The American Revolution in North Carolina

The North Carolina Navy


John Paul Jones

North Carolina's initial step in procuring a naval armament was taken on December 21, 1775, when the Council of Safety resolved to fit out three armed vessels for the defense of the trade of the state. It appointed three Boards of Commissioners, each of which was to immediately purchase, arm, man, and victual a vessel. The board for Cape Fear was composed of five men; for New Bern, of eight; and for Edenton, of six. Since it proved difficult to assemble a quorum of the New Bern Board, the Council of Safety in June of 1776, vested its powers in three of its members. In May of 1776, the Provincial Congress fixed the monthly wages of officers, seamen, and marines. Captains were to be paid £10; lieutenants, masters, captains of marines, and doctors, £8 each; marines, £2, 13s., 4d.; "seamen complete," £4; "seamen not complete," £3.3.

By October of 1776, the Cape Fear Board had fitted out the brigantine Washington; the New Bern Board, the brigantine Pennsylvania Farmer; and the Edenton Board, the brigantine King Tammany. The Council of Safety now ordered these three vessels to protect the trade of the state at Ocracoke Bar, and to proceed against the enemy's Jamaicamen homeward bound from the West Indies. "It may be necessary to inform you," it wrote on October 1 to Captain Joshua Hampstead of the Pennsylvania Farmer, " that the Jamaica fleet will sail for Europe about the middle of this month under the convoy of a twenty-gun ship only, from the best intelligence we can obtain."

For one reason or another these three vessels accomplished very little. For a long time the Washington, commanded by Captain Edward Ingraham, could not obtain a crew. The Pennsylvania Farmer, commanded by Captain Joshua Hampstead, was idle during the summer of 1776, for lack of shot. James Davis, one of the Commissioners for fitting out this vessel, made serious accusations against his fellow Commissioners and the officers and crew of the vessel. As Davis had suffered real or supposed injuries at their hands, his words no doubt must be heavily discounted.

In October of 1776, he wrote that the Pennsyl vania Farmer lay in New Bern "with 110 men on board at the Expence of near Forty Pounds per day, upwards of six months; in the most inglorious, inactive, and dissolute state that perhaps was ever suffered in any Country." The crew of the vessel consisted of "men of all nations and conditions, English, Irish, Scotch, Indians, Men of Wars Men,and the most abandoned sett of wretches ever collected together. Two of the officers broke open the Gun Room, and with a number of the men went off with the Boat, with Intent to join Lord Dunmore's fleet, and actually reached Currituck County. They were apprehended, and are still at large on board. They have wasted near 100 pounds of powder in wantonly firing at and bringing to all Boats, Canoes, and Vessels of every sort, even Passengers in the Ferry Boat have been insulted. Capt. Thos. Shine of the Militia, with his Company on board com ing up to the General Muster, was fired on and a ball passed within a few inches of his Arm." These are but few of the derelictions contained in Davis's remarkable list. His overstatement of his case causes one to sus pect that he was not entirely free from malice.

By Decemberof 1777, the Washington was ordered to be sold; and commissioners had been appointed to load the other two vessels and send them on voyages to foreign ports. In April of 1778, the legislature decided to sell the Pennsylvania Farmer. On May 30th, this vessel at a public sale in Edenton "was cried out by John Blackburn on Mr. Joseph Hewes, after which Mr. Hewes denied having bid the sum which she was cried out at."

No other subject of naval interest engaged the attention of North Carolina so much as the defense of Ocracoke Inlet. It is recalled that the waters of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds are separated from the Atlantic by a long sandbar, which is only at a few points broken by inlets. These connect the waters of the Atlantic with the waters of the Sound. The most important inlet at the time of the Revolution was that of Ocracoke. The protecting and the keeping open of this entrance was a matter of importance not only to North Carolina, but to Virginia and the Continental Congress, as well. Most of the foreign trade of New Bern and Edenton, the two main ports of the state, passed through this inlet. In a simi ar way, the trade of Southern Virginia, outward or inward bound, found it convenient to use this channel. In the first years of the Revolution, especially in 1778, not a few goods coming from foreign marts, and destined for the Continental Army, rather than risk capture off the entrance to the Chesa- peake or the Delaware Bay, entered Ocracoke, passed on through Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds into Chowan River, and thence by the branches of this river to the town of South Quay, in southern Virginia, near the confluence of the Nottaway and Blackwater rivers. From South Quay the goods were carried by wagons to Suffolk on the Nansemond, and thence by boat up the Nansemond into the James. This route constituted the southern division of the so-called "Inland Navigation." It was along this road that North Carolina salt pork and beef, and shoes made by North Carolina Quakers, passed northward on their way to the "Grand Army." In 1778 and 1779, South Quay and Suffolk were important entrepots for Continental goods.

