This article describes the role played by the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety and its Chairman Cornelius Harnett in taking Fort Johnston from Royal control. Fort Johnston is the site to which Governor Josiah Martin retreated after fleeing from his office at Tryon Palace.
The Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Committee Minutes, 1 1774-1776, contain an account of this action and the extraordinary role that the committee led by Harnett played during those years that led to North Carolina joining with other English Colonies to form the United States of America. The Wilmington-New Hanover District included towns in and Counties of Brunswick, Duplin, and Cumberland.
In a foreword to the minutes of the Safety Committee (McEachern, pp. xix and xx), Lawrence Lee of the Citadel discusses the fact that the members of the Assembly that Governor Martin had called into Session for April 4, 1775 had also met the day before as a rebel Congress and, among other actions, endorsed the idea of committtes of safety and elected delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Phildelphia. Lee writes:
Governor Martin was so outraged by these actions that he dissolved the Assembly on April 8th, it being the last royal assembly ever to meet in North Carolina. Martin also denounced the committees of safety as well he might have, because in addition to enforcing the Continental Association they were spreading radical propaganda and making military preparations for whatever might come. In fact, there were rumors that the New Bern Commission was planning to seize the “Palace” of the governor, located in that community. Frightened, Martin fled to Fort Johnston, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, where he arrived eariy in June 1775. Shortly thereafter he left the fort for the greater security in the British warship, Cruizer, then stationed in the river. (McEachern, p. xx)
The minutes of June 21 (McEachern, pp. 30-35) reflect that Cornelius Harnett was authorized to obtain Gun Powder from Cumberland County; that patrols of 6-8 person were appointed in each of the following places: Beaufords ferry to the end of Geo. Moore’s District, Burgaw, Black River, Welch Tract, Beaty’s Swamp to Peryy’s Creek, Perrys Creek to Baldhead, Long Creek and Holly Shelter; and that a lengthly denunciation of the crown [more that 1200 words] was set out with a provision that it be circulated for all citizens to sign and then published in the public newspaper. After reciting that it had been unanimously agreed to by the inhabitants of New Hanover County, it began as follows, parenthetically pointing to Cornelius Harnett as the moving force:
The Actual commencement of Hostilities against this Continent by the British Troops in the Bloody Scene on the 19th April last near Boston [news of the Battles of Lexington & Concord was received in Wilmington by Cornelius Harnett on May 8th], The Increase of Arbitrary Imposition from a Wicked and despotic Ministry and the dread of Instigated Insurrections in the Colonies are cause sufficient to drive an Oppress’d people to the Use of Arms. We therefore the subscribers, inhabitants of New Hanover County, have ourselves bound by that most sacred of all Obligations, the Duty of Good Citizens towards an Injured Country, & throughly convinced that under our present distressed circumstances we shall be justified before God & Man in Resisting force by Force, Do Unite ourselves under every tie of Religion & Honour and Associate as a hand in her defense against every foe. . . . (McEachern, p. 31)
Governor Martin was wise to retreat to the Cruizer in June. On July 15, 1775, the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety, with Cornelius Harnett as Chairman, took the following action:
Resolved Unanimously that a Reinforcement of as many Men as will Voluntarily turn out be immediately dispatched to join Col. Moore who is now on his way to Fort Johnston, & that it be Recommended to the Captains of the Independent & Artillery Companies in Wilmington & the officers of Several Company in this County to Muster their Men & immediately Equip those [who] are willing to go on that Service. (McEachern, p. 44)
Three days after the resolution by the Committee of Safety the following occurred:
On July 18, Howe, at the head of about five hundred men who had gathered at Brunswick, marched on the Fort [Johnston], and in the early hours of the following morning set it afire. Martin and his followers watched the proceedings from the safety of the war vessels off shore, but were powerless to resist” (McEachern, p. 44).
The reason for Governor Martin’s retreat from Fort Johnston to the British Cruzier and Lord Dartmouth prophetic disapproval to such a retreat was described as follows:
The committee’s preparations alarmed Governor Martin. Nobody realized better than he that the fort could not be held against a determined attack. Yet its defense was a matter of honor and its surrender would have a bad effect in the province. Besides it held artillery ‘considerable in value’, with a quantity of movable stores and ammunition. “Its artillery which is heavy,” wrote Martin, “might in the hands of the mob be turned against the king’s ship, and so annoy her as to oblige her to quit her present station which is most convenient in all respects: Then, too, an unsuccessful defense meant the capture of the governor himself. In this perplexing situtation, Martin decided to remove the stores to a transport, to withdraw the garrison, dismantle the fortifications, and seek refuge on board the Cruizer. Almost at the very hour of his flight, Lord Dartmouth was writing to him: “I hope his Majesty’s government in North Carolina may be preserved, and his governor and other officers not reduced to the disgraceful necessity of seeking protection on board the king’s ships.” 2
The credit for inflicting this disgrace on the Crown is shared by the Safety Committee and by its Chairman Cornelius Harnett. By his action Harnett had transformed the Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Committee into a Rebel Government. He was the acting Commander in Chief, having issued or arranged for orders directing and organizing the military force that had invaded and taken over Fort Johnston. Since Governor Martin had abandoned Tryon Palace at New Bern in fear, had abandoned Fort Johnston in like manner, and had fled for safety to the King’s ship in the harbour off Fort Johnston, it can be argued that Harnett, by his position as Chairman of the proactive Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety, had become the Leader of a Rebel Goverrnment in the crumbling Royal Colony of North Carolina.
Cornelius Harnett was the Mastermind behind the action taken by Colonel Robert Howe who led the forces that took Fort Johnston from Governor Martin’s control and set it on fire. For this and other actions, both men were later, in effect, labeled outlaws by Sir Henry Clinton. (Connor pp. 159-160). This action had disgraced Royal Governor Martin in the eyes of his superiors.
1. McEachern, Lenora H and Isabel M. Williams, eds, hereafter (McEachern), Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Committee Minutes, 1774-1776, 147 pages, published in Wilmington, N. C. by the Wilmington-New Hanover County American Revolution Bi-Centennial Association.
2. Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY, hereafter (Connor); Raleigh, N. C. : Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. Print (& Web, digitized after copyright expired by Google at http://books.google.com/, pp 99-100. For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.