North Carolina Forts (Part I):
Ft. Johnston in Transition
Article by Dr. Michael D. Hogan, Photography by Terry Beers

In 1725 George Burrington, Proprietary and later Royal Governor of the Colony of North Carolina, spurred the development of the lower Cape Fear by establishing a plantation on the river’s west bank, a few miles from what would eventually become the city of Southport. The area, with old Brunswick Town at its hub, quickly grew into what Burrington described as “…the place of the greatest trade in the whole province.”

With the growth in population and trade there also came a growing and well-founded fear of raids by Spanish and French privateers, since there were no fortifications along the Carolina coast to protect the English settlements there. This fear was significantly heightened in the 1740s by a number of Spanish attacks on coastal Carolina settlements. In response to these attacks, Governor Gabriel Johnston (Governor Burrington’s

successor) called a special meeting of his council in 1744 and appointed a committee to determine the most advantageous location to construct a fort for the defense of the lower Cape Fear. He also sought assistance from the Governor of South Carolina who agreed to lend him ten small cannons for the proposed fort until sufficient replacement armaments could be obtained from England. Repeated requests from the Governor and the increasing boldness of Spanish privateers finally motivated the General Assembly to pass legislation in April of 1745 authorizing the construction of “Johnston’s Fort” at the mouth of the Cape Fear. More importantly, in spring of 1748 additional legislation set aside some 2000 pounds for construction costs, and the actual building of Fort Johnston was begun at long last.

Ironically, it may be claimed that the initiation of Fort Johnston’s construction, which was undertaken to protect the mouth of the Cape Fear and Brunswick Town from Spanish privateers, was the immediate cause of the first Spanish raid on the town. For, in the summer of 1748 two Spanish privateers sailed into the mouth of the Cape Fear with the initial goal of seizing slaves involved in the fort’s construction. When the slaves could not be found at the fort site, they sailed up-river and began an attack on Brunswick Town by both sea and land. After subjecting the town and its residents to two days of looting and hostage taking, the invaders were driven back to their own ships by local militia. Although the Spanish continued naval bombardment of the town for an additional day, they withdrew down the Cape Fear shortly after one of the privateers accidentally exploded and sank. Somewhat anticlimactically, the Governor proclaimed Fort Johnston to be completed in April of 1749.

Many of the Governor’s contemporaries in 1749 might well have taken exception to his use of the descriptor “completed” in reference to this first fort at the mouth of the Cape Fear. To call it a “work in progress” would probably have been more accurate. For the next quarter of a century there was often a significant discrepancy between the elaborate plans for its expansion or completion drawn up by an assortment of governors, fort commandants, and military engineers, and the actual, physical fort itself. Nor was its garrison always as large as might be envisioned by the title “Fort”, typically ranging between five and 50+ during this era. (Following the American Revolution, it was sometimes commanded by a single Sargeant and, on at least one occasion, abandoned altogether for an extended period while its troops were engaged elsewhere.) Nevertheless, Fort Johnston did supply trained men, important leaders, and weapons for a number of military engagements during the early days of our history.

The most significant military action to occur at Ft. Johnston itself took place during the early days of the American Revolution. The Royal Governor, Josiah Martin, began to fear for his and his family’s safety at their residence in New Bern following the outbreak of hostilities between the Crown and the colonies. So on June 2, 1775, after sending his family on to New York, he fled to Ft. Johnston, which thereby became the last seat of royal government in the colony of North Carolina. Three days after his arrival, Governor Martin issued a royal proclamation urging the local colonists to refrain from any interaction with potential rebels who might be active in the area—a proclamation that merely increased the suspicion and hostility that already existed between the Governor and many of his subjects. On July 15 members of the Wilmington Committee on Safety and a number of their supporters prepared for an immediate attack of Ft. Johnston. Unfortunately, the Governor and commandant Collet were made aware of the impending attack and took refuge aboard the British man-of-war Cruizer, which lay at anchor in the river. Before fleeing, however, they removed most of the fort’s military stores and, more critically, had the fort’s cannon dismounted and laid on the beach in clear view and well within gunshot of the Cruzier. When frustrated rebel forces took control of Ft. Johnston on July 18, they burned the fort and most of its supporting structures to the ground. Included among such structures was the commandant’s own home, which along with the fort had recently been refurbished at his own expense. .......end


Ref: A History of Fort Johnston on the Lower Cape Fear, by Wilson Angley. Published by the Southport Historical Society in Association with the Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
(to be continued)

Editor’s Note: When we first asked Dr. Hogan to write about Ft. Johnston, none of us realized the wealth of information on the subject. So, we have decided to divide this article into multiple parts.

Part one takes us through 1775. Part two will be continued in our July/August issue.

I hope you enjoy delving into the rich history of Southport as much as we are.