the harbor to intercept the enemy’s boats carrying plunder. Captain Nixon joined the camp with thirty horsemen. The enemy shot another six pound cannon ball into the camp. A large force of British advanced to the schoolhouse and fired upon the sentry; a skirmish ensued, Colonel Ward arrived with twenty more men and the enemy retreated behind the schoolhouse. A short time later they set fire to it and retired to the battery. As night fell the sky to the northwest was lighted by fire. Word was received that William Borden’s plantation was the object of plunder, his warehouse and mill burned, important papers taken from his home, and a number of slaves carried to the enemy ship.
During the day a number of messages were passed between the two forces. Mr. Gibble and Captain Bull wrote from the Peacock stating that Easton’s stand on the prisoners would be to the disadvantage of the townfolk and all those held prisoners on the ships.
Colonel Easton adhered to his position that the men were prisoners of war not deserters. Major Stuart expressed his views that it would be up to the officers negotiating the exchange to make the decision. Then came a threat, demanding Colonel Easton to give reasons why the town should not be destroyed. With this, he agreed to a time and place for negotiations.
Before the meeting, a party of men of the town force surprised two boatloads of the enemy plundering Lewis’ home on the west side of North River. They took three prisoners and wounded five or six men, including the officer commanding the landing party.
At the appointed time, Colonel Enoch Ward and Major Mountflorence of the American line, and Captain Alexander Stuart and Captain Charles Atkins of the sixth Grenadiers, met with Major Isaac Stuart of the British line at the ruins of the school house, and agreed to an exchange of prisoners, according to the following conditions:
Article 1st. That the two Prisoners Mathias Long and John Robertson of the British line be delivered up as effecting an exchange. Agreed to.
2nd. The American Prisoners to be delivered up on their Paroles to the American & their officer’s Honor that they do not act till regularly exchanged for the same number of British prisons, either Soldiers, Sailors or Citizens and that the Boundary of their Paroles extend no farther than ten miles from their Habitations. Agreed to.
3rd. for the Delivery and Parole of those Prisoners we appoint to meet tomorrow at 10 o’clock at the Ruins of the School House. Agreed to.
4th. no hostilities to be committed until after our meeting at the appointed Hour either by land or water and entirely postponed till one o’clock.
Beaufort School House, April 9, 1782.
The next morning it was discovered that the enemy had left the town. At one o’clock, not at ten as agreed upon, the exchange of prisoners took place. All of the enemy prisoners were returned, but the British did not fulfill their agreement. They detained the pilots, a number of townsmen, and some slaves belonging to William Borden.
On taking possession again of the town battery, Easton and his men found the three guns dismounted, one broken and the others spiked and filled with shot. Men set to work cleaning them out. One was ready that day for firing.
At midnight Captains Neal and Maston of Craven County joined the camp with 40 men and in the morning Captain Dan reached the town with 50 men. Help had arrived too late.
Early the following morning, as soon as the other gun was cleared, the townsmen began to fire on a sloop that was getting underway. Immediately the enemy began to cannonade the town. No one was killed or wounded, but two cannon balls went through two houses. Easton ordered Captains Fulford and Foot to Shackleford Banks to prevent the enemy from getting water.
About nine o’clock that night the enemy set fire to the sloop for some unexplained reason, destroying a quantity of provisions and naval stores they were unable to remove.
The following day the people of the town kept their eyes on the fleet, wondering what their next move would be. They heard gunfire at Shackleford Banks and later saw a ship and schooner join the fleet at Borden’s Banks. Word was received that Captains Fulford and Foot, with their men, surprised a landing party seeking water under cover of the two vessels, killing and wounding a number of the party, and destroying their water casks. They then forced the vessels to slip their cables and withdraw, later joining the fleet in front of the town.
The next morning the enemy withdrew from Borden’s Banks toward the harbor where they dropped anchor. A group of townsmen set out to inspect the charred remains of the burned sloop and were able to retrieve a three pound cannon. Carrying it back to town where they were jubilantly greeted, they took it to the town fort and mounted it for added protection.