Since the keeping open of communication through Ocracoke Inlet was of importance to both North Carolina and Virginia, the two states concerted a joint naval armament for this purpose. On May 9, 1776, the North Carolina Provincial Congress appointed Allen and Thomas Jones to attend the Provincial Congress of Virginia, "for the purpose of recommending to them the expediency of fitting out two Armed Vessels at the expense of that Colony, to act in conjunction with the armed vessels already fitted out by this Colony for the protection of the trade at Ocracoke." As her part of the joint undertaking, Virginia agreed to construct at South Quay two galleys, to be employed in the defence of the Inlet.

Virginia carried out her promise, and built at the "South Quay ship yard" two ships, the Caswell and Washington. North Carolina ordered her brigantines to defend Ocracoke; and she voted £2,000 towards the equipping of Virginia's ships, and appointed commissioners to invest this money in anchors, guns, rigging, and canvas. Finally, as we shall see, she maintained at her expense one of the Virginia ships on the station at Ocracoke for a considerable period. She did not, however, meet Virginia's expectations, which state several times expressed the belief that North Carolina had not done her share in keeping up the joint establishment.

Until 1778, the trade which passed through Ocracoke Inlet was rather free from annoyance. It was in January of that year that Josiah Martin, the late Royal Governor of North Carolina, wrote from New York to Lord George Germaine in London: "That the contemptible port of Ocracock has become a great channel of supply to the rebels, while the more considerable ports have been watched by the King's ships. They have received through it considerable importations."

On January 1, 1778, there arrived at New Bern a sloop from Martinique, a schooner from St. Eustatius, a schooner with salt from Bermuda, a French schooner from Hispaniola, and two schooners from the Northern states; a French scow was at the same time reported at Ocracoke. A letter from Edenton, dated June 9th, informs us that several foreign vessels were at the Inlet, and that a sloop had recently arrived at Edenton from France, which had on board for the Continental Congress thirteen thousand pairs of shoes, a large quantity of clothing, and a "marble Monument for Genl. Montgomery."

In the Spring of 1778, the North Carolina legislature voted to purchase from Virginia the ship Caswell, stating that it had not been able to keep its agreement with Virginia in providing a joint defense of Ocracoke Inlet. The legislature fixed the pay of the officers and seamen on board the Caswell. In May of 1778, this ship, under the command of Captain Willis Wilson, with one hundred and seventy (170) men on board, lay off Ocracoke bar. Captain Wilson reported to Governor Richard Caswell on May 20th that the place was not infested with British cruisers, and that a French ship and brig lay outside the Inlet, waiting to come in. In June, however, Wilson wrote that "the enemy (one ship, two sloops, and a brig) take a peep at us every now and then, but are not disposed to venture in." A sloop was now purchased at Beaufort, to act as a tender for the Caswell, and Richard Ellis was appointed agent at New Bern to purchase provisions and naval supplies.

In December og 1778, the Caswell was still afloat, but by June of 1779, she had sunk at her station at Ocracoke. With the loss of this vessel North Carolina's naval enterprises came to an end. Her attention was now engrossed by threatening invasions of the enemy into South Carolina.

North Carolina maintained admiralty courts at several ports on the coast. There were such courts at Beaufort, Bath, Roanoke, and Currituck. As early as April 25, 1776, a special court of admiralty was appointed to try a prize case. A few of the privateers of this state rendered valuable services. The brig Bellona, Captain Pendleton, fitted out at New Bern, cruised very successfully.


The above comes from the book, entitled "The Navy of the American Revolution, Its Administration, Its Policy, and Its Achievements" by Charles Oscar Paullin, M.D. in 1906, with minor edits.


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