The American Revolution in North Carolina

NC Government During the American Revolution - 1780

In early 1780, many NC Militia units were in South Carolina helping Major Geneneral Benjamin Lincoln prepare his defense of Charlestown. The 3rd NC Regiment was already there, and the remainder of the NC Continental Line was on its way from the northern theater. It was known that a large British fleet had left New York and was headed southward, and most accurately predicted that the British would soon land in South Carolina. They did land in early February and slowly made their way to Charlestown.

Starting on New Years Day, the North Carolina Council of State met monthly during 1780. On this day, they appointed Col. John Sheppard of Wayne County to march the New Bern District Brigade of Militia southward to link up with Brigadier General John Alexander Lillington of the Wilmington District Brigade of Militia, who soon marched southward. Men from the Hillsborough District and Salisbury District brigades of Militia were already in Charlestown under Lt. Col. Archibald Lytle, a Continental officer.

By the middle of April, the British under General Sir Henry Clinton had assembled more than 10,000 men under his command and he had access to 5,000 sailors under Vice-Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot just offshore. Charlestown was now under a heavy seige and it was only a matter of time before it would be taken. On April 9th, Major General Henry Clinton sent his first formal demand for Charlestown to surrender; Major General Benjamin Lincoln politely refused.

The North Carolina General Assembly convened for the first time during 1780 on April 17th in New Bern. Since Richard Caswell could not serve another consecutive term, they elected Abner Nash as the second governor. During this session, they commissioned Richard Caswell as the second Major General in charge of all North Carolina Militia and State Troops (Major General John Ashe was the first in November of 1778). He immediately assembled more new recruits to replace the Militia whose terms were rapidly expiring in South Carolina. Some units were forwarded on, others were retained near Cross Creek until a larger army could be assembled at that location.

During this session, the North Carolina General Assembly passed twenty-eight (28) new or updated laws. Many new laws dealt with taxation, how to pay for the war debt, and how much to pay the civil authorities. They also managed to squeak in a new law to suppress excessive gaming, then enlarged the jurisdiction of Justices of the Peace. Militarily, the General Assembly updated the Militia Law, then they passed two separate pieces of legislation authorizing the governor to send 8,000 men to the aid of South Carolina, and then another 4,000 men - for a total of 12,000 men. Finally, they again authorized the completion of the NC Continental Line, which was always in chronic need of new recruits. For unknown reasons, the General Assembly decided to disband the garrison at Fort Hancock on Cape Lookout.

Around the same time that the General Assembly wrapped up its work, the Patriots in Charlestown surrendered. The North Carolina Continental Line was effectively defunct since almost all were now British prisoners. 817 NC Continentals and over 1,200 NC Militia surrendered on May 12th, along with thousands more Patriots under Major General Benjamin Lincoln at Charlestown. Most of the Militiamen were paroled and sent home to await their exchange. Most NC Continentals were placed on prison ships; some were sent to St. Augustine, FL.

With his very recent election, Governor Abner Nash did not have the experience nor did he have time to "learn as you go" while in office like his predecessor, Richard Caswell, did. The surrender of Charlestown really sent shockwaves all across the the nation, and things were quite chaotic in the adjacent state of North Carolina. Everyone was convinced that the British now had their sights on Cross Creek and they could easily sweep through all of North Carolina and take it as easily as they had Charlestown. Needless to say, the Loyalists in North Carolina suddenly woke up (for the first time since the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, over four years ago) and their activities increased dramatically.

News soon arrived that the hero of Saratoga, New York in 1777, Major General Horatio Gates, had been chosen to take over the Southern Department of the Continental Army, and he was already on his way southward. Fear was soon replaced by renewed optimism.

With sporadic help from the Council of State and subtle hints and recommendations from Major General Richard Caswell, who had not gone to Charlestown due to late arrivals of Militiamen at Cross Creek, Governor Abner Nash stumbled along and pressed for yet more troops to be raised in time to help Major General Horatio Gates when he was to arrive. When Gates did arrive, he essentially ignored all civil and military authorities within North Carolina and promptly began outfitting his own men and planning how he was going to push the British out of South Carolina. It did not take him very long to irritate just about everyone in North Carolina.

