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North Carolina in the US Revolution

by Josh Howard
Research Branch, NC Office of Archives and History, 2010.

US Revolution

On April 19, 1775, Massachusetts militiamen clashed with British regulars at Lexington Green.  Until that point, North Carolinians had maintained a strained yet loyal allegiance to the mother country.  Legal battles had been waged between Whig and Tory forces within the state, and Governor Josiah Martin dissolved the General Assembly on April 7.  Nevertheless there had been few physically violent confrontations. However, when word of the Lexington skirmish arrived in New Bern on May 6, open warfare seemed inevitable.  North Carolina newspaper editor James Davis wrote, “The Sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed.”

Throughout 1775, North Carolina Whigs organized their resistance to the Crown.  Provincial Congresses were called to order.  Two such bodies had formed in 1774 and early 1775, leading to Martin’s order to close the Assembly.  John Harvey, the former Speaker of the Colonial Assembly, oversaw the first two congresses before his death in the summer of 1775.  The Third Provincial Congress of North Carolina, organized in August, elected attorney Samuel Johnston at its head.  The body ordered the enlistment of North Carolina’s first soldiers in the Continental Army and developed the thirteen-member Council of Safety to oversee the colony’s resistance. Delegates appointed Cornelius Harnett the head of the Council, and divided the colony into six military districts for the purpose of organizing militia and arranging representation in the executive body.

In early 1776, British authorities planned to exploit the allegiances of thousands of Scottish settlers who lived along the Cape Fear River near Cross Creek (present day Fayetteville).  Word was sent to the Loyalists to organize and prepare for a landing of British regulars along the coast.  Soon hundreds of Highland Scots were enlisting in Tory regiments in the region and marching towards Wilmington.  The Council of Safety acted swiftly to counteract their intentions, and on February 27, 1776, Patriot troops intercepted and destroyed the Loyalist force at Moore’s Creek Bridge.

Two months later, on April 12, 1776, the Fourth Provincial Congress passed the Halifax Resolves, officially endorsing independence from Great Britain.  North Carolina representatives presented the resolves to the Continental Congress on May 27, the same day that Virginia offered a similar resolution. Within two months, representatives of the Continental Congress, including North Carolinians Joseph Hewes, William Hooper, and John Penn, signed the Declaration of Independence.  In November, the Fifth Provincial Congress approved North Carolina’s first state constitution and appointed Richard Caswell governor.

Black sailor during the US RevolutionThe fall of 1776 also witnessed a retaliatory expedition taken against the Cherokee in the western part of the state.  A large force of North Carolina militia led by Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford and supported by a secondary force of South Carolina militiamen marched into the far southwestern counties of North Carolina laying waste to Cherokee villages.  This action was officially sanctioned by the Continental Congress in retaliation for Cherokee raids that previous summer in the Catawba and Yadkin River valleys. Nevertheless, many western North Carolina militiamen probably saw the operation as a potential land grab.

During 1777, North Carolina Continental soldiers, regular troops enlisted for periods ranging from twelve months to the duration of the war, served in George Washington’s campaigns near Philadelphia.  They participated in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown in September and October, before going into winter quarters at Valley Forge.  The North Carolina Continental brigade lost so many men in the fall and winter that nine regiments that should officially have totaled 4,500-5,000 men only had 1,072 men present for duty.  Two hundred and four of men died at Valley Forge, and six of the regiments were officially disbanded.

While North Carolina troops died in the north, the state itself saw relative peace.  After the destruction of the Loyalist forces at Moore’s Creek Bridge, few Tories actively resisted Whig rule. In New Bern and Edenton, Patriot merchants such as John Wright Stanly and Richard Ellis sent fleets of privateers to wage war on British shipping.  These privately armed merchantmen captured British and Loyalist vessels and had them adjudicated at North Carolina’s admiralty courts, thereby providing goods and prize money to the state’s people.  With a small, relatively ineffective state navy, and unable to rely on the equally fledgling Continental Navy, North Carolinians used privateering as their means of engaging the British at sea.

In June 1778, the North Carolina Continentals who had survived the Philadelphia campaign and Valley Forge, took part in the war’s largest battle at Monmouth New Jersey. Afterwards they were detached and sent back to North Carolina.  The following March, a large force of North Carolina militia led by Brigadier General John Ashe took part in an expedition into the hinterlands of Georgia.  Between Augusta and Savannah, they were attacked and the entire force destroyed at Briar Creek.  Three months later, North Carolina Continentals and militia fought at the American defeat at Stono Ferry in South Carolina.

In March 1780, the North Carolina Continental Line was sent to Charleston to help defend the city against a British siege.  On May 12, the city fell, and with it nearly every single North Carolina Continental surrendered.  In the summer of 1780, a British army led by Charles Cornwallis began advancing into the South Carolina interior.  At Camden on August 16, 1780, Cornwallis’s army engaged a small American force commanded by Major General Horatio Gates.  Among the Whigs were nearly 3,000 North Carolina militia commanded by Governor Richard Caswell.  The battle was a disaster for the Americans, and the entire Whig army was swept from the field.  The only bright moment for Patriot forces in North Carolina would have been their defeat of a large Loyalist force at Ramsour’s Mill a few days after Camden.

