North Carolina Forts (Part 2):
Ft. Johnston in Transition
Article by Dr. Michael D. Hogan, Photography by Terry Beers

Although Ft. Johnston was largely destroyed by American rebels in July of 1775, the site continued to be of some military significance throughout the remainder of the Revolutionary War. During the following winter the British sent seven regular army regiments and two companies of artillery to the lower Cape Fear region. There they hoped to disembark and join forces with a large number of American loyalists— who were expected to rise up in response to a call to arms from former Royal Governor Martin—and re-establish British rule in North Carolina. This plan was terminated abruptly on February 27, 1776 when 1600 Scottish Highlanders were routed by a smaller American force under the leadership of Col. James Moore at the battle of Moores Creek Bridge. Nevertheless, the British fleet and occasional military encampments continued to control the lower Cape Fear through most of the middle years of the War.

In 1778 the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated 5,000 pounds to rebuild Ft. Johnston and elected a slate of officers, headed by Capt. Robert Ellis, to command it. By spring of 1789 a great deal of progress had been made in the fort’s restoration process, including ordering the installation of six eighteen-pound and six twenty-four-pound cannons. Ellis and his garrison remained at Ft. Johnston during most of 1780, but left when British regulars led by Maj. James H. Craig entered the Cape Fear on January 25, 1781. Craig’s primary goal was to establish a supply base for Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who was struggling across North Carolina on the way to his fateful meeting with George Washington and his forces at Yorktown, Virginia. After Cornwallis departed from Wilmington, Craig remained in the area until the middle of November when he, in turn, withdrew before the advance of American troops under Gen. Griffith Rutherford. While armed hostilities between loyalists, British regulars, and American patriots essentially ceased with Craig’s retreat, new destruction at Ft. Johnston may well have occurred during his extended
occupation of Wilmington.

Following the Revolution Ft. Johnston began yet another long, up-and-down period of physical decline. During this same time the appealing area surrounding the fort began to attract additional settlers besides the river pilots and their families who had long resided there. One of these new residents was a Wilmingtonian named Joshua Potts who had originally come to Southport for his health. In 1790 Potts approached the North Carolina General Assembly to initiate the formal establishment of a town at the Ft. Johnston location. Despite widespread support, his first efforts were defeated largely as a result of the opposition of Gen. Benjamin Smith (according to Wilson Angley). Angley goes on to say that the town was subsequently created in 1792 and named Smithville in honor of Gen. Smith, “possibly in return for his support of Potts’ renewed legislative effort.” (While I initially found this apparent “turnabout” somewhat confusing, a local historian cited the unsubstantiated rumor that it was Smith’s opponents in the Assembly who, tongue-in-cheek, named the town after the general because they felt it had little chance of prospering or even surviving.)

Smithville, as originally laid out by Gen. (later Gov.) Smith and Joshua Potts, consisted of one hundred half-acre lots. Any lots adjacent to Fort Johnston that were deemed necessary for its defense were to be protected from “encroachment” by the town.

In March of 1794, the Congress of the United States set aside funds for the “First American System of Fortifications”, designed to fortify sixteen critical ports along the nation’s Atlantic seaboard. In order to obtain funding for fortification construction, each state had to first cede to the federal government the property upon which the building was to take place. The following July, Carolina’s General Assembly ceded the Ft. Johnston site to the federal government with the proviso that the fortification should “…be erected within three years and be continued and kept up forever thereafter for the public use.” However, progress in building at Ft. Johnston didn’t seem to fare much better under federal sponsorship than it did with the state. Thus, the state’s enabling legislation had to be renewed for an additional five years in 1798, two more years in 1804, another 1-2 years in 1807, and, finally, seven more years in 1809.

Construction at Ft. Johnston, which was begun in mid-July, 1794 did progress enough in the following year that the fort and its staff were able to participate in the town’s first newspaper-reported celebration of the Fourth of July (1795). In the latter part of the decade, Gen. Benjamin Smith agreed to be responsible for Ft. Johnston’s reconstruction in order to pay off a substantial (personal) federal debt. Yet, when Joseph Gardner Swift, who was placed in charge of all the state’s coastal fortifications in late 1809, Joshua Potts, Benjamin Smith, John Lord, and Post Commandant Lieut. Robert Roberts inspected building progress at Ft. Johnston in January of 1810, “they found the works to be in a ‘d[i]lapidated condition.’”

At this juncture the reader may well be wondering what Ft. Johnston actually looked like during the early years of our history. While I certainly am no expert, it is my opinion that Ft. Johnston had a seawall followed by a “tapia battery with platform”. Behind the battery lay the officers’ quarters, which has stood for nearly two hundred years, and varying combinations of enlisted men’s barracks, a powder

magazine, and assorted outbuildings including a bakery. The rear of the property was delineated at various times by a simple wooden fence, a more substantial replacement, and nothing at all, which rendered the fort very vulnerable to a land attack. Finally, a separate military hospital was located on lot No. 67 at the corner of Nash and Howe Streets, the lot being rented from the Smithville town commissioners for a single ear of Indian corn per year. .................end

(to be continued)