A Former Capital Burns
Tour: Cape Fear
What once was a vibrant colonial capital was turned into a Confederate fort during the Civil War, so you will park at Brunswick Town & Fort Anderson State Historic Site. The site can only be toured when the Visitor Center is open, so check their website for their hours when planning your trip. For more of the site’s fascinating history and artifacts, tour the center. Then use this page to add Revolutionary War details as you walk the paved trails.
Months before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a British army was stuck on ships off the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Needing supplies, the British landed foraging parties, but were constantly harassed by local Patriots (“Whigs”). After a British ship cruising the river was fired upon by snipers yet again, the British decided to take stronger action.
Patriot part-time soldiers called “militia” have burned Fort Johnston in today’s Southport and fortified Wilmington upriver. They also are scattered about the area, resisting foragers and taking potshots at passing British ships whenever they can.
Monday, February 19, 1766–Friday, May 17, 1776.
Imagine the Scene
From Prominence to Flames
Take the south exit from the Visitors Center (not the front door), and follow the trail to the left past the Civil War earthworks. Where the trail forks, go right, and take it all the way to the river, investigating the building sites along the way as you like.
Once at the loop along the river, look back at the town site.
Starting in 1725, Brunswick Town “became a center of commerce—with tobacco, lumber, naval stores, furs, and other products being shipped out—as well as the home of a number of prominent persons.” This region would become a world-leading exporter of those “naval stores,” materials needed for ships, like masts and turpentine. Among the “prominent persons” were royal governors Arthur Dobbs and William Tryon, making this the de facto capital of the Province of North Carolina from Dobb’s arrival in 1754 until Tryon moved to his new palace in New Bern in 1770.
By the time of the Revolution, there are at least 120 buildings including 50 or 60 houses here. Many are two stories tall and built out of ballast stones from ships, which had been used to balance out loads. However, the town has been eclipsed by New Bern and Wilmington, so its population is down to merchant workers and only a few families by the war.
Ships could anchor roughly 50 yards offshore, visitor Alexander Schaw reported, so people and goods were transferred by smaller boats. Among those were Schaw’s sister Janet, who landed here on Tuesday, February 14, 1775, from Scotland. Her party stayed in town with the owner of her small ship for a few days before heading to Wilmington. She described Brunswick as “very poor—a few scattered houses on the edge of the woods, without (paved) street or regularity.”[a]
Look out into the water. The island you see did not exist at the time.
As you stand here on Saturday, April 6, 1776, be ready to duck behind a nearby building! A foraging party captured a Patriot militia officer and five of his men near town after a brief skirmish. British ships are cruising up and down the river firing cannons at anyone not wearing the red jacket of the British army.
A British fleet is anchored off the mouth of the Cape Fear near modern Southport, with a British army and the current royal governor on board. In charge of one corps is a man who will become more famous in the state five years later, Brig. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. On Friday, May 17, his force of 900 Redcoats approach Brunswick Town, perhaps along the river from the south, or on roughly the same route you used. They had been rowed to a landing south of town overnight. You hear shots from sentinels, which are returned by the British, and the Patriots melt into the woods unscathed. The small garrison left here figures out what is happening and escapes town.
Moments later the troops arrive to a huge surprise: The last residents of town are already gone! Part of the force continues to the north past today’s Orton Pond—the last reservoir you passed driving in—hoping to capture an artillery battery there. But it, too, had retired. A historian notes, “All that Lord Cornwallis could obtain for his efforts were twenty bullocks (bulls) and six horses.”
He apparently orders the town destroyed, or at least part of it. Only the southern part, to your left, burns to the ground.
Explore the rest of this fascinating site as desired, and then head back toward the parking lot. Stop at the building shell on the left nearest the lot.
The 1768 St. Philips Church was the largest in the colony when built, one source says.[b] Royal Gov. Dobbs had promised donations of a pulpit and other items, it says, but died before the building was finished. He was buried somewhere in the floor. There wasn’t a preacher anywhere in the region, so a judge gave his funeral. The new governor, William Tryon, donated the glass windows.
The British have long been blamed for burning the church, but that seems unlikely given it was part of the official (Anglican) Church of England. A more likely culprit has emerged. The local Patriot militia destroyed the home and personal property of John Collet, Loyalist commandant of Fort Johnston, the year before. Swiss, and not Anglican, Collet may have taken advantage of the outbreak of war to lead a Tory force here in March 1776, burning both the church and our next stop out of revenge.
