North Carolina and Public Spirit in the American Revolution, 1775–1783

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 4, 2021
by John R. Maass Also by this Author


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In the South, the American Revolution was largely a civil war, one between Whig supporters of American liberties and Loyalists or Tories, who remained attached to the crown. Both sides strove to encourage and maintain the support they had among the people, and to attract to their side the neutrals or uncommitted inhabitants. Historian John Shy called this the “triangularity of the struggle,” in which the British and American combatants “contended less with each other than for the support and the control of the civilian population.” Nowhere was this more true than in North Carolina. A detailed examination of this state, as representative of the other southern provinces from 1775 to 1783, demonstrates the strong link between military forces in the field and the society from which they arose. In order to fight a successful campaign in that theatre, military leaders had to invigorate and shore up public attachment to their cause within the communities they were charged with defending. Consequently, they had to be sure to uphold the “public spirit,” as they termed it, despite the many defeats and hardships experienced during their struggle against both Tories and redcoats. The need to attach the majority of the inhabitants to the new state—to win their “hearts and minds,” to use a modern phrase—was a major priority for lawmakers and soldiers during the conflict. Instilling allegiance to the newly independent North Carolina in its citizens not only helped in a military sense, it also gave form and legitimacy to the state-building efforts of Carolinians in the early 1780s.[1]

While the people were for the most part generally supportive of the Whigs in North Carolina during the war, at times the will of the people to provide support for the military struggle was significantly lacking. American Gen. Benjamin Lincoln lamented that “it is painful to observe in how many instances the object which first induced us to take arms is now winked out of sight.” Regarding the state’s troops, he found that “too many content themselves with having done what they call their turn (and as much of that out of camp as possible) and pay little attention either to the good of the service, justice to the public, or to a line of conduct which will promote a speedy termination of the present war.” No doubt Lincoln would have agreed with one North Carolinian who wrote with regard to sending an expedition of men to South Carolina, “I know our Assembly will exert itself on this occasion, but of the people I have my doubts; they seem tired of the business of war.”[2]

By 1780, most Carolinians were no doubt tired from the demands of the conflict, in terms of military service, financial burdens, and physical destruction. Gone were the initial days of enthusiastic public support for independence, as were the Patriots’ celebrations of victory after they defeated a loyalist force at Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. With South Carolina under attack by a British expedition in early 1780, William Hooper of Wilmington noted that “there is a lethargy about us in this place that to me is unaccountable, the inhabitants act as if in a state of perfect security, making no preparations for resistance or retiring.” Thomas Burke of Orange County complained in July 1780 of the “wasteful ravages of the Troops” and abusive commissary agents around Hillsborough, and presumably along the army’s route of march as well. “These violences have been attended with much Insolence, and a conduct extremely disgusting to the people, which have produced much murmuring, indignation and complaint, and, I fear, have even shaken the attachment of some of our very well affected Whigs.” Such abuses, he continued portentously, “greatly prejudice any cause and dispose the people to open their arms to an Enemy who offers them greater security.”[3]

In the aftermath of the American defeat at Camden (August 1780), a backcountry militia officer observed that “Almost every class of Citizens let their Attention rest directly upon their Property, the Loss of which seems to touch them with more Sensibility than the Loss of their Country’s Freedom.” Sentiments such as these suggest that the success of British arms had dampened the morale of numerous Carolinians.[4]

When he arrived in North Carolina in December 1780, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene already suspected that “the virtue of the people is not equal to the sacrifices necessary to be made,” and reported that “the people appear, notwithstanding their danger, very intent upon their own affairs.” Unsurprisingly, military setbacks and the growing hardships on the citizenry as the war dragged on after 1780 did little to revive the public’s sentiments in favor of the Whigs’ cause. As governor beginning in the summer of 1781, Thomas Burke became all too familiar with the problem of civilian morale. Burke learned that “the want of arms and ammunition is another circumstance which tends very much to dispirit and distress the well-affected and to embolden the disaffected in this Country,” since the people were unable to resist their British and Tory enemies. Burke wrote that when he assumed the office of governor, “I saw the Country, every where infested by its Enemies, either open or concealed, yet the people Sunk in careless inattention, every where unprepared, and in a Settled habit of Wayward disobedience.” With such scenes all over the state, it is no wonder that the spirit of the people for continuing the Revolutionary struggle was at a low ebb.[5]

General Greene echoed these remarks in a series of letters in 1781, in which he noted that the people showed a “backwardness to turn out” while the British and Hessians tramped across the state. The people were “inattentive to their interest.”

