The American Revolution in North Carolina

The Continental Army in North Carolina

Brig. Gen. John Armstrong


Maj. Gen. Charles Lee

Maj. Gen. Robert Howe

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln

Maj. Gen. Baron DeKalb

Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene

Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan

Brig. Gen. Count Kasimir Pulaski

Lt. Col. Henry Lee

Lt. Col. William Washington

The North Carolina Continental Regiments:

1st NC Regiment

6th NC Regiment

2nd NC Regiment

7th NC Regiment

3rd NC Regiment

8th NC Regiment

4th NC Regiment

9th NC Regiment

5th NC Regiment

10th NC Regiment


On November 28, 1775 the Continental Congress ordered both North Carolina and South Carolina to provide sufficient numbers of men to help the Continental Army, to be paid by the Continental Congress and not the states. Both states rose to the occasion and North Carolina provided the regiments identified above over a period of two years. These regiments fought in both theaters of the American Revolution, the Northern Department and the Southern Department.

On May 7, 1776, Nicholas Long, the former Colonel/Commandant of the Halifax District Minutemen, is commissioned as the Deputy Quarter Master General (DQMG) for the Southern Department, with the rank of colonel. Camp Quankey is established as a Continental Army depot very near the town of Halifax, NC. Both Colonel Nicholas Long and Camp Quankey continued in Halifax, NC until the end of the war.

On March 7, 1777, the Continental Congress approved placing three companies of NC Light Dragoons onto the Continental Line, not to be assigned to any existing regiment. On July 10, 1777, the Continental Congress approved placing the two companies of NC Artillery onto the Continental Line.


Led By:

NC Light Dragoons - 1st Company

Capt. Samuel Ashe, Jr.

NC Light Dragoons - 2nd Company

Capt. Martin Phifer

NC Light Dragoons - 3rd Company

Capt. Cosmo Medici

NC Artillery - 1st Company

Capt. John Vance

NC Artillery - 2nd Company

Capt. Thomas Clark

North Carolina fell into the Southern Department of the Continental Army - and the first national commander of the Southern Department was Pennsylvanian Brigadier General John Armstrong on March 1, 1776. In April, Armstrong arrived in Charlestown to coordinate the defenses of the city, and he contributed greatly but was soon replaced and recalled to the north. He had no significant dealings with North Carolina in his short tenure.

Major General Charles Lee was appointed in May of 1776 as the new commander of the Southern Department, and he arrived in Charlestown on June 4th, after a brief stop along the Cape Fear River. He helped to enhance the defenses of Charlestown just prior to the British arrival later that same month. In September, he was recalled to the northern theater and he left Brigadier General James Moore temporarily in command at Charlestown, assisted by Brigadier General Robert Howe.

Since Major General Charles Lee was never to return to Charlestown, the Continental Congress named Brigadier General Robert Howe as his replacement to command the Southern Department in late 1776 - and he was promoted to Major General on October 20, 1777.

North Carolina added another unit in June of 1778 - the NC Light Dragoons - 4th Company, led by Capt. John Brown. However, the Continental Congress was not impressed with all of the Light Dragoons companies, and in late 1778, they decided that they were to be removed from the NC Continental Line by January 1, 1779.

In December of 1778, the Continental Congress recalled Major General Robert Howe to the north and sent Major General Benjamin Lincoln to Charlestown as the new commander of the Southern Department - he arrived on December 10th with about 2,500 men, and moved his headquarters to Purrysburg by January 3, 1779. Lincoln's appointment to lead the Southern Department was made on September 26, 1778.

The NC Artillery - 2nd Company was disbanded in June of 1779.

On May 12, 1780, the British accepted the surrender of Charlestown, including almost all North Carolina Continental troops under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln.

By default, Major General Baron DeKalb was the next "de facto" leader of the Southern Department. He was already making his way down to South Carolina when Charlestown fell and Major General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his continentals. DeKalb left Morristown on April 14, 1780 with 1,400 men, and arrived at Deep River, NC on July 6, 1780. There, he gathered his troops and began planning his campaign - however, the Continental Congress decided that the South needed a leader better known to the people. Therefore, they appointed Major General Horatio Gates as the next commander of the Southern Department on June 13, 1780 - before DeKalb arrived in the southern theater.

Major General Horatio Gates met up with Major General DeKalb at Deep River and incorporated DeKalb's troops into his army. Gates and DeKalb marched into South Carolina on August 1, 1780. Major General Gates made little attempts to integrate the local Militias and hurriendly decided to go on the offensive against the spreading British Army in South Carolina. He and his undisciplined army were soundly whipped by the British at the battle of Camden, SC on August 16th - and those not killed or captured made haste for North Carolina. This battle is often referred to as Gates's Defeat.