Major General Richard Caswell transmitted numerous communiqués across the state and managed to assemble a fairly large Militia army to join up with Major General Horatio Gates and his small Continental army. Virginia sent many poorly-equipped units. Soon there were so many new troops that there simply were not enough provisions within North Carolina to feed them and their horses. Major General Gates became so demanding that the only solution soon became to simply ignore him. This only made things worse. But, all were soon marching into South Carolina, much to the relief of the North Carolina civilian government.

On August 16th, the Patriots were completely routed at the battle of Camden, SC - also known as Gates's Defeat. The assembled Militia units from many southern states simply ran, and the small number of Continentals were quickly overawed by the well-disciplined British Regulars. Major General Horatio Gates was among the earliest to leave the battlefield, and he and his Continentals were back in Hillsborough before anyone else. The North Carolina Militia scattered, but they were soon herded up and led to Salisbury, to await new orders.

On September 5th, the North Carolina General Assembly hastily convened again in New Bern for a short week, far from the British threat in South Carolina. Governor Abner Nash complained so loudly about the Council of State not supporting him that the General Assembly decided to create the Board of War with extended powers and authority. Little did they or the governor know that this new Board of War would quickly cause many more problems than it could possibly resolve. For example, they soon gave command of all North Carolina Militia to Maryland Brigadier General William Smallwood. Not only was Richard Caswell embarrassed, but the entire military organization of the state considered this an abomination. To add more insult, the General Assembly quickly appointed Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson to take over the Salisbury District Brigade of Militia since Griffith Rutherford had been taken prisoner during the battle of Camden, SC. The problem was that the Council of State had already appointed Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) Henry William Harrington to this position, and no one bothered to tell Harrington nor Davidson. Both remained active until Harrington finally got fed up and resigned in December.

During this second session, the NC General Assembly passed only ten new laws. Once again, their focus was on levying taxes and raising money to pay for the war effort. They also included a law for the speedy trial of anyone accused of treason, and a law to prevent the impressment of wagons and carts currently being used to transport salt. This was done because so many wagons and carts were lost at Gates's Defeat.

Governor Abner Nash soon realized that the new Board of War essentially took over all of his "commander-in-chief" duties and he was left with very little authority and even less respect. He did what he could to rally the Militia leaders to get them to raise more troops and to coordinate their positioning. He did manage to convince the Continental Brigadier General Jethro Sumner to take command of the existing Militia units that were still on "active duty" and awaiting new orders since the battle of Camden, SC. Sumner was odered to Salisbury and soon he had several regiments of Militia at his immediate disposal. Other Militia units were again being raised all across the State, but Major General Richard Caswell was no longer in the loop - he was at his home in Dobbs County recovering from some unnamed illness.

Mostly at odds with each other, Governor Abner Nash and the Board of War somehow managed to pick up the pieces and instill some form of order in the state's military organization. But, Major General Horatio Gates increased his demands for food and provisions and managed to thoroughly irritate Col. Thomas Polk, who soon threw up his hands in disgust and resigned as the head of the North Carolina Commissary department.

In the meantime, the British invaded North Carolina on several fronts. Major Patrick Ferguson led a large Loyalist group into the Salisbury District. Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis soon marched into Charlotte and seized that small hamlet. Ex-Royal Governor Josiah Martin was with him and both promised to restore North Carolina to the Crown. The local Patriots did their best to make sure that Lord Cornwallis's stay in Charlotte was not too comfortable - they harassed his small army almost daily.

On October 7th, the Patriots had their first significant victory since the British had seized South Carolina earlier that year. Over 1,100 Militiamen from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia soundly defeated Major Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalists at Kings Mountain, SC. Nearly 700 Loyalists were taken prisoner after the bloody battle, which left Major Ferguson and more than 150 Loyalists dead. This news led Lord Cornwallis to decide to return to South Carolina and recalculate his strategy for the two Carolinas.

It was not long before more optimism once again surfaced. News soon reached North Carolina that a replacement for Major General Horatio Gates was on his way southward - Major General Nathanael Greene, who was hand-picked by General George Washington this time around. Major General Greene arrived in early December and Major General Gates was soon thereafter marching northward. Having recently been irritated by one new Continental general, the civil authorities within North Carolina initiated a healthy arms-length distance with this second new Continental general as the year of 1780 ended.

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