Many prominent features of landscape and life on the southern Outer Banks have come and gone. Inlets have opened and closed; islands have appeared, reconfigured themselves, and disappeared; hurricanes have wiped out homes, dunes and even whole villages; sounds have gone from fresh water to brackish and back again; whole industries have appeared, developed, and disappeared. But government activities in their various forms and manifestations have been there continuously at least since the early eighteenth century. Five times they have been associated with a war, and in wartime the shoals, islands, inlets, sounds, and rivers take on urgent strategic importance. Troop concentrations, forts, docks, jetties, communications facilities, gun emplacements, barracks, and other buildings and appurtenances dominate the landscape and alter the character and rhythm of daily life as well as the structure of communities.
This chapter provides a synoptic overview of the five wars that have affected the area since the late eighteenth century: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II.
The Revolutionary War
Several years before the outbreak of the Revolution, Carteret County militia had seen action in battles against the backcountry Regulators. Leaving New Bern in late April of 1771, they marched for two weeks toward Hillsborough. In mid-May, they encountered the rebels and, according to the record, won “[a] Signal & Glorious Victory . . . over the Obstinate & Infatuated Rebels at about Five Miles Distant from the Great Alamance camp under the conduct & valour of our Noble & Victorious General Tryon.”1
Although the Regulators are sometimes understood as precursor America patriots, a strong argument can also be made that, rather than seeking independence, these much-abused, often indebted backcountry farmers hoped to convince royal authorities in North Carolina to enforce British laws and crack down on corruption among local backcountry officials. Meanwhile, many of the eastern leaders who collaborated with British governor William Tryon in crushing the Regulator uprising (1764-1771) later emerged as leaders of the American independence movement in North Carolina. For our purposes, knowing that Carteret County militiamen marched against the Regulators reinforces arguments made in earlier chapters that the residents of North Carolina’s coastal counties were often drawn into the larger socio-political dramas that convulsed North Carolina.2
As early as 1774, three years after the Battle of Alamance, where the Carteret County militia helped secure the “glorious victory,” an anti-British provincial assembly was formed in North Carolina and delegates were dispatched to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. By the time the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the royal governor had already asked for weapons.3 By the end of May, the Mecklenburg Resolves had been passed, denying legitimacy to all British laws. Within a few weeks, the Crown’s Fort Johnson was attacked and burned down in the state’s first act of war. Before the end of August, the third Provincial Congress formed a government and authorized two army regiments, some of whose troops saw action in South Carolina before the end of the year. On February 27, 1776, Patriot troops dealt the British a humiliating and costly defeat in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in Pender County. Although a relatively minor battle, Moore’s Creek Bridge boosted Patriot morale in the south in the same way that Lexington and Concord had in the north.4 State delegates to the Second Continental Congress (April-May 1776) were authorized to join with other colonies to declare independence.
There was little fighting in North Carolina during the first four years of the war, except in the west among the Cherokees. [ILLUSTRATION: Revolutionary war campaigns and battles EncycNC p42; CAPTION: Fig. 7-1: Revolutionary War Campaigns and Battles in North Carolina. Powell (ed.), Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 42. Map by Mark Anderson Moore. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.] The land battles that followed all took place to the west of the Outer Banks, and the major ones (King’s Mountain, Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens) occurred far away. After retreating from Guilford Courthouse to Wilmington to be resupplied, Cornwallis departed for Virginia, where he lost decisively to Gen. Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. The last British troops left Wilmington in mid-November.
Although the Outer Banks were effectively untouched by the land battles, Ocracoke Inlet was the focus of persistent naval interest and action. Since the inlet provided the sole passage into the Albemarle, Currituck, and Pamlico sounds, and had a low-water depth of thirteen to fourteen feet, controlling it was vital to both sides in the conflict. "When war broke out,” historian Norman Delaney has concluded, “no other subject of naval interest was as important to North Carolina as the defense of Ocracoke Inlet. It was considered the most important inlet of the Revolution" to the Continental Congress and to both North Carolina and Virginia. Following the British blockade of the Delaware and Chesapeake bays, it handled southern Virginia shipping, which came through the inlet, passed through the sounds into the Chowan River and then to South Quay in Virginia, from which goods were carried to Suffolk by wagon and by boat up the Nansemond into the James.
War actions reached Ocracoke Inlet on 14 April 1776, when the British captured the merchant sloop Polly – recaptured two days later by five whaleboats “manned by sundry pilots and other inhabitants of Ocracoke.”5
Despite their efforts, the British were unable to blockade the inlet during the war. Of six military companies it stationed on the coast early in 1776, North Carolina’s Provincial Congress placed one at Ocracoke Inlet. It saw little if any action, and was disbanded in the fall of 1777 because of the lack of affordable provisions. Trade remained free of British interference until early 1778, but British raids for food and supplies continued. By late 1778, the situation for local Banker men was so desperate that they appealed for exemption from military service so they could protect their families from harassment and plunder. Meanwhile, some local pilots were using their knowledge and skill to hijack goods and supplies being sent in by the British for their troops. Perhaps also (in a piratical style) they were – as one ship’s captain complained – appropriating goods intended for rebel troops.6
A major defensive strategy was to construct row galleys (the Washington and the Caswell) to supplement the state’s three armed vessels. The action was considered important enough by Virginia that the state supplied most of the funds, but cooperation became contentious when Virginia monopolized the galleys for its own defense. The Caswell finally arrived in early spring 1778, but it was redirected to east Florida with the Virginia fleet in December. Arguments between North Carolina Gov. Caswell and Virginia’s Patrick Henry over ownership and use of the vessel dragged late into the year, by which time both galleys were in poor repair. By mid-1779 the Caswell, its bottom rotted out, lay at the bottom of the inlet.7
Defensive efforts on the water were augmented by the construction and manning of several forts. The earliest colonial fortification constructed on the Outer Banks appears to have been Fort Granville, built on Ocracoke Island in response to increasing attacks by Spanish privateers. The fort was built in the mid-1750s in connection with the founding of Portsmouth, and was garrisoned by 1758. It was abandoned at the close of the French and Indian war in 1764.8
Related fortification efforts extended south to Cape Lookout. After the opening of the Revolution, French Captain de Cottineau arrived at the Cape to offer his services to General Washington. Finding Cape Lookout Bay an attractive but completely unprotected harbor, he urged that a fort be built there, to be manned by North Carolina troops. De Cottineau also provided the money to build the fort – Fort Hancock, it was called – and the guns to defend it. It was nearly complete (including barracks and powder house) when he sailed north to aid Gen. Washington. The garrison may have included between fifty and sixty men, who remained on duty for two years before the state ordered it closed in 1780. No trace of it now remains.9
Since records of these early forts are so sparse, one can only conjecture about their importance within the local social or economic context – no doubt some interaction between garrison troops and local people, probably some purchase of provisions and services, perhaps some adaptive reuse of abandoned structures or equipment. Whatever their importance, it was in every case short-lived. From our historical vantage point, the scant record of them serves mainly to remind that governmental activity began early on the Outer Banks, and has remained a central feature of the social, economic, and cultural system.