Some of the states when ruin approaches them, exert themselves; but the difficulties and danger no sooner subsides, than they sink down into their former sloth and inattention; and seem to be content with the merit of what they have done . . . North Carolina did nothing at all until she saw that we would not let the enemy possess the State quietly. The Whigs are so fond of pleasure that they have but little relish for the rugged business of war.

Greene made a telling observation about the dubious steadfastness of the men who served in the ranks of his army and the militia. “Many hundreds of our people taken by the enemy enlist into [British] service,” in many cases to avoid the prison ships in Charleston harbor. Although some of these soldiers escaped back to the Whig forces, numbers of them stayed in the enemy’s service, “and are found in Arms against us: indeed one third of the [enemy] force employed in the southern states, if we are to form a judgment from the prisoners we take, are deserters from our Army, & prisoners enlisted from our Captives.” This was hardly a demonstration of strong public attachment to the Patriot cause.[6]

Recognizing that the Revolution stood a far greater chance of succeeding with the active backing of the citizenry, North Carolina civil and military authorities saw the need to shore up public spirit in order to underpin their efforts, and to create a legitimate, orderly state recognized as the foundation of the polity by the people. In time of armed conflict, of course, this support was dependent to a great extent on providing the people with security and order. This meant protection not only from Tory insurgents, Native Americans on the frontier and British invaders, but also from oppressive Continental Army commissary agents, state tax collectors, and poorly disciplined Whig militia units, all of which disrupted the wartime lives of North Carolinians and diminished their attachment to the independence movement.

British map of the Cape Fear River and adjacent area at the time of Cornwallis’s invasion. (Library of Congress)

This need to preserve the spirits of the people became particularly acute in January 1781, with the British capture of Wilmington and Cornwallis’s invasion of the western part of the state. The state senate observed that “threatened as we are with devastation and ruin . . . it becomes proper and necessary to encourage a General Spirit of Association throughout the State,” with hopes of bringing more armed men into the field and encouraging civilians to do their part as well. The failure of the state to provide protection and order for the populace—in other words, to do what a state is supposed to do—could lead to the defeat of the revolutionary cause.[7]

North Carolina authorities also found that public morale suffered when the state’s militia companies became disheartened, since these soldiers were by definition comprised of the people themselves. Often this was related to British or loyalist military successes.[8] Enemy actions had the effect of forcing people to move to more secure locations as refugees. This no doubt led to the disheartening of those forced to flee, and perhaps convinced them of the state’s inability to prevent such hardships.[9]

Authorities tried or at least suggested several expedients in order to instill within the people a spirit of hope. Thus, by September 1780, some areas of the state required strong detachments of light horse units “in order to protect the Country from the plundering parties of the enemy; their presence must give Spirits to our Citizens.” Simultaneously, the state’s Board of War ordered Gen. John Butler of the Hillsborough District militia “to move as soon as you can” toward Charlotte, “as it will give spirits to our Western Friends” then threatened by an enemy incursion. In the wake of the battle of Camden, an anxious General Assembly resolved that the governor should advise Gen. Horatio Gates that the “Safety of the state essentially depends upon” his army of Continentals then camped at Hillsborough, and that these forces should not be moved to the northward. Such a retrograde move would be “most dangerous,” and “it will tend to dispirit the Militia and make any efforts from our own internal resources feeble and ineffectual.”[10]

Continental cavalryman “Lighthorse Harry” Lee recommended to Greene in 1781 that it would be beneficial to have a “public press as the communicatur of events [which] would tend very much to stir up the patriotism of the people. It would also be politic to apply to their religious feelings and the influence of the preachers.” Greene concurred: “Nothing will contribute more to the recovery of these Southern States than a proper channel to convey intelligence to the people,” by which he meant a printing press. In fact, the commander seemed willing to try almost anything. “This appears to me to be the crisis of this Country and nothing should be left unattempted to give a favorable turn to the minds of the people,” he declared, adding later in a similar vein that “the present moment is of such vast importance to our safety that no means ought to be left unattempted to recover the sinking hopes of the People.”[11]

