Militia Resist a British Supply Run
Tour: Cape Fear
Park in the lot at the coordinates, off Front Street to the left from Craven Street, or farther out Front if that is full.
Our tour route can be driven. But finding places to pause or park within view of some stops might be difficult, especially during tourist season. Fortunately, sidewalks run everywhere we go, except for a flat gravel path in the cemetery.
The only detailed account of Beaufort in the Revolution was written for the county historical association as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration (Kell 1975). It contributes many unique details, but the basic facts were corroborated with other sources.
Although major military operations of the American Revolution had ended by 1782, and peace negotiations were starting, the British were having difficulty supplying their remaining forces and followers in their last strongholds in the south: Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.
This region had long been populated. Coree natives had a village seven miles east prior to the arrival of Europeans. The historic core of town reflects the same layout and street names surveyed when it was founded in 1713 (Ann and Broad streets, from Moore to Pollock). Beaufort was a vital port during the war, as it was more protected by the Outer Banks from both the weather and British privateers—legally sanctioned pirates—than Wilmington and others. Supplies for Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army, blocked by British naval ships from northern ports, often landed here and were taken north via land and river routes. In 1781, the commander of a British force in Wilmington called this “a rascally little place” from which Patriot privateers were using five rowboats to “do much mischief on our coast.”
British Maj. Andrew DeVeaux outfitted four ships in Charleston and loaded them with Loyalist (“Tory”) militia and British dragoons—heavily armed cavalrymen, without their horses. They attacked Beaufort, S.C., in March 1782, and a month later they arrived off Beaufort, N.C. They tricked whalers into guiding them over the sandbar into the harbor.
Beaufort was not a deep-water port, so typically when ships appeared in the harbor, rowboats were sent to shore with their goods. But none came, so townspeople sent several boats out. They did not return. A militia Capt. Gibble went out, but he, too, disappeared. A major rode to the plantation of Lt. Col. John Easton (probably not his home in town) for help. Easton gathered up a few men and posted them along the shore here.
Thursday, April 4–Wednesday, April 17, 1782.
Imagine the Scene
Excitement at Biddle’s Fort
Go to the near corner with Marsh Street, three blocks east of Craven. Turn left and walk partially up the block. A sign marks the “Gibble House” across the street. It is a private home, not open to the public.
Capt. Charles Biddle brought his armed merchant ship to Beaufort in 1777 to sell cargo from the Caribbean. “As there were a number of British cruisers on the coast, I was determined to get into the first port we could make,” he wrote in his autobiography. They first spotted land near Cape Lookout, and the wind brought him to Beaufort for the first time, “a pleasant little village on the sea coast.” On that visit, he met Hannah Shepherd, daughter of a New Bern merchant who had moved here. He likely saw her in New Bern later, where the ship was based. Biddle returned to Beaufort to repair a broken mast in another ship, the Cornelia, in mid-November 1778. By coincidence, Shepherd was here visiting her mother. He asked her to marry him, and they did so nine days later. After the repairs he sent the Cornelia out again under another captain, only to have it be captured by a privateer.
Meanwhile, the Biddles bought this 1772 house from Gibble, Hannah’s uncle. It was the last one on this side of town.
In October 1779, the citizens of Beaufort are concerned about their literal lack of manpower. Women are not allowed to fight, many of the men are at sea, and the state required the county to fill quotas for soldiers from the rest. Biddle says in his autobiography, he “persuaded the people of the town and neighborhood to build a small fort. We all worked at it, and soon made a tolerably good one.”
Return to Front Street, turn left, and walk another block to Live Oak Street.
Today’s Live Oak is the road out of town during the Revolution, so it seems likely the fort is at the water’s edge ahead of you somewhere within view. It at least has breastworks facing east and toward the sea, and may be entirely enclosed by earthworks given Biddle’s use of the word “fort.” The town somehow obtained four “6-pounder” cannons, referring to the size of cannonball they fire, from the Continental Congress, and placed them there aimed toward the water.
These were not the only cannons in town, Biddle adds. A Captain Gibbons obtained two 4-pounders. These he “mounted in his piazza, and frequently in the night, when drunk, would fire them off to the great disturbance of the peaceable people of the town.” The location is unknown, but had to be north of the battery, given later events.
Biddle approached the commander of the local part-time defense force or “militia” to say he should do something about Gibbons, he says in his memoir. “The man said he would ‘try again what could be done.’ The method he took to try again ‘what could be done,’ was to get me appointed captain of the… militia.”
