The Fight for Independence and the Independence Hurricane
It took a lot for colonists in eastern North Carolina to consider revolt. All they wanted was fair treatment. Don’t exploit us. Give us some say. We’ll be loyal subjects.
But royal governors, born to silver-spoon aristocracy were tone-deafened by uncompromising loyalty to a patronising English system. Parliament expected the colonists to pay off England’s debts from past wars with Indians, plus some extra in appreciation.
In the end it came down to money.
Taxes Taxes Taxes
If nothing else, England was resourceful in thinking up ways to get the colonists to pony up. The Navigation Acts. The Sugar Act. The Stamp Act, The Townshend Acts. The Tea Act. And finally, The Intolerable Acts (retribution for dumping tea in Boston Harbor).
Charles Townshend (author of an Acts) stated the English position neatly, with a liberal dollop of cloying benevolence.
Now, will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence until grown to a degree of strength and opulence, protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute a mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under for their defense?
And here Americans thought they were the ones bearing the burden.
The Stamp Act in 1765 lit the fuse. It pitted angry colonists against England and its governors.
A stamp or British seal had to be purchased for every newspaper, pamphlet, contract, or other legal document. Effectively, no goods could be transported without using these stamps.
Governor William Tryon, who had just settled in at New Bern, the state capital, signaled unswerving support of The Stamp Act . . .
. . .when rebellion flared in North Carolina and every other colony.Tax collectors were bullied into resigning. Crowds — mobs — gathered in cities (five hundred in Wilmington, North Carolina) to mourn the death of Liberty in solemn processions.
Governors and tax collectors, were hung or burned or decapitated or a mix-and-match in effigy. In Wilmington, the victim is never precisely named, instead called that Honourable Gentleman).
The colonists organized a Stamp Act Congress to petition for repeal (though North Carolina did not attend because the Governor refused to convene the colonial Assembly so it could elect delegates.)
Sons and Daughters of Liberty formed among working classes. Sons enforced boycotts on imported goods. Daughters made the boycotts work, spinning homespun and brewing herbs to replace tea.
After a year of futile attempts at enforcement and complaints from English merchants about boycotts and losses, Parliament repealed The Stamp Act. But a face-saving retaliation was needed. That’s when the Townshend Acts were passed, taxing certain exports instead.
How did the colonies become so united in their opposition? Never under-estimate the power of a Free Press. Printers of independent newspapers published slogans, reported ideas and events, established networks. News and views traveled as fast as a horse could fly from town to town, colony to colony.
The Royal Governors and North Carolina’s Defiance
In the midst of the frenzy, Governor Tryon decided to build a Georgian-style brick palace that mirrored the suggested majesty of his position. One architectural writer called it a monument of opulence and elegance extraordinary in the American colonies. More taxes were levied.
(At least colonists got quality for their shillings; the unfinished palace withstood the Hurricane of 1769 that leveled two-thirds of New Bern.)
Then, still mired in conflict and controversy, Tryon left the mayhem here to become Governor of New York. The next governor would have to deal with hostility in the colonial Assembly and with sharp anger over a failed rebellion by back country dissidents, the Regulators, some of whom had been hanged after tangling with standing militia over taxes.
Amiable, hardworking, but equally tone-deaf Josiah Martin (who owned several plantations) became the new governor and began to fill the palace with collectibles and live the high life.
He brought his family to Hillsborough to avoid mosquito-season along the coast. There were dinner parties and tea parties, horseback rides and drives. The town was filled with the rich and the beautiful.
But Martin skirmished continually with the colonial Assembly. When they proved intransigent, he finally dissolved the group. Not-so-amiably, he began building a loyalist force.
In 1773, the judicial system collapsed. Cases would be decided by military tribunal instead of civil magistrate. North Carolina colonists were incensed. Radicals began to call for separation.
On top of this, came the Tea Act in 1773. Why in the world should the colonists complain about this Act? This was not a tax. Colonists were already paying taxes on tea. Instead, colonial merchants, middlemen in the tea-trade, would lose their profits to a monopoly given to the East India Company because it was failing financially.
England, still blinkered, assumed that nobody would notice and those unruly colonists would hush their irritating cacophany of complaints.
Colonial merchants and their profits were not so easily parted. The ruffians dumped East India tea in Boston Harbor! Now upper class merchants and planters were united with middle-class Sons and Daughters of Liberty.
