Overlooked Wilmington


January 29, 2014
by Robert M. Dunkerly Also by this Author


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The city you probably never thought about for its role in the Revolution had a tremendously important role in the conflict.  Boston, Philadelphia, Newport, and New York are well known for their Revolutionary War history.  The smaller southern towns of Williamsburg, Charleston, and Savannah are also recognized for their Revolutionary significance.  Yet one city stands out as overlooked, North Carolina’s largest city and port, Wilmington.  If the Old North state’s role in the war is under appreciated in general, its most important region is even more so.

Southeastern North Carolina, and Wilmington in particular, encapsulate the entire conflict.  From prewar protests to the war’s culminating campaign, the social, political, economic, and military aspects of the war are all visible in Wilmington’s portion of the struggle.  In particular, the divided nature of the conflict is especially prevalent.

The following facts explain why you should appreciate Wilmington’s role in the Revolution:

Urban Center:  Raleigh, the current state capital, did not exist yet, and Charlotte  –  now the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, DC – was a mere village of twenty homes at the time.  Founded in 1739 and located about thirty miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Wilmington had about 1,200 residents at the time of the Revolution.

The community’s economy, and consequently its politics, was tied to shipping and trade.  In fact, one study estimates that of forty-five merchants in the region, nearly half were opposed to the war and supported Parliament.[1]

Pre-war Protests:  A new governor, William Tryon, arrived in 1765, amid the Stamp Act controversy.  At least two bonfires lit the nighttime sky of Wilmington in the weeks leading up to the act going into effect.  In addition, rowdy mobs went door to door, forcing targeted individuals to drink to “Liberty, Property, and no Stamp Duty.”[2]

When William Houston was appointed stamp collector, a mob seized him and demanded he not carry out his orders.  Surrounded by armed men, he declared he would be “very sorry to execute an office so disagreeable to the people.”  When the hated stamps arrived aboard ships from England, local militia from surrounding counties gathered at Brunswick Town, just downriver from Wilmington, to prevent them being unloaded.[3]

Wilmington even had its own tea party, a little-documented affair.  What we do know is from the diary of Janet Schaw, a Loyalist who wrote disapprovingly of the port city women burning their tea “in solemn procession.”[4]

Finally, North Carolina was one of only two colonies (Massachusetts the other) to organize Minute Man companies.  Wilmington and area counties also formed Committees of Safety to prepare for war and stockpile supplies.[5]

Center of Battles:  The first battle of the war in North Carolina was fought just twenty miles above the city.  On February 26, 1776 the Battle of Moore’s Creek was the first American victory south of New England.  It was also the first engagement of 1776, fought well before most had made up their minds regarding independence.  Eventually more than forty battles and skirmishes were fought in and around the city during the war.  North Carolina’s highest concentration of Revolutionary War activity is found here.[6]

Moreover, the nature of that fighting was indicative of the divided population found in many colonies.  It was a largely internal struggle fought between neighbors: local militias that sparred in the swamps and coastal lowlands of the Lower Cape Fear region.  Most of these battles involved rival militias: Loyalists against Whigs, and only rarely were British or Continental troops involved.

Naval Activity:  Several naval actions occurred on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, and the town was an important port and naval base for the fledging North Carolina navy.  The General Washington spent its entire career under construction in Wilmington.  Lack of men and supplies prevented the ship’s completion.  Offshore, British warships blockaded the port city to cut off the flow of supplies. Yet Wilmington remained a crucial port of entry for war materials.[7]

From February, 1777 until British troops arrived in 1780, there was a cat and mouse game along the treacherous Cape Fear.  British warships patrolled, while blockade runners attempted to smuggle in valuable supplies.[8]

Civil War:  In 1781 British troops used Wilmington as a base to raid the interior and disrupt the American war effort, exacerbating the already tense situation among the divided population.  For a brief period, the only British regular troops between New York City and Charleston, SC were those stationed at Wilmington.

With British troops nearby, Loyalists in the surrounding counties felt free to rise up and openly attack those who had oppressed them for several years.  It was their chance at revenge after years of oppression under pro-Revolutionary rule.[9]

War Effort:  Wilmington was central to North Carolina’s war effort.  Most of the state’s Continental Army regiments were organized here, and the city housed an important supply depot.  Weapons, uniforms, powder, shot, and various accoutrements were housed in the city.[10]

The only mutiny of North Carolina’s Continental troops during the entire war occurred in Wilmington.  We know little of the “unhappy Mutiny.”  It is briefly mentioned in state papers, and seems to have resulted from tension between Continental troops, recruited from afar, and local militia.  The incident resulted not from any “dislike or Aversion to the services of their Country.”[11]

Wilmington was transformed by the war: encircled by earthworks, the city saw supply depots spring up, it became a rendezvous point with training camp, saw ship building, and became a valuable port of entry.[12]

Home Grown Leadership:  Some of the state’s most important Revolutionary leaders were from the Wilmington area.  William Hooper was one of the region’s most outspoken and active leaders of the Revolution, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Educated at Harvard, he moved to Wilmington in 1764.  Contemporaries described him as “ingenious, polite, spirited, and tolerably eloquent.”  Hooper first served on Wilmington’s Committee of Safety, and later in the Continental Congress.

He evacuated his family, and ironically, American militia looted his home while his slaves fled to join the British.  By this time he was suffering from malaria as well.  After the British evacuation he urged leniency on Loyalists.[13]

Perhaps the area’s most active and influential, and forgotten, person was Cornelius Harnett.  He served in the Council of Safety, Congress, North Carolina Assembly, and in the various Provincial Congresses.  In 1776 he essentially acted as governor of the state, assisting with preparations for war and managing the running of the state.

