Patriots Win an Early Standoff
Tour: Cape Fear
The Ft. Johnston-Southport Museum is at the coordinates. Park anywhere nearby. Along with seeing a small exhibit on the fort, if the center is open, you can learn about the town’s history, lifestyle, and movies made in the vicinity.
Everything on this page is wheelchair accessible or visible from a sidewalk.
Gov. Martin arrived at Fort Johnston 15 days before the Battle of Bunker Hill (near Boston). He began planning how to retake control of the colony here.
New militia units organized by local “committees of safety” have mobilized to capture Martin, the fort, and its cannons.
Friday, June 2, 1775–Friday, May 31, 1776.
Imagine the Scene
A Fort for the Centuries
Go to the center of the lawn in front of the visitor center and look towards the water.
You are standing in what for nearly a century was the most substantial fort in North Carolina, partially completed by 1749. In 1775 you see high walls of thick timber all the way around, set in raised foundations along the edge that is still clearly visible near the modern streets. Those foundations are made of “tapia” or “tabby,” a cement-hard concoction made from live oyster shells, sand, and lime. There are holes through the walls through which the fort’s cannons stick. The largest likely face the water, which is the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The islands of today weren’t there at the time, so the artillery had a clear shot at anything within range.
As of 1769, the fort’s artillery comprised “eleven 18-pounders, sixteen 9-pounders, and 23 half-pound swivel guns.” The weights refer to the cannonballs each could fire. Along with a number of small arms and ammunition, “The post still boasted a single drum, as it had as many as three years earlier, but the forlorn instrument was again (or still) in need of repair.”
Trees have probably been cut down up to a modern block away on the three land sides. Many are no doubt in the wall or buildings, but this also provides a clear “field of fire” against any invaders.
Trying to justify his later actions to a British official, Martin describes the fort as “‘a contemptible thing, fit neither for a place of arms nor an asylum for friends of government.’” This was unlikely. It received so expensive an update under commandant John Collet just a few years earlier, the Provincial Assembly refused to reimburse him 90% of his costs.
Look at the right front corner of the lawn, where the streets meet.
Sticking out from the basic square layout of the walls, nearly to the modern pier, is an “embrasure” allowing cannon- and gunfire sideways against attackers from land or sea. Each of the corners has these embrasures, creating what is called a “star fort” (see Collet’s map above). A narrow platform, for seeing or shooting over the top, lines the back of the wall, at least on the front side if not all the way around.
Look to the right.
Between the embrasures on each side of the fort are what looks like a moat, but is dry. Called a “fosse” (pronounced “FOS”), this is meant to serve as a killing zone to catch attackers in a crossfire from the embrasures. Davis Street to your right probably runs where the fosse was on that side. Another shorter wall might run between the embrasures at the front of each fosse. There is a wooden drawbridge across the Davis fosse, from a gate to your right toward the modern house in the center of the block.
See “Historical Tidbits” below for the fort’s full history.
The Governor Takes Refuge
Turn toward the fort museum.
Where the museum center now stands is, in 1775, a large log cabin serving as an officer’s quarters. Overlapping the current site of the N.C. Maritime Museum to the left of it is a barracks building for the garrison. Between them a smaller building, a “magazine,” stores ammunition and arms.
The five members of Martin’s Council of State who didn’t give up their posts when he left New Bern meet here on Sunday, June 25. (This group was like the modern governor’s cabinet, but it was appointed by the king and also served as the equivalent of today’s state senate.) Together they issue calls for Loyalist militia; offer commissions for officers; and petition the British for money for fort repairs. One result is a visit on Monday, July 3, from Allan MacDonald. Married to the globally famous Flora, who helped save a Scottish contender for the English throne from capture as a young woman, Allan is a respected leader in the region west of Cross Creek (now Fayetteville). He offers to create a force of “the good and faithful Highlanders” who dominate that region.
Learning this adds to the concerns of the committees of safety. To them, the fort is a beachhead for a likely British invasion. They issue their own calls for militia to march on the fort.
Walk to the front edge by Front Street. This section of the street only dates to the 20th Century.
A month later, Martin is tipped off to an impending attack, by merchant captains who had been held briefly by Patriots at Brunswick Town up the river. He escapes to a small, eight-gun British warship, the HMS Cruizer, just offshore.
Collet warns that he cannot defend the fort: It is manned by only a dozen men, half the minimum garrison, without enough gunpowder. Martin orders the heavier cannon removed from the walls. You watch as the heavy barrels are lifted with difficulty off their carriages and carried to the beach directly below the fort. There they can be protected by the Cruizer. Collet, his men, and the smaller weapons also move to the ships. (The fate of the neglected drum goes unrecorded.)
If you are standing here in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 19, 1775, you are having a hot time. About 500 Patriot militia had marched in the day before, no doubt disappointed to find no one here and the cannon out of reach. Among their leaders is Robert Howe, the fort’s previous commander! Around 2 or 3 a.m., they take torches to the walls and buildings. This is considered the first military action of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina. Martin and the British watch helplessly from the Cruizer and another ship, HMS Scorpion.