The Continenal Congress now decided to permit General George Washington to select the next leader of the Southern Department, and he appointed Major General Nathanael Greene to that post on October 30, 1780. Major General Horatio Gates officially turned over command to Greene on December 3, 1780 at Charlotte, NC.

On December 16, 1780, Major General Nathanael Greene marched into South Carolina, and he decided to not make the same mistake as Major General Horatio Gates - he decided to seek out the available North and South Carolina Militia leaders and to get them to cooperate with his Continentals. This was not an instantaneous success since the Militia was now quite distrustful of the Continentals, thanks to Major General Horatio Gates and the debacle at Camden, SC. But, they finally came around over the course of the succeeding months. Additionally, Major General Greene decided to split up his Continentals, and he sent Brigadier General Daniel Morgan to the northwestern portion of the state - in an attempt to split the focus of the British Army.

After the Patriot win at Cowpens, SC, Major General Nathanael Greene and Brigadier General Daniel Morgan led British Lt. General, Charles Lord Cornwallis into North Carolina with the famous "Race to the Dan River." While in hot pursuit, Lord Cornwallis sent a British force to seize and to occupy the port of Wilmington, then he followed the Patriots all over the Piedmont section of North Carolina towards Virginia. With several skirmishes along the way, the Patriots won the Race to the Dan, and Lord Cornwallis turned towards Hillsborough to provision his army. Major General Nathanael Greene and Lt. General, Charles Lord Cornwallis finally met at Guilford Court House, with the British technically winning, but losing over one-third of their forces.

Over the next two years, the Continentals won very few battles, but they did manage to wear down the British Army's resolve, along with great assistance from the North Carolina Continentals and Militia. On December 14, 1782, the British finally evacuated Charlestown, leaving South Carolina unoccupied for the first time since May 12, 1780.

The North Carolina Continentals saw virtually no action within the Tarheel State. They performed quite well in the Northern Campaign from 1777 to 1779, then they were dispatched to help South Carolina and Georgia. Most of the NC Continentals were captured and imprisoned at the Fall of Charleston in May of 1780. Four regiments were ultimately recreated afterwards and they continued to support Major General Nathanael Greene in South Carolina until he furloughed them in the Spring of 1783.
Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the small book, entitled "A Brief History of the North Carolina Troops on the Continental Establishment in the War of the Revolution with a Register of Officers of the Same," by Charles L. Davis, published in 1896.

The Revolutionary War may have been another one of those "rich man's war, poor man's fight," but many Carolinians did fight.  The Continental Army was organized by state.

It is not surprising that General George Washington never got the kind of army, molded in the British image, that he desired. The experience before Boston in 1775 was repeated many times, as local militia had to be called in continually to give the American Army a numerical superiority in the field. The Continental Army, nevertheless, became the center of American resistance, and its commander, General Washington, the symbol of the Patriot cause. The extent to which Militia could be expected to rally to that cause was very largely determined by the Continental Army's success or failure in the field.

Though the Militias belonged to the states, the Continental Army was a creation of the Continental Congress. Congress prescribed its size and composition, chose its generals, and governed the system for its administration and supply. Suspicious on principle of a standing army and acutely aware of historic examples of seizure of political power by military leaders, its members kept a watchful eye on the Army's commanders and insisted they defer to civilian authority. General George Washington countered these suspicions by constantly deferring to Congressional wishes, and he was rewarded by the assiduity with which Congress usually adopted his recommendations.

Lacking an executive, Congress had to rely on committees and boards to carry out its policies, unwieldy devices at best, and centers of conflicting interest and discord at worst. In June of 1776, it set up a Board of War and Ordnance, consisting of five of its members, the lineal ancestor of the War Department. In 1777, Congress changed the composition of the board, directing that it henceforth be made up of persons outside Congress who could devote full time to their military duties. Neither of these devices really worked well, and Congress continually handled administrative matters by action of the entire membership or by appointment of special committees to go to camp. In 1781, the board was replaced by a single Secretary at War.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were responsible for raising troops for the Continental Army, for organizing and equipping them, and for appointing officers through the rank of colonel. State authorities called out militia sometimes at the request of Congress and sometimes on their own initiative. When they joined the main army, militia normally shared in its supplies and equipment. The states, however, maintained an interest in supplying and administering the troops of their own "lines" as well as their militia, and the Continental agents had continually to enlist state assistance in their own efforts. Lines of authority crisscrossed at every turn.

It was an inefficient military system for an organized national effort. Washington could never depend on having enough trained men or supplies. He continually inveighed against sending militia to fight his battles and by early 1776 had concluded that he needed an army enlisted for the duration of the war. Congress did not, as has often been charged, ignore his wishes. In October of 1776, it voted a new establishment, superseding the plan developed for the army before Boston in 1775 and haphazard arrangements made in the interim for raising Continental regiments in various states. This establishment was to contain eighty-eight battalions of infantry, or about 6o,ooo men, enlisted to serve three years or "during the present war," with each state assigned a quota in proportion to its population under the system set up in the Articles. After the disastrous retreat across New Jersey in December of 1776, Congress went further and authorized an additional twenty-two battalions to be recruited by General George Washington's officers directly into the Continental service. These 110 battalions remained the authorized strength of the Continental Army until 1781, when Congress cut it to fifty-nine (59) battalions, also known as regiments.