Despite the tragedies at Charleston and Camden, the end of 1780 brought American victories at King’s Mountain, where North Carolina riflemen helped eliminate a Loyalist force led by Major Patrick Ferguson. Only a few months later, North Carolina militia and riflemen helped Daniel Morgan’s Continental army defeat at Cowpens a British force led by Banastre Tarleton.  Over the course of six months, Patriot forces destroyed nearly one-quarter of the army Cornwallis had marched with from Charleston.

From January to March 1781, Cornwallis’s army pursued Morgan, and his successor Nathanael Greene, in what became known as the “Race to the Dan.”  The campaign included several skirmishes, namely Cowan’s Ford, Bruce’s Crossroads, Clapp’s Mill and Weitzell’s Mill.  The campaign culminated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the largest engagement fought in North Carolina during the war.  Although an American defeat, Cornwallis lost nearly 27% of his army; so many men that he had to retreat to British-held Wilmington.  Charles Fox, a British Parliamentarian, reportedly exclaimed upon learning of Cornwallis’s losses, “Another such victory will ruin us.

After Guilford, as Cornwallis’s army marched for Virginia, and Greene headed into South Carolina, North Carolina became a battleground for an ongoing civil war between local Patriots and Tories.  Loyalist David Fanning terrorized the region, and in September captured Governor Thomas Burke and most of the General Assembly in a raid on Hillsborough.  He was subsequently attacked by North Carolina militia forces in an aborted rescue attempt at Lindley’s Mill however Fanning escaped with Governor Burke in tow. After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown the following month, Fanning left North Carolina for the relative safety of the British forces at Charleston.  Two years of intermittent fighting continued, but no major actions took place in North Carolina.  In September 1783, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris. Finally, the sword had been sheathed.

Image Credit:

Lonsdale, R. E., ed. 1967. Atlas of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted in the NC Atlas Revisited:

References and additional resources:

Documenting the American South

NC Digital Collections (Government & Heritage Library and NC State Archives)

Resources in libraries [via WorldCat]

UNC Documenting the American South. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. "Letters concerning the news of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts." Volume 9, p. 1229-1239. 1886. Accessed May, 2010.




Question #1: Did Colonel Nicholas Long's troops of Halifax and Bute Co, NC actually fight at the Great Bridge (09 Dec 1775) and Norfolk (01 Jan 1776), or did they arrive too late?

Question #2: Were there any lead mines in Bute County, NC used to make bullets, cannon balls, etc. during the Revolution? Who was in charge?


Hello Richard,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and for sharing your questions. 

I have forwarded your inquiry to the Reference Team of the SLNC Government & Heritage Library. You should receive an email shortly providing additional assistance.

Molly Goldston, SLNC Government & Heritage Library


Thank you.


I am researching my husband's ancestry and have found that Alexander C Cooper (1754-1844) served as a private in the North Carolina Line during the Revolutionary War. He lived in Rutherford County. I am wondering if you can suggest a source to determine a more specific time period that he would have been serving.
Thank you


Hello Elaine,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia! There are several resources you may wish to consult that could provide further insight into your husband’s ancestry.

  • Fold3 is an online database that includes service records for the Continental Line soldiers. If you are a resident of North Carolina, you can access this resource with a SLNC Government & Heritage Library Card (GHL). If not, you can check with your local library to see if they have a subscription. GHL Online Resources:
  • The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina is a set of volumes that have been digitized by UNC and contain a roster of troops from the Continental Line (Vol. 16, pp. 1002-1197) and additional information about both the Continental Line and the State Militia in Volume 22.
  • North Carolina Digital Collections – Troop Returns includes some rosters for Revolutionary War soldiers from North Carolina.
  • Print Resources:
    • Lewis, J.D. NC Patriots 1775-1783: In Their Own Words. 3 vols. Little River, SC: J.D. Lewis, 2012.
    • White, Virgil D. Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files. Waynesboro, TN: National Historical Pub. Co., 1990-1992.

I hope these resources help! If you have any questions, please reach out to the library’s staff at

Molly Goldston, Government & Heritage Library


I find the information very interesting and admirable of a state in the US.


Hello, I am in England and trying to find out about Colonel John Gregory, who served in the Camden County Regiment, under the command of Brigadier General Isaac Gregory. I can find a lot about the latter, but it is not him I am focussing on. Colonel John Gregory is mentioned on this website: I am especially interested to know his age in 1781 and whether he was ever wounded in battle? I have in mind the battle of Black Swamp, on 26 June 1781, at which battle General Isaac Gregory was present, and, so, most likely, was John Gregory. If John Gregory was wounded there, or at any other time, then my long. long search will be over. I do hope you will be able to help me. Kind regards, Anne Ammundsen


I've been watching the Netflix series "Outlander" and the current setting is NC, where a Scottish settler has just been issued a draft notice from the British. After filming is complete, the series will continue in 2022 and we'll know the outcome. I'm curious to know whether your organization provides research materials or other assistance to this effort. I really like this site; thank you for the historical information you provide.



Thanks for visiting NCpedia and asking your question.

I am forwarding your query to our Reference services who can assist you:

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


OOPs-- In reference to the comment mentioning Joseph Boon, my ancestors name is Sander(s)/ Saunders/Sandy Burnett he lived in Johnston County, N.C. any information for him would list that he was born about 1745 and may list that he was born in North Carolina but he was actually born in Virginia. Thanks.

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