After a few days most of the militia, realizing they cannot retrieve the remaining cannon, march away. Locals stick around to keep an eye on the ships. A few days later you watch as some of the British sneak ashore on Martin’s orders and “spike” the guns to disable them, by driving iron plugs into the fuse holes. For many months to come, the British ships fire on anyone who wanders too close to the shoreline.
Four months pass before the British decide it is safe to retrieve the guns. The ships sail close and anchor offshore on Thursday, November 16. Large rowboats with swivel guns—small cannons on pivots—bring over about 40 British troops. The soldiers take positions to your left in the ruins of the fort, facing outward into what then was woods past the clearing. Local militia begin firing from behind the trees, and the British fire back as more sailors begin the difficult operation of loading each cannon onto a boat, taking it back to a ship, and hoisting it aboard. The Cruizer occasionally fires grapeshot (like large shotgun pellets) over the heads of the sailors to help keep the militia away. This continues for five days until the last cannon and the defenders of the fort can be retrieved. The ships move back into the harbor.
By January 1776, Patriot militia have reoccupied what’s left of the fort. Martin has arranged with MacDonald and others for Loyalist (“Tory”) militia to gather at Cross Creek and march to Brunswick Town. Martin tries to keep the local militia occupied. On Saturday the 27th, he orders the ships to drive the militia out with cannon fire, and the Cruizer fires 26 rounds. But the ships break off and sail upriver. (Visit Wilmington for the rest of that story.)
The entire time British ships remain off the coast, enslaved people from the area escape to them. The HMS Scorpion produces a list on Sunday, March 3, of 36 blacks on that one ship, by single names only. Fifteen of them later joined the navy, including Betty, Friday, Gooseman, and Quash.
At some point the Patriots partially rebuild the fort. On Tuesday, March 12, the Cruizer offloads 11 men to try to retake it. But the militia drive them off with no casualties on either side.
Arrival of the Fleet
To the Patriots’ shock, two days later twenty British ships appear and drop anchor. Onboard is the army of Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, from England by way a brief stop in New York City.[a] At Martin’s suggestion, the British government has agreed to start its campaign to crush the rebellion in the southern colonies here in N.C. This was based on the assumption that Wilmington would be under Loyalist control. However, the Cross Creek Tory force had been destroyed at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. With no place to disembark safely and no one to guide them through the area, Clinton’s army remains on board.
The standoff continues. It may seem odd that he didn’t just land in force and march north, but swamps dominated the landscape from here to Wilmington, which was controlled by Patriot militia and protected by fortifications. Clinton was likely hoping Tory militia could reorganize and take control of Ft. Johnston or Wilmington. Instead, Patriot militia here and along both shorelines often take potshots at his ships. For several months, smaller British units spread out through the area to forage for food and water, constantly harassed by the Patriot militia.
Then another set of ships arrives directly from Ireland with another corps to join the planned invasion. Its commander, a name that would become far better known for his travels here five years later, visits the fort on Tuesday, April 2, 1776: then-Brig. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Meanwhile, enslaved people continue to seek their freedom by escaping past the Patriots to the fleet. Later that April, Clinton crows about the 40 to 50 men that had joined him. “‘I have determined to form a company of them,’” he wrote. One, an African called Tom Peters, had been held by a member of the Wilmington Committee of Safety. He remained with the British throughout the war, getting wounded twice and rising to sergeant.
On Friday, May 1, Clinton orders the navy to destroy the remains of the fort. The ships move in to do so, but around 50 snipers merely move to the woods and drive off the ships again. Two men on an unarmed ship are killed and two more wounded. The next day 10 companies of British troops are successfully landed nearby and march here, only to find the Patriots have fled. The Redcoats march north several miles in the direction of Brunswick Town, but find no one, return here, and go back to their boats. The next day, the snipers are back. The Cruizer drives them off and most of the militia leave for good. Potshots continue to hit the fleet, however, even after it moves the distance of four American football fields offshore, one source says.[b]
A few weeks later Clinton orders all British troops still on land back here. The area around you is covered by tents. At night they set fire to the palmetto trees around the camp to keep snipers away. But on Wednesday, May 22, the campers face a bigger problem. A British doctor records that a “‘Thunder Storm by such the most dreadful one I ever saw in my Life… terminated in (a) most violent storm of Rain and Wind, several Tents were thrown down, and others blown some distance from the spot where they were pitched and many of the highest Trees shiver’d by threads by Lightening (sic) and others torn up by the Roots by the violence of the Wind, it was a most shocking night to pass in Camp.’” Three Patriots take advantage to sneak up and wound a British sentry in the hand with a gunshot, who returns fire and kills one of them.
As the skies clear, the standoff resumes, despite the British having collected a force of thousands on the ships, the largest army in the region until the Civil War. Clinton and his officers decide the combination of the swamps, lack of Loyalist support, and 2,000 new Continental regular-army troops and militia behind strong fortifications in Wilmington are too much to overcome. With all troops back onboard, over two days starting Wednesday, May 29, the fleet sails away to attack Charlestown, S.C.—unsuccessfully.