News of military victories or even of a friendly army’s movement to a nearby locale often revived these “sinking hopes” of war-weary Carolinians. The October 1780 battle of Kings Mountain, in which loyalists were soundly defeated by Patriot militiamen, would “give a severe check to the Tories, and spirit and confidence to the Whigs.” This effect on morale worked both ways of course, as North Carolina Whig militia officer William L. Davidson well knew. He wrote to Gen. Jethro Sumner in 1780 that news of his advancing force “gave a surprising spirit to the people” of the backcountry, but added that contradictory reports of Sumner’s withdrawal would be disheartening. “Should that be the case,” Davidson warned, “I dread the consequences. I need not tell you the dreadful effects of General Gate’s retreat to Hillsborough [after the battle of Camden]. The effects of it are, in my opinion, worse than those of his defeat. It has frightened the ignorant into despair.” The General Assembly agreed: Such a move “will tend to dispirit the Militia and make any efforts from our own internal resources feeble and ineffectual.”[12]

Not surprisingly, General Greene understood this maxim quite well. “Every Thing here depends upon opinion,” referring to the public’s attitude toward the combatants. “It is equally dangerous to go forward as to stand still for if you lose the confidence of the People you lose all Support and if you rush into Danger you hazard everything.” He was aware too that unless the people were protected by a regular army, “their distresses will inevitably break their spirits, and they will be impelled to reconcile themselves to their misfortunes.” For this reason he implored Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson for aid to relieve the “distress and Suffering of the Inhabitants of North and South Carolina,” who deserved “the most speedy Support to keep alive that Spirit of Enterpize, which has prevailed among them lately so much to their Honor.”[13]

With the British poised to invade North Carolina early in 1781, Greene and his subordinates recognized the necessity of shoring up the spirits of the people with military action. The Continental Army’s retreat before Cornwallis’s invading army in 1781, in what came to be called the “Race to the Dan,” illustrates the need for military success to keep up the public morale, which would help win the war. “It is not a war of posts but a contest for States,” Greene concluded, “dependent upon opinion.” Only a regular army would encourage the “hopes of the people,” Greene wrote. Once safely across the Dan River, Greene decided to reenter North Carolina in February, having been strengthened by a number of militia reinforcements. “It was necessary to convince the Carolinians that they were not conquered,” he recalled, noting that upon his leaving the state a few weeks before, “the spirits of the people sunk and almost all classes of the Inhabitants gave themselves up for lost.”[14]

Perhaps he had this in mind after the battle of Guilford Courthouse fought on March 15, 1781, for even though he was forced to give up the field and retreat, he retired only a dozen or so miles, rather than leave the vicinity completely to the mercy of the British and Tories. When Cornwallis subsequently marched his forces down the Cape Fear to Wilmington, Greene elected not to pursue him, but rather to move his own army into South Carolina in order to “keep up the spirits of the people,” for “nothing but spirit, resolution, and perseverance are necessary” to defeat the British. This maneuver, fraught with the danger of leaving a large enemy force in his rear, had a most salutary effect. It “revived the sinking hopes of the people, and once more induced them to exert themselves for the recovery of their liberty.”[15]

Greene made an astute observation as he pursued his campaign in the Carolinas. “If we cannot accomplish great things, we must content ourselves in having avoided a misfortune.” He meant that although military victories would certainly be welcomed by American Patriots in order to drive off the British and secure the independence of their newly created states, just as important for civil and military purposes was to avoid a battlefield catastrophe, which would sink the spirits of the people. He urged caution in order to maintain public support for the southern states.[16] “Never hazard a great object for a little advantage,” he counseled Governor Burke, as “the first object in Civil and Military maxims is to preserve community from any capital misfortune . . . To avoid a misfortune is next thing to gaining an advantage.” While this may seem to be an overly cautious strategy, it worked. After Camden, the Patriots won several victories, avoided subsequent battlefield disasters, and eventually forced the British to abandon all posts within the interior of the Carolinas and Georgia except Charleston and Savannah by the end of 1781. In the end, the more cautious strategy won the war, and kept the Whigs’ spirits alive.[17]