Tempers might have cooled and saner minds prevailed, but England replied with the Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by the colonies, that closed the port of Boston and rescinded the Massachusetts charter until the tea was paid for. This was the final insult that united patriots up and down the coast.
In North Carolina a group of patriots formed the first provincial congress in Summer 1774 and called for a formal boycott of all British goods to be enforced by counties in the colony.
This action in North Carolina is widely accepted as the first formal declaration of defiance of British rule in the colonies. (Later, in October 1774 the First Continental Congress would call for a boycott of British goods by all colonies.)
Women from the town of Edenton (located near the Chowan River) formed their own Tea Party and signed a pledge to boycott British goods. North Carolina and other colonies sent food and supplies to their beleaguered northern neighbor.
The town of Hertford (located on the Perquimans River) shipped 2097 bushels of corn, 22 barrels of flour, and 17 barrels of pork.
Boston’s Committee of Donations, thankful for the food, wrote that the losses, sufferings, and distresses…are really great…not easy to be conceived. Particularly after Parliament enacted the Restraining Act directly against New England: no fishing on traditional grounds and no trading with any other country except England.
Informed by a patriotic free press that reinforced a single theme, colonies and communities were hardening their opposition against England and — significantly, opening their hearts in spontaneous generosity to their comrades.
The fuse was sizzling. By 1775 the Second Continental Congress had ordered counties to set up Committees of Safety that gradually intimidated and weakened the power of royal governors.
In 1775, fearing for his life, Governor Martin abdicated, fleeing the palace in a coach one night to take refuge in the safety of Fort Johnston near Wilmington, which he described as a wretched little place.
He would eventually be fingered as the instigator of a plot to arm slaves against the colonists.
From secure exile on the HMS Cruizer, he denounced the Safety Commitees and worked to restore royal authority throughout the colony. He began to organize Loyalists, enlisting Scottish Highlanders, whose ancestors were known for their fierceness in battle, and who were loyal to the Crown.
The Lexington and Concord of the South
The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February, 1776 near Wilmington in eastern Carolina was brief, maybe only three minutes long. Yet it was pivotal. It has been called the Lexington and Concord of the South.
It galvanized patriots. It defused loyalist activity. It marked the permanent end of royal authority in North Carolina. It would help to hold the south for the colonists during the early days of the war.
And it produced the historic Halifax Resolves in April, 1776, a full three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. This bold North Carolina document lists the colony’s grievances and England’s failure to redress them, with this key resolve:
Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, resolving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony. . .
It might have been an easy victory for the British if the regiments that were promised to Governor Josiah Martin had shown up for battle. They were delayed by bureaucracy and storms and arrived three months too late.
By mid-February 1776 Martin had assembled about 1600 Highland Scots and other Loyalists. Meanwhile Patriots began to assemble Minute Men and militia near a narrow bridge situated at the highest point along Moore’s Creek, an excellent defensive position. The bridge crossed the dark swampy creek where the waterway was 50 feet wide and three feet deep.
The Loyalists were camped about six miles away. At 1 am on the 27th they began their march through bone-chilling, icy waters. After several hours they found the Patriot camp with campfires left burning. There was no answer when the Loyalists called for surrender. Assuming the rebels were in retreat, they regrouped to pursue them at daybreak.
A Patriot sentry fired a warning round and the attackers forged toward the bridge, shouting King George and broadswords while Scots played bagpipes.
The patriots, numbering about a thousand, had left their campfires burning, not because they were in retreat, but to trick Loyalists while they moved their forces into position across the bridge. Once across, they removed the planks from the bridge, greased its girders and went into hiding.
Only a few Highlanders made their way over the slippery remnants of the bridge, and they fell rapidly under heavy Patriot fire. Within three minutes the battle was over, with about 70 Highlanders killed or wounded and one Patriot who died four days later.
The patriots took about 850 captives who reported being treated with respect. All except ringleaders were released on parole. Spoils of battle included 500 muskets and 300 rifles, many probably used on farms, and $15,000 (value at the time) worth of Spanish gold.
The site of the battle, including the reconstructed bridge, is preserved in Moore’s Creek National Military Park, 86 acres managed by the National Park Service.
Josiah Martin continued planning and assisting British campaigns until he and his family left for England after the war. His property in North Carolina was apparently sold. Later he said he missed North Carolina and the people he had grown to like. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder?)
The Role of Albemarle Counties
The Albemarle area is the oldest settled land in the state. Older, too, than settlements in many coastal colonies. Many early leaders of the colony claimed the Albemarle as home.