Although no further action takes place here, the state finally rebuilds the fort to some degree in 1779, and orders new cannon from an unexpected source. A Spanish ship arrived unannounced in Edenton, carrying artillery sent by arrangement with American representatives in Paris including Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress delayed payment, so the state was able to buy six 24-pounders and six 18-pounders. They are brought here and mounted.
Walk up Davis Street past the N.C. Maritime Museum. At Moore Street, the one running behind the site, notice the shape of the block to your right. It seems to reflect the shape of the Revolutionary-era star fort.
Burning Down the House
Cross the street to the courthouse. Look at the lawn near you.
Shortly after the Patriots burn the fort in 1775, the local militia take the opportunity to seek vengeance on the hated Loyalist commandant, John Collet. “He was accused, for instance, of having defied the high sheriff of New Hanover County in the legitimate performance of his duties, of detaining vessels illegally at Fort Johnston, and of ‘embezzling a large quantity of goods’ from a ship that had come to grief near the fort.” When served a warrant regarding debts he owed, he responded to the sheriff “‘with the shameful contempt of wiping his b–k s-de (back side) with them,'” according to a letter from the time.[c]
Collet had a house built here sometime after he became the commandant. A 1992 archaeology dig found that the oak tree nearest the corner grows through the foundation. The militia burn the house, with most of his possessions.
For a close-up look at tapia, go back down Davis Street to the pier, and take the steps on the right onto the beach. Go left under the pier to what looks like a line of rocks along the shore. This is probably the lower battery added in 1804, made of tapia.
Fort Johnston was authorized by the colony’s Provincial Assembly in 1748, after Spanish privateers (state-sanctioned pirates) attacked ships and raided settlements the year before. Enslaved people rented from their captors were working on it by summer. Royal Gov. Gabriel Johnston, for whom it was named, declared it finished the next year, though in reality it remained incomplete for many more. It was enhanced after the war, and when hostilities arose again with the British in the War of 1812, the seaside part was rebuilt as an earthen battery. Pres. James Monroe visited in 1819. It and the 1838 Fort Caswell across the river, which was larger, were seized by the state in April 1861 at the start of the Civil War. Confederates built the battery up into five massive earth mounds with four 10-inch cannons. The battery protected merchant ships running past the U.S. Navy blockade to Wilmington, and hosted a visit from Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis. The fort was abandoned, and then surrendered to Federal troops by local citizens three days after Fort Fisher fell in January 1865. The fort was held by U.S. “Colored Troops” who were ordered to dismantle it. Naval artillery made seaside fortifications obsolete, so the fort was decommissioned in 1881. It was used by the Corps of Engineers and civilian agencies like the weather service, and for training during World War II.
- When a supply terminal was established at Sunny Point to the north, the Officer’s Quarters housed its commanders beginning in 1955. Before it was transferred to the City of Southport by the federal government in 2006, Fort Johnston was one of the smallest permanent military installations in the world—perhaps the smallest. That transfer fulfilled in spirit the terms of the contract by which the state had first given over the fort land to federal control 200 years earlier. That called for it to revert to state control if the fort was ever decommissioned.
- Angley, Wilson, A History of Fort Johnston on the Lower Cape Fear (Southport, N.C.: Southport Historical Society, 1996)
- Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998).
- Crow, Jeffrey J., The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina (Raleigh, N.C.: Div. of Archives and History, N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources, 1977)
- Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
- Horne, Gerald, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York: New York University Press, 2014)
- Jones, Randy, City of Southport, In-person interview with tour, 10/6/2020.
- Lee, Lawrence, The Cape Fear in Colonial Days (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965)
- These events are covered on a set of pages at the Carolana site. Search in your browser for “Ft. Johnston” on this page: Lewis, J.D., ‘The American Revolution in North Carolina’, The Known Battles and Skirmishes, 2017 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/NC_Revolutionary_War_Known_Battles_Skirmishes.htm> [accessed 18 January 2020].
- McKee, Jim, Brunswick Town & Fort Anderson Historic Site, In-person interview, 10/3/2020.
- O’Kelley, Patrick, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Volume One, 1771-1779 (Booklocker.com, Inc., 2004)
- Rankin, Hugh F., ‘Howe, Robert’, NCpedia, 1988 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/howe-robert> [accessed 29 July 2021]
- Rankin, Hugh F., ‘The Moore’s Creek Bridge Campaign, 1776’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 30.1 (1953), 23–60
- Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
- Stokes, Matt, ‘Fort Johnston’, NCpedia, 2007 <https://www.ncpedia.org/fort-johnston> [accessed 18 January 2020]
 Angley 1996.
 Barefoot 1998.
 McKee 2020.
 Rankin 1953.
 Crow 1977.
 Dunkerly 2014.
 Horne 2014.
 Per Lewis 2017.
 Paragraph summarizes Angley.
[a] Rankin 1971.
[b] O’Kelly 2004.
[c] Rankin 1971.