North Carolina’s Response to the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Travis Copeland

Rumors roared throughout the Colonies in the Spring of 1775. From Watertown, Massachusetts with an earnest pen, a letter was taken down at 10am on Wednesday Morning, April 19, 1775. Reports had been sent to New London, Rhode Island, and we’re beginning to extend south to the Carolinas. There were reports that, “action had happened between the King’s Troops and the inhabitants of Boston.” The shot fired in Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19 was “heard around the world,” and North Carolina would be no exception. The above, brief sentence recount of the battle was enclosed with the expanded statement,

To All Friends of American Liberty let it be known,

That this morning before break of day a [British] Brigade consisting of about one thousand or twelve hundred men landed at Phipp’s farm in Cambridge, and marched to Lexington, [Massachusetts] where they found a Company of our Colony Militia in arms upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others. By an Express from Boston we find that other Brigades are upon their march from Boston supposed to be about one thousand…I have spoken with several who have seen the dead and wounded.[1]

In the age of foot-speed news, a letter penned on April 19 could take weeks to reach the inhabitants of North Carolina. From the Massachusetts committee of safety, the letter was dispatched with earnest haste to Worcester and then beyond the Massachusetts borders. Connecticut, New York, and British Canada were given a recount of the events by April 25, although news by mouth spread as rapid as fire.[2] In the last week of April, no news had yet reached deep South. New Jersey and Maryland were informed by pen just before April became May, but the southern colonist was still much in the dark. Finally, on Friday, April 28th at 8pm colonists from Alexandria, Virginia sent the statement and letter to Fredericksburg and from there to Surry County, Chowan, and Onslow, North Carolina. A flurry of exchange between Virginia and North Carolina created a clamor. War! 

Each county repeated to the next, “disperse the material passages through all your parts.”[3] On May 3, Edenton and Chowan passed-on the news of the clash with his Majesty’s troops.[4] The delegates at Craven County received the news on May 6th. It was ordered that they, “in haste have sent to request you will pursue the enclosed papers and you will do by opening the packet herewith sent the moment it comes your house.”[5] No more important news than the coming of the Revolution, although unknown in the fullest sense, could create such an exasperated command. Yet, the Bath delegates were not done with their orders. They further demanded that Craven county, “get three or four of your Committee to write a line and send the whole enclosed to the next Southward Committee with the utmost dispatch.”[6]

The clamor of excitement came from a colony that was thought to be deeply sympathetic to the British. Regards for the crown were certainly present in the Southern colonies, but the circular letter’s earnest nature displays the patriotic fervor that ran through the colonists. Finally, the letter was directed to Abner Nash, who represented the provision rebel government in North Carolina. As the news reached the upper echelons of society, directions were given to extend the news to anyone using a horse or bearer.[7] Cornelius Harnett, prominent Patriot politician in Wilmington, directed those who would receive the letter to, “for God’s sake send the man on without the least delay and write…to forward it by night and day.”[8] Others shared Harnett’s tone, writing, “Pray don’t neglect a moment in forwarding” and “I cannot avoid writing to you to beg you to forward the Paper containing such important news and pray order the express you send to ride night and day.”[9] Finally, directions were given to move the letter to South Carolina, “to be forwarded to Charlestown.”[10]

Several weeks after the initial fury of letter exchange, another letter was written from Lieutenant Governor Bull of South Carolina to the Earl of Dartmouth. The provisional governor allied with the Crown reflected on the disposition of the Carolinas. Despite the growing desire to show British force against the rebellious colonists, Lt. Gov. Bull stated plainly that, “The account of the Skirmish or Engagement between the King’s Troops and the Provincials of Massachusetts near Lexington on the 19th of last month, seems to produce effects here [the Carolinas] very different from intimidation.”[11] The southern colonist of North and South Carolina would not be thrown back or made afraid by the acts of British commanders and their regulars in the North.

The Continental Congress would not be intimated. It’s North Carolina representatives William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and Richard Casewell issued a circular letter which shared the tone of Lt. Gov. Bull’s correspondence. They stated plain, with the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord in mind, 

Heaven seems to have assumed the protection of the injured insulted Colonists and signally to have appeared in their Favour: when in the last Battle at Lexington six hundred raw, undisciplined Provincials defeated eighteen Hundred regular Troops and pursued them into their Camp…It becomes the duty of us in whom you have deposited the most sacred trusts to warn you of your danger and of the most effectual means to ward it off. It is the Right of every English Subject to be prepared with Weapons for his defense. We conjure you by the Ties of Religion Virtue and Love of your Country to follow the Example of your sister Colonies and to form yourselves into a Militia. The Election of the officers and the Arrangement of the men must depend upon yourselves. Study the Art of Military with the utmost attention, view it as the Science upon which your future security depends.[12]

The colony of North Carolina and its leadership was moved by the initial recount of battle and the circular letter’s news of Massachusetts. The waters of Revolution were rising and the Patriot leaders were beginning to call for more than just a uniform exchange of words. They desired for the state to take its formidable place in as rebels in the South. Further, the flurry of response to the Lexington engagement shows the prominent place of North Carolina in the revolution from the earliest days. Leaders in the South did not wait until the war moved South in 1779, 1780, and 1781 to throw their pens, support, and persons behind the cause of Gen. Washington, the Continental Congress, and the New England colonies. North Carolina was revolutionary from the start.

Sources:

[1] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1234.

[2] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr09-0412. vol. 9, p. 1230-31.

[3] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1236.

[4] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina,. 9, p. 1237.

[5] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1237.

[6] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1237.

[7] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1238.

[8] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1238.

[9] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1238.

[10] “Letters Concerning the News of the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts, April 20 – May 9, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, p. 1239.

[11] “Letter from William Bull to William Legge, Earl of Darmouth, May 15, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr09-0426. vol. 9, p. 1258-1260.

[12] “Letter from William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and Richard Casewell to the Inhabitants of North Carolina, June 19, 1775,” Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr10-0011. vol. 10, p. 20-23.

Travis Copeland is a North Carolina native with a love for early American history. He holds a B.A in History and Humanities and is studying for a postgraduate history degree. His research interests include North Carolina history and the early southern United States from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War with a particular interest in military conflict, political-social integration, and local history. When not researching and writing, he enjoys teaching, the outdoors, gardening, and good food and beer. Travis lives and teaches in North Carolina.



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