Look at the marker by the cemetery and locate the grave of Benjamin Smith.
Benjamin Smith was born around 1757 to Sarah Moore, the daughter of the owner of Orton Plantation, and a South Carolina planter. He studied in his hometown of Charleston, in Philadelphia, and briefly in London before returning home due to the outbreak of the Revolution. After briefly serving in the S.C. militia, he joined the Continental Army and was an aide to Gen. George Washington in the 1776 Battle of Long Island (N.Y.). The next year he married the daughter of the Brunswick Customs Collector, Mary Jane Day. He helped defeat the British two years later at Beaufort, S.C., eventually rising to colonel during the war. He was contracted to rebuild Fort Johnston after the war, and in time was promoted to militia major general.
In 1782 as the war wrapped up, he was elected to the N.C. Senate, and later served in the state house and the state conventions to consider the federal Constitution. He was the Grand Master of the N.C. Masons, and state governor for one year. He returned to a life of wealth at Orton and other properties, but it did not last.
Smith was apparently too generous. In 1792 he donated the land adjacent to Fort Johnston that became “Smithville” in his honor, now Southport. He gave 20,000 acres granted him for his war service to the University of North Carolina, whose board he was on. He and Mary helped the poor and made the critical mistake of co-signing a loan for a friend, who defaulted, leaving them poor. Smith died a nearly bankrupt widower at his worn-down Smithville home in 1826.
Armed Conflict Begins
Go back to your vehicle and drive toward the exit gate. Take the right turn just before the gate. A short drive takes you to a dirt lane on the right. (If you miss it, the road loops back at the end.) Under a protective roof is the remains of Russellborough, named for its first owner.
Park nearby and go to the ruins using the sidewalk next to the handicapped parking spaces—otherwise you risk getting covered in sand spurs!
Finished around 1760, here during the war stands a 45-by-35-foot home with four rooms on each of two floors, according to its second occupant, Royal Gov. William Tryon. The first floor is five feet off the ground, though there is a cellar. Nearby to the left are a stable, coach house, and other outbuildings. In the garden are various fruit trees, Tryon says: apple, fig, nectarine, peach, and plum. A tree-lined lane extends from the front toward farm fields on both sides.
The Revolutionary War history of Brunswick Town started here, and in one sense, that of all the colonies. In February 1766—eight years before the famous Boston Tea Party—a thousand people led by the area Sons of Liberty arrive at this spot from Wilmington to protest the Stamp Act. This law by the British Parliament said all printed materials in North America had to carry a government stamp, bought with a tax, to help pay off the costs of the French & Indian War. Even though that tax had long existed in England, it infuriated colonists because previously, only their own elected assemblies could tax them. Also, the law said they could be tried in British navy courts, instead of local courts with juries of their peers.
A British vessel stationed off the mouth of the river had seized three incoming ships for violating the Act. In response, Wilmington refused to supply it. On Monday, February 19, around 150 armed men from the larger crowd surround the house. They hold Gov. Tryon and a number of colonial officers inside hostage, because they think the ship’s captain is among them. They back off when someone they trust confirms he is still on the ship.
The next day the captain agrees to release the seized vessels, but the protestors aren’t done. They round up two royal customs officers, responsible for enforcing the Stamp Act. Early on Wednesday, a party of 400 surrounds the house again, with weapons, because a third customs officer is inside. Realizing they can just come in and get him anyway, he surrenders. The three are escorted to town, where they pledge never to enforce the Act.
Although Virginia had passed resolutions against the Act, and Sons of Liberty in northern cities had held angry demonstrations, this was the first armed action directed against Parliament in America.
The town’s first brush with Revolutionary violence comes nine years later, in July of 1775. This is a few months after Tryon’s replacement, Josiah Martin, fled New Bern for Fort Johnston. Wisely, he bypassed Brunswick Town. When he later hired one of the townsmen as a courier, “This messenger proved untrustworthy and promptly handed over his information to the Whigs.”
The “committees of safety” that have taken over local government order their militia and request volunteers to take back the fort. By Saturday, July 15th, 500 men rendezvous in Brunswick Town, probably right here, and march south to start the American Revolution in North Carolina.