Biddle went to Gibbons and convinced him to remove the cannons, but Gibbons didn’t take it well. That evening Gibbons called him into the house as he was passing by, and sent his wife out of the room. Wary, Biddle made sure Gibbons saw his pistols. “There was a pair of large pistols on the table, which convinced me he had some bad design, and I was determined if he took up one of them to try for the first fire.” Nothing more happened that night. However, conflicts continued until Gibbons shot a prisoner Biddle knew, was indicted for murder, and fled town forever.[a]
For two-and-a-half years, Biddle’s fort is a silent sentinel.
Imagine standing here in the dark of early morning on Thursday, April 4, 1782. A lone militiaman stands at least two modern blocks further out, where he can see the mouth of Taylor’s Creek, the waterway along the eastern shore of today’s Beaufort. At that time, the islands off today’s waterfront did not exist, so there was a clear view into the harbor. But low-lying, marshy Carrot Island visible to the right in the distance is on the other side of the creek, then as now.
Several large rowboats appear from the open bay, full of men in typical clothes of the day. One lands and a man approaches the sentry. He tells him they are Patriots.
Easton has seen the boats and is somewhere nearby, if not at the fort. He yells for the sentry and his other men to fire on them. They manage scattered shots. The raiders—we’ll call them “the British” though they might be Tories, or a mix of Tories and British dragoons—return a volley that drives them off. However, likely unsure of how many Patriots are here, the British decide to reboard their boats and row up the creek.
Somewhere to the east the British land on Carrot Island, sneak back in this direction, and ford the creek. As the sun begins to warm the sky, they run into one or two sentries. You, and Easton, hear a gunshot from them. He and a handful of men run off in that direction. The two sides begin exchanging fire out of your sight. A British major is wounded in the hand, and a private is mortally wounded, dying the next day. Before long, however, the Patriots are back, taking position in the fort and facing that direction around 4:30 a.m. A Capt. Dennis is now here with some unarmed men, and two others arrive.
One source says a pair of Patriots show up and report the British are gathering behind the house of Capt. Gibble (location unclear), the last man captured after rowing out to the boats. It says the men in the battery watch helplessly as a militia captain walks towards them on the beach, only to be captured by raiders who run out of the house and surround him. Another source says a Patriot then runs up to tell them some of the Loyalists are trying to turn Capt. Gibbons’ cannons toward them. The Patriots supposedly open fire on the house and drive them off.
However, Easton looks behind you and sees more rowboats appearing from the harbor. He knows his men will soon be surrounded. He orders a retreat, probably up Live Oak Street to the other side of the bridge over Town Creek (visited later).
Within two days, Easton has established horse patrols to monitor the raiders, and placed guard units across the bodies of water that embrace Beaufort to prevent broader incursions.
Turn around and face the town.
The British and Tories remain for a week, plundering homes and destroying several mills in the vicinity. Women and children from town stream into the Patriot camp bearing tales of woe. Easton later wrote Gov. Thomas Burke to report:
“I have heard of cutting open of Beds, strowing the feathers over the floors, and in the Streets, and destroying every Article of furniture they could not bear off, taking the Clothes from Women’s backs, searching of their pockets, and otherwise abusing them in a very cruel manner, not leaving many a mouthful of provisions to Eat…”
On Wednesday the 10th, the camp awakens to find the marauders gone. The militia creep back into town. At the battery they find one of the guns destroyed, and the others removed from their carriages and spiked, meaning iron rods were driven into their fuse holes. By the end of the day, one has already been repaired. The battle is ready for a second phase.
Go back two blocks and cross into Lynn Eury Park. Continue to the water’s edge.
A Sloop, Rowboats, and Rafts
Recall there was no island blocking the view of the harbor at the time, so you can see the British fleet. On Thursday morning, a week after the raid started, the militia see that a sloop (single-masted ship with sails fore and aft) is getting ready to leave. They fire the one working cannon at it. The British start shelling the town, hurting two houses but no people. That night the sloop either catches fire or is set aflame. Though destroyed, it doesn’t sink.
Throughout the occupation, the militia harass parties landing to collect drinking water all around the harbor. Part of the fleet is driven off from attempting to get water on Friday from Borden/Bogue Banks, the island where Fort Macon is today. The ships return to the harbor on Saturday. That same day some of the townspeople row out to the burned sloop, get a 3-pound cannon from it, row it back to town where they are “jubilantly greeted,” and add it to the fort.
On Monday the 15th, the militia and townspeople “worked all day preparing rafts which they loaded with tinder (twigs and sticks), pine knots, straw and tar. At dark, when the tide was running in the right direction and the wind with it, they set fire to the contents of the raft(s) and sent them on the tide toward the vessels.” Imagine the anticipation of the people standing along the shore, awaiting what happens. Sadly, the wind turns and pushes the rafts back onto the beach.