Neither the 88 battalions, nor the 110, nor even the 59 ever existed except on paper. The Continental Army never had as many as 30,000 men at any one time, and very rarely was General Washington able to muster as many as 15,000 electives in the field. The states were simply unable to meet their quotas. By the winter of 1777-78, the effort to enlist men for three years or the duration collapsed, and the following spring, with the sanction of General Washington, Congress reverted to a system of one-year enlistments and recommended to the states that they institute a system of drafting men from the militia for one year's service. This first American wartime draft was applied irregularly in the various states and succeeded no better than had earlier methods in filling the Continental ranks. Bounties, instituted by both the states and the Congress very early in the war and progressively increased one step behind the pace of inflation, also produced only temporary and irregular results.

The coin did have another side. In reality the shortage of arms and ammunition and of facilities for producing them limited the number of men who could be kept continuously in the field as effectively as did the failure of enlistment drives. The militia system enabled many able-bodied males to perform part-time military service and still remain most of the time in the labor force that kept the economy going. It is doubtful whether the American economy could have sustained such an army as General Washington and Congress proposed in 1776, even had there been a central administration with adequate power. As it was, the small Continental Army that did remain in the field intermittently suffered extreme hardship and near starvation. On the other hand, American ability to raise local armies in any threatened region helped to balance the strategic mobility that the British Fleet gave to the British Army. Although militia generally did not perform well in regular warfare, when highly motivated and ably led, they could fight well on terrain suited to their capabilities. Given the conditions under which the Revolution was fought, the American military system was more effective than its critics have recognized, though it failed to provide adequately for a sustained military effort over a period of years.

Perhaps Washington's greatest achievement was simply in maintaining the Continental Army continuously in the field. Despite its many vicissitudes, that army did take shape during the war as the first distinctively American military organization, neither quite a replica of the professional British Army on which it was modeled nor yet the type of national army raised by conscription that was to appear in France after the Revolution of 1789.

The Continental Army operated in three main territorial divisions or departments - the main army under General Washington largely in the Middle States, the Northern Army in northern New York, and the Southern Army in the Carolinas and Georgia. Although General Washington was Commander in Chief of the whole, the commanders of the Northern and Southern Armies still operated with a considerable measure of independence. Congress, rather than Washington, named their commanders and communicated directly with them. Of the two "separate armies," the Northern Army was by far the most important until 1777 and the Southern Army existed largely on paper; by 1780 the situation was reversed as the British transferred their main effort to the southern states.

The Continental Army was composed mainly of infantry and artillery, with very little cavalry. The basic unit of infantry organization was the regiment or battalion composed of eight companies. Organization above this level was highly flexible. A brigade was usually formed of several regiments and was commanded by a brigadier general; a division consisted of a similar grouping of several brigades commanded by a major general. Artillery was organized into a brigade of four regiments under a Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General Henry Knox, but the various companies were distributed among the infantry battalions. There was a small corps of engineers and an even smaller contingent of artificers, who handled the servicing and repair of ordnance.

General George Washington was provided with a staff generally corresponding to that of the British Army. The most important staff officer was the Quartermaster General, responsible not only for transportation and delivery of supplies but also for arranging the camp, regulating marches, and establishing the order of battle of the army. There were also an Adjutant General, a Judge Advocate General, a Paymaster General, a Commissary General of Musters, a Commissary General of Provisions, a Clothier General, a Chief Surgeon, and a Chief Engineer. Each of the separate armies also usually had staff officers in these positions, designated as deputies to those of the main army.

All these staff officers had primarily administrative and supply functions. The modern concept of a general staff that acts as a sort of collective brain for the commander had no real counterpart in the eighteenth century. For advice on strategy and operations, General Washington relied on a Council of War made up of his principal subordinate commanders, and, conforming to his original instructions from Congress, he usually consulted the Council before making major decisions.

Both organization and staff work suffered from the ills that afflicted the whole military system. Regiments were constantly understrength, were organized differently by the various states, and employed varying systems of drill, discipline, and training. In the promotion of officers in the state lines, Continental commanders shared authority with the states, and the confused system gave rise to all sorts of rivalries, jealousies, and resentment, leading to frequent resignations. Staff officers were generally inexperienced, and few had the patience and perseverance to overcome the obstacles posed by divided authority, inadequate means, and poor transportation and communication facilities. The supply and support services of the Continental Army never really functioned efficiently, and with the depreciation in the currency they came close to collapse.

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