Keeping up the spirits of the people in North Carolina was crucial to the success of the revolution, but these efforts could not be carried too far or at the expense of military needs. State officials and military leaders recognized the need to avoid burdening the citizens with undue hardships during the prosecution of the war, but they also saw that the revolution was first and foremost a military struggle, the conduct of which was a top priority. Sometimes civil liberties had to take a back seat to expediency, despite the effect this had on public sentiments. General Greene noted that “in War it is often impossible to conform to all the ceremonies of Law and equal justice; and to attempt it would be productive of greater misfortunes to the public from delay than all the inconveniences which individuals may suffer.”[18]

By August 1781, Greene had grown quite pragmatic. “It is true the people are tardy in taking the field for the support of their liberties and protection of their distressed brethren,” the general wrote, “but when the people manifest such a luke warm disposition and decay of patriotism, the laws should be brought in to oblige them to do what their duty and interest requires.” This was certainly not pandering to public spirits. Greene had apparently lost much of his patience with the citizens of the southern states, who by the war’s last stages, failed to support the army. This was dangerous, he later noted for “if the people have not the virtue and patriotism necessary for our support we must do one of two things[:] either leave the Country or [support] ourselves by force. These are dreadful alternatives.” As it turned out, Greene and other military commanders adopted the latter expedient in moderation, though public attachment to his army and the American cause suffered as a result.[19]

By June 1783, Greene was able to report that in the south, “Everything has terminated agreeable to our Wishes.” He also came back to the theme of virtue and public spirit. “I was always persuaded of a happy Issue if the People had but Virtue to Suffer and Courage to persevere. Of these I sometimes doubted; and cannot help thinking now how much has depended on the active Zeal of a few than on the generous Exertions of the great mass of the People.” But, he seemed to say, all’s well that ends well. “It is Sufficient for all that we gaind the Point and brought the Dispute to a happy Issue. The Army has much merit and many Citizens have no less and all may pride themselves on the Revolution.” Public spirit was an important concern to these meritorious soldiers, who had to balance military necessity against a need to avoid alienating the populace from the independence movement. The failure of the British to attract widespread support from North Carolina’s inhabitants and the delicate balancing act Patriot military and civilian leaders were able to perfect in order to maintain the attachment of most of the people to the American cause contributed to the successful outcome of the American Revolution, which was in Greene’s words “one of the most Glorious and most important that History affords.”[20]


[1]John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 198-200. The British attempts to utilize southern loyalists in their efforts to subdue the American rebellion has been studied in detail. See Jerome J. Nadelhaft, The Disorders of War: the Revolution in South Carolina (Orono, ME: University of Maine at Orono Press1981); Rachel N. Klein, Unification of a Slave State: the Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990);Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1998); Ira D. Gruber, “Britain’s Southern Strategy,” in W. Robert Higgins, ed., The Revolutionary War in the South: Power, Conflict, and Leadership (Durham: Duke University Press, 1979); and Paul H. Smith,Loyalists and Redcoats: a Study in British Revolutionary Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.) For an excellent recent study of escalating violence in North Carolina associated with the militia there, see Wayne E. Lee, Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: Carolina: the Culture of Violence in Riot and War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).

[2]Benjamin Lincoln to Richard Caswell, April 7, 1779, Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina, 20 vol. (Raleigh: Winston, M.I. & J.C. Stewart, 1895-1911) 14: 61-62 (NCSR); Richard Henderson to John Penn, February 18, 1779, NCSR, 14:267; Hugh Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), 215-234.

[3]William Hooper to Abner Nash, June 7, 1780, NCSR, 14: 844; Francis Marion to Horatio Gates, September 15, 1780, NCSR, 14: 616; William Pendergast to Gates, September 1780, NCSR, 14: 641; Thomas Burke to Gates, July 1780, NCSR, 15: 769; “Proclamation for a Fast, April 26th, 1780,” March 11, 1780, in NCSR, 15: 199-200.

[4]William L. Davidson to Gates, October 6, 1780, NCSR, 14: 675; Thomas Benbury to Nash, October 30, 1780, NCSR, 15: 137.

