Barely twenty-five years after the close of the Revolution, the United States was at war again with Great Britain. The War of 1812 had a rather muddled set of causes: the entanglement of U.S. shipping in the conflict between France and Great Britain (seizure of ships, impressment of seamen, shipping embargoes), the desire to gain control of Canada and Florida, and the perception that the British were giving guns and ammunition to the Indians to help them oppose westward settlement.
Historian of North Carolina’s involvement in the war Sarah Lemmon argues that the state was not strong in its support for a national declaration of war. What support there was issued from resentments dating back to the Revolution, and to what North Carolinians considered Great Britain’s insults to national honor. That was sufficient, however, to make many citizens consider the event the state’s “second war for Independence.”10
As war approached, Congress passed laws to augment state militias – the nation’s chief defense since the 1790s. North Carolina had 50,000 militia troops, of which the president requisitioned 7,000, but only a small number were actually called up. They served only from early August until December of 1812, but conditions of service were harsh. Clothing and shelter were in short supply, especially as the days dragged on and the nights turned colder. Rough log houses that were thrown up provided scant relief. Circumstances had not improved measurably by 1814 and 1815, when men who marched away in summer clothing found themselves ill clad for winter, and no winter clothing was supplied.
For defense, the states were divided into six (later nine) districts, each under a major general. Congress seemed to want to run the war at the lowest possible cost, and attacks on Canada took priority. The major fronts on land were Upper and Lower Canada, the Northwest (against British and Indians), in Alabama against the Creeks, and in defense of New Orleans.11 Initially, only a hundred men were allocated to North Carolina. Since in 1812 there was virtually no navy, coastal defense was a challenge. North Carolina’s response to the minimal measures being taken for its defense was, Lemmon says, “one of dissatisfaction, of anger, and initially of hopelessness.” North Carolina’s Select Committee on Claims charged years later (1833) that "The first great object which led to the formation of the Union was to provide for the common defense. The defense of North Carolina had been overlooked by the public authorities. Our sea coast was blockaded, and our defenceless towns threatened with destruction."12
Whatever defense North Carolina was going to get obviously had to focus on the coast in general and on Ocracoke Inlet in particular, as well as at Fort Hampton (near Beaufort) and Fort Johnston (near Wilmington).13 The inlet was the only one deep enough to allow cargo-carrying ships (so long as their draft was no more than eight feet) to pass, and at the outset of the war it was defended only by a single revenue cutter operating out of Portsmouth.
The first British ship (deceptively flying American colors) attempted to pass through the inlet on 21 May 1813, but was repelled. In mid-July 1813, 2,000 British soldiers attacked Portsmouth, the village of Ocracoke, and nearby Shell Castle Island. Soon after their barges landed, citizens surrendered, and were assured by British commander Cockburn that “no mischief shall be done to the unoffending inhabitants.” What was taken from them, he promised, would be compensated. At Portsmouth he thereupon loaded up two hundred head of cattle, four hundred sheep, and sixteen hundred fowl “for the Refreshment of our Troops & Ships.” Learning that no other booty worthy of attention seemed to lie in the Pamlico Sound area, Cockburn departed for Norfolk. Residents later claimed that his troops ripped up their feather beds, stole clothing, and even tore up law books in the customs office.14
To avoid further outrages, a fort on nearby Beacon Island was hurriedly authorized, but construction did not begin until months later.15 Men serving in the hastily constructed fort, Lemmon reports, “had no wood for fires, and indeed no fireplaces; their only clothing was summer homespun. Of the 451 men stationed there, only 180 were in good health and able to report for duty.” Conditions were no better at Wilmington, where every soldier needed clothing and rations were short. The state legislature appropriated $10,000 for relief – totally inadequate for the needs reported by commanders. Private contractor Jarvis & Brown of New Bern was providing rations at fifteen cents apiece (twelve ounces of pork, a pound and a quarter of beef, eighteen ounces of bread or flour, and a gill of something alcoholic), but who was going to pay for them was not clear. Many of the troops were ill, especially at Beacon Island, where men had worked for months in mud and water, building fortifications. Two hundred out of a total of six hundred were ill during the winter of 1814-15. Not surprisingly, desertion rates were substantial.16
Fortunately, as Lemmon notes, “Most of America’s glory in the War of 1812 came on the sea.” Since the American navy had a pathetically small fleet, much of what glory there was, was gained by privateers (private vessels authorized to act as warships, seizing British ships and selling both ship and cargo, and retaining the proceeds). British warships and privateers preyed on North Carolina ships, as well; seven were seized in as many months in 1813. North Carolina’s own privateer hero was Swansboro native Captain Otway Burns, whose Snap Dragon operated off Ocracoke, Newfoundland, and in the Caribbean Sea. Burns’s total take from his capture of forty-two ships amounted to perhaps four million dollars. After the war he became a businessman in Beaufort, state legislator, and builder of the state’s first steamboat, the Prometheus, which ran on the Cape Fear River.
Burns is memorialized in the names of the village of Otway to the north of Harkers Island and the town of Burnsville in the west (which placed a bronze statue of him on the town square in 1909).17 His grave in Beaufort is marked by a cannon from the Snap Dragon. No privateers sailed out of Beaufort, but a few prizes were brought in there, as they were to Portsmouth.18
On the home front, the progress and details of the war were murky at best, unless one lived near the forts or camps. The British occupation of Washington, D. C., and their burning of the Capitol caused widespread anguish. Prices were depressed because American shipping was barred from European markets, hurting farmers who needed to sell their produce. Meanwhile, prices for things people needed to buy went up and for those they needed to sell went down; sugar doubled in price while the tobacco and cotton fell by half. A drought in 1813 lowered water levels so severely in the Cape Fear that boats from the interior could not get to Wilmington, exacerbating the food supply problem. The economic and health impacts of the war were not relieved by war-related industrial activity, little of which occurred in the state. And to make matters even worse, a typhus epidemic in the final months of the war – driven partly by troops returning from Virginia and Maryland – killed three or four people out of each hundred who became ill.19