Apparently the lack of fresh water forces the British to give up. You see them prepare to leave Tuesday, but the wind blows the wrong way. Wednesday they succeed. The ships stop long enough to release their remaining prisoners. The British then return to Charleston, taking with them three larger and several smaller ships—one holding rice, tobacco, and lumber for masts—and former slaves to freedom. (More on the prisoners and runaways below.)
Go back and explore the town if you wish. Historic highlights include the North Carolina Maritime Museum and Harvey Smith Watercraft Center in the other direction along Front Street, a block past Craven Street. The Beaufort Historic Site, halfway up Craven on the right from Front, features posters about the town’s history and a collection of historic buildings.
The Old Burying Ground
War-related graves are at the Old Burying Ground. You may want to pick up a map at the Historic Site if you can. Go up Craven Street one block from Front to Ann Street. Turn left, and the entrance is halfway down the block on your right.
After the initial straight path, veer right at the fork. Stop before the loop trail returns from the left, and look left.
Samuel Leffers was the schoolmaster at the time of the war. He and his wife lived in a house now at the Historic Site, but as you will see later on this tour, his school was the site of combat during the raid.
Continue up the path you are on until you reach an open area near the 1820 church. At its edge along the path, look to your left.
Here lies Col. William Thomson. He was the first commander of the new state’s Carteret County Militia, starting in September 1775. However, it was hardly a new role: He also commanded the colonial version in 1771. That year it was part of the militia army recruited by Royal Gov. William Tryon to put down a rebellion by the Regulators, who were protesting unfair taxes and other practices. Thomson’s unit was on the far-left end of the front line at the decisive Battle of Alamance near today’s Burlington, and perhaps suffered the worst casualties of any. Fifteen of the 30 volunteers from here were killed or wounded.[b] No records could be found reporting what Thomson did during the Revolution prior to his resigning from the militia in 1779.
Thomson also served in the first four provincial congresses, which declared independence and set up the new state government before and at the start of the war. In 1778 he became a state senator.
Walk directly across the open area, to the grave just off the near corner of the church.
An unusual grave is the one here of an unknown British soldier. Though he is referred to as an officer from the battle fleet, he more likely was the private killed east of the battery on the first day. Regardless, sources agree he was buried standing upright, having requested that as a salute to King George as he was dying.
Shots at the Schoolhouse
When ready to leave, go to your vehicle and drive east on Front back to Marsh Street (one block past the town hall). Turn left and drive two blocks to the 1907 railroad station on the left corner at Broad Street.
The local schoolmaster, Samuel Leffers, owned the two lots along the Broad Street edge partially occupied now by the station. He did not live here, however. Those facts, combined with its location between the camp and town, makes this stretch of land the likely site of Leffer’s schoolhouse during the war.
On Friday, April 5, the day after the Patriots are driven back, Easton receives a message from the British naval commander, written by his prisoner Gibble. The commander offers to exchange prisoners. The militia had captured two British regulars caught looting. An attempted negotiation at the town schoolhouse on Saturday goes horribly awry somehow and breaks off. As a result, a random cannonball fired from the British-held fort arcs through the sky and falls into the camp ahead and to the right of you (visited next).
Easton posts a sentry at the school. On the 8th, another cannonball screams over into the camp. A portion of the British force then advances from behind you and drives the sentry off. Twenty militia on horseback under Col. Enoch Ward come down from the camp and attack, forcing the British to take cover behind the schoolhouse. After a short firefight, the British set fire to the building and retreat to the fort.
That same day, some patrolling townsmen confront a raiding party north of the camp, wound several including a British officer, and capture three.
Easton had already agreed to another negotiation at the ruins of the schoolhouse. On Tuesday the 9th, the two sides agree to an exchange of the two soldiers for the people out on the ships at 10 a.m., Wednesday.
As you know, however, the town was found abandoned that day. The British send a party with some of the prisoners three hours late. Pilots—men who guide ships through the local waters—some townsmen, and people the British have rescued from slavery, are not returned.
The Bridge Out of Town
Turn right, and drive one block to Live Oak. Turn left. The road curves right and passes a few blocks. As it begins to curve left again, notice short guardrails on each side marking a flat bridge. Turn left immediately after them into a gravel parking lot.
Barely visible to your left and running under the bridge is Town Creek. In 1782 the creek was wider, so the “town bridge” was probably where Live Oak runs today. Militia guarded it here, and the militia/refugee camp was likely a little further up the road. At the time that curved left and became what now is NC 101, on or near the same curve you can see today in that direction.
The Beaufort Raid: All locations are educated guesses. 1) British rowboats land, exchange shots with Patriots, retreat to Carrot Island. 2) British return, Patriots confront them and fall back to fort. 3) As more rowboats appear, Patriots withdraw. 4) Patriots guard bridge as refugees set up camp. 5) British advance, are charged by militia cavalry, exchange gunfire, burn schoolhouse, and retreat.