[5]Robert Burton to Burke, August 11, 1781, NCSR, 15: 603; Alexander Lillington to Burke, July 6, 1781, NCSR, 22: 541; John Collier to Burke, February 25, 1782, NCSR, 16: 203-204; Burke to Nathanael Greene, July 6, 1782, Richard K. Showman, et. al., eds., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 13 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984-2015), 11: 401; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 319-340.

[6]Greene to Baron Steuben, February 29, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 375; Greene to Joseph Reed, May 4, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 199; Greene to Reed, May 4, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 200; Greene to Reed, May 4, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 200, 201n; Greene to the Board of War, May 2, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 189; Greene to Samuel Huntington, May 10, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 234.

[7]NCSR, 17: 695-696; Samuel Strudwick to Burke, July 1781, NCSR, 15: 503; Burke to the President of Congress, July 1780, NCSR, 15: 771.

[8]Portion of James Martin Pension Application, NCSR, 22: 148-149; Archibald Maclaine to Burke, June 30, 1781, NCSR, 22: 537; John Ramsey to Burke, August 15, 1781, NCSR, 22: 563; Portion of William Armstrong Pension Application, NCSR, 22: 109-110; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 99.

[9]Adelaide Fries, et. al., eds, Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, 13 vols. (Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History1922-2005), 4: 1516-1517; Fries, Moravian Records, 4: 1567, 1568, 1569, 1912; John Ramsey to Burke, August 15, 1781, NCSR, 22: 563; Fries, Moravian Records, 4: 1765; John Luttrell to Burke, September 1, 1781, NCSR, Vol. 22: 585; Fries, Moravian Records, 3: 1335-1336; 4: 1534-1535.

[10]Board of War to Gates, September 25, 1780, NCSR, 14: 394-395; Board of War to John Butler, September 29, 1780, NCSR, 14: 398-399; Resolution of the N.C. General Assembly, September 13, 1780, NCSR, 14: 612.

[11]Greene to Samuel Huntington, November 2, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 459; Henry Lee, Jr. to Greene, April 2, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 29; Greene to Thomas Walters, July 10, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 514; Greene to Thomas Sumter, June 13, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 385; Greene to Nash, June 23, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 447.

[12]Samuel Johnston to Richard Caswell, January 16, 1777, NCSR, 11: 366; Greene to George Washington, October 31, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 448; William L. Davidson to Jethro Sumner, September 18, 1780, NCSR, 14: 773; Board of War to Gates, September 25, 1780, NCSR, 14: 394-395; Board of War to Butler, September 29, 1780, NCSR, 14: 398-399; Resolution of the N.C. General Assembly, September 13, 1780, NCSR, 14: 612; John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (New York: New York : Wiley, 1997) 225-241; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 250.

[13]Greene to Henry Knox, December 7, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 547; Greene to Thomas Sims Lee, November 10, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 473; Greene to Thomas Jefferson, November 20, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 493.

[14]Greene to Sumter, January 8, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 75; Henry Lee, Jr. to Greene, February 3, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 247; Greene to Richard Caswell, February 16, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 295; Greene to Jefferson, March 10, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 419; Greene to Reed, March 18, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 449.

[15]Greene to Lillington, March 29, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 7: 479; Greene to Butler, April 21, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 126; Greene to Sumner, April 21, 1781, NCSR, 15: 444; Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, 382-383; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 319-327.

[16]Greene to Henry Lee, Jr., April 29, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 173; Isaac Shelby to Greene, July 2, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 482; Greene to N.C. Board of War, December 7, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 548.

[17]Greene to Burke, August 25, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 9: 237; Greene to John Hanson, March 11, 1782, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 10: 481; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 325.

[18]Greene to Nash, December 6, 1780, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 6: 534; Greene to Jefferson, April 28, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 166-167; Greene to Marquis de Lafayette, June 9, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 366

[19]Greene to Francis Lock, August 20, 1781, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 9: 207; Greene to William Davies, March 10, 1782, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 10: 474-475; Greene to William Hort, October 24, 1782, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 12: 106.

[20]Greene to Jacob Greene, June 17, 1783, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 13:3 6; Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals, 386-396.


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