As noted above, Brunswick had already been surpassed by Wilmington as a port. Though the town was reoccupied after the burning, it never recovered and was completely abandoned by war’s end.
- April 1776:
- British: 0.
- Patriot Militia: 6 captured.
- British: 1 killed.
- Patriot Militia: 0.
- As part of a decades-long argument between England and Spain over the Carolinas, Spanish privateers—pirates legally sanctioned by Spain—attacked here on September 4, 1748. A local historian says they had stopped at Fort Johnston, but it was Sunday, so apparently everyone was here for church! Cannon fire from the three ships, and musket shots from a ground force offloaded downstream, announced their arrival. The privateers pillaged homes, stores, and docked merchant ships until the town’s militia commander pulled together around 60 men, a third of them Black.[c] They snuck into town as the Spanish were loading stolen goods onto a captured English ship, and drove them offshore. One of the privateer ships blew up by accident and sank while firing on the militia. A cannon almost certainly from that ship is displayed at the Visitor Center.
- During the Civil War, Confederates built breastworks on the old town site and named it Fort Anderson. It fell to Federal troops after a naval bombardment and three-day battle in February of 1865. Fittingly, it then was used by the U.S. Freedman’s Bureau as the largest camp in the Cape Fear area for refugees from slavery, until 1867.
- Angley, Wilson, A History of Fort Johnston on the Lower Cape Fear (Southport, N.C.: Southport Historical Society, 1996)
- Barefoot, Daniel. 1998. Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher.
- “Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson: History.” n.d. North Carolina Historic Sites. Accessed February 2, 2020. https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/brunswick-town-and-fort-anderson/history.
- Butler, Lindley, North Carolina and the Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1776 (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976)
- DiNome, William. 2006. “Brunswick Town.” NCpedia. 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/brunswick-town.
- Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
- Fonvielle, Chris, ‘With Such Great Alacrity’, North Carolina Historical Review, XCIV.2 (2017)
- Grant, Dorothy, ‘Smith, Benjamin’, NCpedia, 1994 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/smith-benjamin> [accessed 31 October 2020]
- Lee, Lawrence, The Cape Fear in Colonial Days (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965)
- Lewis, J. D. 2007. “A History of Brunswick Town, North Carolina.” 2007. https://www.carolana.com/NC/Towns/Brunswick_Town_NC.html.
- Lewis, J. D. 2009. “Brunswick Town.” The American Revolution in North Carolina. 2009. https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_brunswick_town_2.html.
- Lewis, J. D. 2010. “Brunswick Town.” The American Revolution in North Carolina. 2010. https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_brunswick_town_1.html.
- Lewis, J. D., ‘Governor of the State of North Carolina – Benjamin Smith’, Carolana, 2007 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Governors/bsmith.html> [accessed 31 October 2020]
- ‘Marker: D-85’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=D-85> [accessed 31 October 2020]
- McKee, Jim, Brunswick Town & Fort Anderson Historic Site, In-person interview, 10/6/2020
- Miles, Natasha. 2016. “Brief History of Brunswick County NC.” NCGenWeb, 2016. http://www.ncgenweb.us/brunswick/history.html.
- Rankin, Hugh F., ‘The Moore’s Creek Bridge Campaign, 1776’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 30.1 (1953), 23–60
Schaw, Janet, and Evangeline Walker Andrews, Janet Schaw, ca. 1731-ca. 1801. Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the Years 1774 to 1776. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1921) <https://www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/schaw/schaw.html> [accessed 7 January 2021]
- South, Stanley A., ‘Searching for Clues to History Through Historic Site Archaeology’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 43.2 (1966), 166–73
- Thompson, Roy, Before Liberty: Their New World Made The North Carolinians Different (Lexington, N.C.: Green Printing Company, Inc., 1976)
- Walker, Shannon, Brunswick Town & Fort Anderson Historic Site, Phone interview, 10/29/2020
 DiNome 2006.
 South 1966.
 Dunkerly 2012.
 Lewis 2009.
 Southern part and its location: McKee 2020, Walker 2020.
 Butler 1976.
 Rankin 1953.
 Angley 1996; Fort Johnston anecdote: Fonvielle 2017.
 McKee, Jim, ‘Fort Anderson Labor’, E-mail, 2/3/2020.
[a] Schaw & Andrews 1921.
[b] Thompson 1976.