A colleague wrote of Harnett that he was “about five feet, nine inches.  In his person he was rather slender than stout.  His hair was of a light brown, and his eyes hazel . . . His countenance was pleasing, and his figure, though not commanding, was neither inelegant nor ungraceful.  Arrested when the British captured the city in 1781, Harnett, already ill, died from exposure after spending time in an outdoor prison.[14]

Other important leaders included Richard Caswell and James Moore, co-commanders at Moore’s Creek.  Caswell later served as first governor of the state and fought as a general.  John Adams said of him, “We always looked to Richard Caswell . . . he was a model man and a true patriot.”  Moore was an early militia leader and played a crucial role in the victory at Moore’s Creek.  He died of gout not long afterward.  There are plenty of others, too many to name here.

Two-minute Drill:  At Moore’s Creek, a two minute battle produced immense results, with reverberations felt for years afterward.  The battle defeated a Loyalist uprising and secured the region for the fledging American cause, it denied the British a landing point on the coast and deterred an invasion, it spurred the state’s leaders to authorize its Congressional delegates in Philadelphia to vote for independence, and the suppression of Loyalists left bitter resentment that flared up later when British troops arrived in the region, igniting a civil war.  Perhaps few other battles, big or small, had such repercussions.[15]

In conclusion: From the earliest pre-war unrest, through the war itself, to the post-war debates over the Constitution, Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear region were at the center of North Carolina’s Revolutionary War events.

Interested in battles?  They abound here.  Care to learn about the brutal nature of the civil war among civilians?  Look no further.  Interested in the role of women, African Americans, Loyalists, or other groups?  They are all here.  Is naval history your passion?  It dominates the story.  Want to know about social, economic or political issues in the war?  It may all be found here.

This author nominates Wilmington as the most neglected for its contributions to the Revolution.  Do you agree?  What city would you recommend?

[1]Gregory D. Van Massey, “The British Expedition to Wilmington, North Carolina, January-November, 1781” Masters Thesis, East Carolina University, 1987, 23.

[2] Robert M. Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River (Wilmington: Dram Tree Press, 2008), 23.

[3] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River,36-37; Robert DeMond, The Loyalists in North Carolina During the American Revolution (Baltimore: Clearfield Co., 2002), 12.

[4] Janet Schaw, Journal of a Lady of Quality (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 155.

[5] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 57, 75.

[6] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 181, 104- 5, 113.

[7] William N. Still Jr, North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Navy (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1976), 22; Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina (Raleigh, 1905), Vol. II, 274.

[8] Clark, State Records of North Carolina, Vol. XI, 755, 774, 760; Isabel Williams and Leora McEachern, Salt (Wilmington, NC, 1973), 9.

[9] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 181.

[10] Williams and McEachern, Salt, 9; Clark, State Records of North Carolina, Vol. X, 533, 560.

[11] Hugh Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), 68.

[12] Clark, State Records of North Carolina, Vol.  X, 546, 591; Dennis Conrad, ed.  The Papers of Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), Vol. VII, 236.

[13] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 33.

[14] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 22.

[15] Dunkerly, Redcoats on the River, 100, 104.


  • Huzzah for North Carolina! Great article, Robert! I’ve always felt NC has never received its just credit for its revolutionary activities, so your article will go a long way in bringing them to the RevWar forefront. Thank you!

  • Another great article, me living in upstate NY, I really do enjoy the war in the South and reading about it.

    What historical sites do you recommend visiting in Wilmington?

    To answer your question about other neglected cities, I don’t have a city in mind but the Mohawk Valley region gets very little notice. A lot happened in the Mohawk Valley such as the battles of Oriskany, Flockey, Stone Arabia, Klock’s Field, Cobus Kill, New Dorlach and Johnstown to name a bunch. There was the siege at Fort Stanwix, the Cherry Valley Massacre, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, the many raids (Caughnawaga, Canajohary, Schohary, etc.), the many forts (Fort Schuyler also know as Stanwix, Fort Paris, Fort Plain/Rensselaer, Fort Johnstown, Fort Wagner, Fort Plank and many more) and George Washington’s 1783 tour of the Valley with stops at Fort Stanwix, Cherry Valley and inspecting the troops at Fort Rensselaer as well as many others. There is too much to list here but a visit to the Mohawk Valley is well worth the trip.

    1. Brian – good point and well taken! I just watched an episode of “Battlefield Detectives” on the Military History Channel and they examined the “battle” or ambush of Oriskany. I always knew I was lacking in details of that upstate NY episode. The same with nearby Ft. Stanwix. It is a beautiful area and rich in RevWar history!

  • Wilmington is a good choice as the most under appreciated city. The battle site at Moore’s Creek is well curated – visitors can readily imagine the battle movements and highlights. A broad sword charge by the loyalists of Scottish descent was likely the last steel blade charge in history. Today one can sense the utter futility of their brave, but misguided efforts.

    Another under reported city is Portsmouth, VA. Like Wilmington, military control seesawed between the patriots and the loyalists/ British and were the last bastion of Royal Governor control before fleeing to the safety of the Royal Navy. It was the gateway for Arnold’s invasion of Virginia and the center of extensive naval actions.

  • I also vote for Wilmington. The British occupation in 1781 hampered patriot efforts to move troops and supplies between Virginia and South Carolina for almost the whole year. Thanks for a great article, Bert.

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