- British/Militia: 1 killed, 7 wounded, 5 captured.
- Patriot Militia: 1 wounded, 1 captured.
After the Battle
Although Loyalists and Patriots continued to murder each other for a few more months, this was the last “battle” of the American Revolution in North Carolina, in the sense of two armed groups clashing. The raid ended almost seven years after Patriots burned down Fort Johnston in today’s Southport, starting the war in N.C. It also represents the third-longest British occupation suffered by any N.C. city during the war, after those of Wilmington and Charlotte.
The raid was perhaps too successful. The Loyalist in charge of gathering supplies for the British, John Cruden, took out an advertisement in the Charleston paper apologizing for the officers, saying they had gone too far.
- Beaufort was a center of pirate activity, visited by Edward Teach (“Blackbeard”) and other famous pirates earlier in the 1700s. Spanish privateers, pirates sanctioned by Spain, raided unsuccessfully in 1747.
- If you leave Beaufort by way of US 70 West to Morehead City, look to your right (north) as you leave land to cross the Newport River. Somewhere along that edge of the river in 1776 was Robert Williams’ Salt Works, established under contract with the new State of North Carolina. Prior to the war, almost all salt in the United States was imported, so the outbreak of conflict threatened this vital commodity: Denying salt to the rebels was a declared strategy of the British. In May 1776, Williams and Cornelius Harnett, president of the temporary state government, corresponded about setting up a salt works. Williams had seen some in Portugal. The next month the council agreed to buy the land here and give Williams £500 to set up, about $90,000 today. He almost immediately began to make excuses for why the work might be slow, and to complain about the impact on his other businesses. Little salt was produced, and the state withdrew funding by December. Another man, Richard Blackledge, set up with the same amount of money farther up the Newport, was deemed successful by the state that August.
- Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
- Biddle, Charles, Autobiography of Charles Biddle, Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. 1745-1821, ed. by James S. Biddle (Philadelphia, Pa.: E. Claxton and Company, 1883) <http://archive.org/details/autobiographyofc00bidd> [accessed 13 August 2021]
- Branch, Paul, ‘Beaufort, Battle Of’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/beaufort-battle> [accessed 4 April 2020]
- ‘Carteret County during the Revolutionary Period’, Beaufort North Carolina History <https://beaufortartist.blogspot.com/2013/02/carteret-county-during-revolutionary.html> [accessed 6 November 2020]
- Crow, Jeffrey J., ‘What Price Loyalism? The Case of John Cruden, Commissioner of Sequestered Estates’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 58.3 (1981), 215–33
- Kell, Jean Bruyere, North Carolina’s Coastal Carteret County During the American Revolution: 1765-1785 (Era Press: Greenville, N.C., 1975)
- Lewis, J. D., ‘Beaufort’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2011 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_beaufort.html> [accessed 4 April 2020]
- Lewis, J. D., ‘The Patriot Leaders in North Carolina – William Thompson’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2012 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/patriot_leaders_nc_william_thompson.html> [accessed 6 November 2020]
- McMinis, Jean, ‘An Interview with Jean Kell’ (The Beaufort Historical Association, 1998)
- Paul, Charles, ‘Colonial Beaufort: The History of a North Carolina Town’ (unpublished Master’s, East Carolina University, 2011)
Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <https://www.americanrevolution.org/calendar_south_10_ed_update_2017.pdf>
- Suggs, Patricia, Beaufort Historic Site, In-person interview and e-mail, 10/8/2020
- Warshaw, Mary, ‘The Battle of Beaufort – 1782’, Beaufort North Carolina History <https://beaufortartist.blogspot.com/2008/08/battle-of-beaufort-1782.html> [accessed 4 April 2020]
- Williamson, Hugh, The History of North Carolina (Philadelphia : Thomas Dobson, 1812), ii <http://archive.org/details/historyofnorthca02will> [accessed 28 June 2021]
 Biddle 1883.
 What is called the Gibble House on modern maps was built by Gibble and his brother, but owned by Biddle as of 1778. Gibble owned the lots between that one and the next road north, but there is no evidence whether he built there (Suggs 2020). If so, this story would suggest the battery was actually closer to town, which seems unlikely given the location of Biddle’s house.
 Lewis 2012.
 Crow 1981; spelling updated.
 Cannon details: Kell.
 Kell (quotation); Warshaw.
 Lewis 2012.
 Schoolhouse area actions: Kell.
 Tidbits: Paul 2011.
 Williams information: Kell.
 Marker C-13.
[b] Williamson 1812.