Sunday morning (April 14th) Easton and his men spent the day preparing shot for they did not know what would be the enemy’s next move. Someone drew their attention to a sloop approaching the bar. They tried in every manner to signal it to let the captain know that the ships in the harbor were British, but to no avail. They were dismayed when they saw the sloop “strike her colors” at the first show of the enemy. It seemed so apparent to some she could have made her escape, had she only tried.
The next morning the lookout reported the enemy landing men on Borden’s Banks, for the purpose of seeking water, with troops for protection. Easton quickly dispatched men from the camp in Beaufort to watch them and keep them from getting the much needed water. When the enemy saw the men, they quickly withdrew to their ships without water.
Desperate to destroy the enemy ships, the townsmen worked all day preparing rafts which they loaded with tinder, pine knots, straw and tar. At dark, when the tide was running in the right direction and the wind with it, they set fire to the contents of the rafts and sent them on the tide toward the vessels. All watched breathlessly as the rafts floated toward their goal. Suddenly the wind changed and drove them on the beach where they burned out, their mission unaccomplished. Later the pilots reported that they had greatly alarmed the men of the fleet.
On Thursday, April 16th, the townsmen noticed the enemy ships making preparations to sail, but a strong fresh wind sprang up curtailing their plans. They stayed peacefully at anchor. No landing attempts were made.
The following day found them again setting sail. They weighed anchor and headed for the bar. The men at the town battery exchanged five shots as they approached the inlet. At midday they were over the bar where they paused to release the pilots and other prisoners, except Borden’s slaves. Their mission over, the British vessels – two ships, three schooners, one sloop and a small boat – set their course for Charleston.
The prisoners returned to town. The pilots brought a message from D. McLean, Commander of the fleet, a letter written on the 14th to Colonel Easton and the townsmen threatening to burn the town to ashes if they “harmed a hair on the heads” of the pilots, who had only done what they were forced to do in guiding the vessels over the bar.
The enemy was gone; the siege was over. The men of the County had done their best. If not keeping the enemy from pillaging the town, they had kept them form spreading into the County and destroying the granary, salt works and the supplies in warehouses on Harkers Island and other plantations, except Borden’s. They had also kept the enemy from supplying their ships with water and discouraged them from attempting any further depredations on the coast of North Carolina.
Help arrived when it was too late to protect the town. The Governor had been warned of the impending expedition against Beaufort. In early April an unsigned message in General Green’s handwriting appeared in a packet dated March 30th: “A force of four vessels mounting the whole of forty guns and manned with two hundred and fifty seamen is preparing in Charletown and will sail in a few days. Their object is Beaufort in North Carolina in which they are informed is a large quanity of public and private stores. Should they be repulsed they will proceed to Ocracoke with the same view.”
Apparently Governor Thomas Burke was not alarmed, for on April 12th, in a long letter written in Hillsborough to General Greene, there was a small paragraph, “I have just received reports of the landing of some British troops at Beaufort in this State, but not authenticated. I can see no object for them and can scarce credit it.” It was not until then that the Governor began to fear the British. “Their success at Beaufort would imbolden them to make further attempts” at “New Bern or Edenton or both promising to them a much richer prize.”
Orders were dispatched to New Bern and Edenton for engaging 500 militia in each town “to cover such places as may appear to be the object of the Enemy.”
On April 20th the House of Commons rescinded the order “as the enemy have embarked and put to Sea.”
In all the communications there was no mention of moving to the defense of Beaufort. This only tended to reflect the attitude of the State toward the County of Carteret. A number of years later, when Mr. James W. Bryan of Beaufort was a delegate to the convention of 1835 for the purpose of amending the Constitution, he spoke up in defense of Carteret County:
There is no County in the State whose resources are so little known and whose importance is so little appreciated as Carteret. Its reputation of being poor, a rose not from a want of internal resources, but from the fact, that the ocean, its rivers, and the sounds, would, with the exercise of but little industry, yield a bountiful supply of the delicacies and luxuries of life, in consequence of which, there was not that persevering labor necessary for the acquisition of great wealth. Carteret possessed within its confines a body of land not surpassed in fertility by any in this Union. He had heard this from the United States’ Engineers, from distinguished members on this floor, and from substantial farmers at home. This county, in our Revolutionary struggle, contributed much aid and support to the achievement of our Independence.