While the voices of Virginia and Massachusetts statesmen are recorded eloquently in history books, less has been written about North Carolina’s early statesmen who raised clear voices for independence. John Harvey from Perquimans County, for instance, was every bit as vocal as Patrick Henry on independence, leading North Carolina to call for a boycott of British goods ahead of the rest of the nation. He was a wise and respected leader of men.
If you look at a map of military campaigns during the Revolution, it would appear that nothing happened in eastern North Carolina. There were no major campaigns here. Nevertheless patriots were active on the homefront, particularly as privateers.
The colonial navy was a fledgling operation compared to the mighty British Royal Navy that had protected American shipping during peacetime. Now, with their cannons reversed, the high seas became the arena for David and Goliath.
But David wasn’t standing still. In March, 1776, the Continental Congress enacted regulations for privateers (merchant ships turned pirates with a permit) to prevent the British from provisioning their armies.
Bonds had to be posted to insure rules were followed, but all spoils belonged to Captain and crew. The purpose was not to enrich the colonial war chest but to break the back of English shipping.
Privateering became lucrative. It was so popular, about 1700 “permits” were issued. Incomplete records show that 800 privateers captured 600 British ships with a loss of about $18 million (value at the time). The English economy suffered and the war became unpopular with English citizens.
Individual colonies also had fleets of privateers who operated under rules designed by each colony, so privateering in North Carolina was different from the national model.
For patriotic merchants in Edenton and New Bern privateering became a way to donate funds to a struggling nation. In North Carolina, prize money from privateers was not split between captain and crew but rather given to the state and its people, with merchants underwriting the ventures.
The Albemarle area also contributed companies of soldiers and volunteers to the Patriot cause, including a number of freed black men and slaves who served as soldiers and sailors.
North Carolina soldiers saw some of the most intense fighting up and down the coast from Valley Forge to Charleston. After Valley Forge, where 204 North Carolina soldiers died, regiments that should have totaled almost 5,000 soldiers were only able to muster about 1,000. In the battle of Camden (near Charleston) South Carolina, 3,000 North Carolina men were lost.
They must have fought fierce on the battlefield, though. About six months before the end of the war, after the battle of Guilford Courthouse near Greensboro, British General Cornwallis concluded that North Carolina is of all the provinces in America the most difficult to attack. He left North Carolina to skirmish in Virginia and surrendered at Yorktown in October, 1781.
The Independence Hurricane
Ironically, it was not the war but a hurricane that devastated northeastern North Carolina. In an odd turnabout, it bolstered the colonists’ cause.
The hurricane came after four days of heavy rain in early September 1775, several months after the first battles of the Revolution had been fought in Massachusetts. No one could predict its ferocity.
It’s called the Hurricane of Independence, or Independence Hurricane, and it’s considered the eighth deadliest hurricane in North Carolina’s history, probably a Category 4, with winds of about 140 mph. It tore across the barrier beach, sweeping towns away, tossing ships and their crews, destroying crops. Five schooners coming from England were lost.
With equal fury it barreled through the Albemarle area, flooding towns, laying waste to an entire corn crop and killing over 100 people here. Tales are handed down, still told today, of dead animals and flotsam from broken up houses and barns floating down rivers into Albemarle Sound.
Was the tragic and violent storm that hit the English colony of Newfoundland a week later the same hurricane re-energized or an entirely different storm? The American colonists were sure it was the same hurricane. In Newfoundland over 4,000 settlers and fishermen were said to have lost their lives. The fisheries industry was wiped out, a serious economic blow to England.
A storm surge of twenty feet drowned the coast. In The History of Newfoundland, the Reverend Anspach wrote in 1819:
“On the 12th of September, in the year 1775, this coast was visited by a most terrible gale. In Harbour Grace and Carbonier all the vessels in the harbours were driven from their anchors; but the inhabitants of the north shore suffered with still greater severity. They even now with signs of dread and horror, show a cove where upwards of two hundred fishing boats perished with all their crews.”
As stunning as the losses had been to homesteaders in eastern North Carolina , the far greater losses to England’s economy were perceived as an omen of good fortune, a sign that the rebel cause was just. It boosted flagging morale, even persuaded the doubtful to enlist.
In a gesture that acknowledged the grave losses from the hurricane in North Carolina, the Second Continental Congress that governed the fledgling nation for the next six years gave farmers 40 shillings each to start over. A precedent that would be repeated many times in the history of hurricanes.
(Next, Navigating the Sound and the Beloved Shad Boat)