A Memorial Service 200 Years in the Making

OfficersRespectAshe

Officers pay their respects to General Ashe

On a crisp autumn morning, tucked away in a secluded wooded area off Pine View Road in Clinton, a grave-marking dedication ceremony honoring General John Ashe was held at the old John Sampson Cemetery. The November 1 event was sponsored by the North Carolina Society Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), Southeast District, and directed by several of its members who came appropriately dressed in their Revolutionary War-era clothing.  About fifty people were in attendance.

John Ashe was a militia general and true soldier of the American Revolution.  Saturday’s event, organizers said, was held to recognize his leadership and ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of liberty. Though more is written about George Washington and the battles with the British to the north, were it not for the zeal and persistence of the southern patriots like Ashe and others, it’s unlikely that the American struggle for independence would have been successful.

The event began as several SAR members, serving as a color guard team, marched up the grassy path in unison carrying the American flag and others. As the yellow leaves gently floated down among them, one man played a flute, lending an air of authenticity to the moment.

The formal ceremony started with a call to order from David Mann, vice president of the Southeast District of the NCSSAR. There was then a presentation of the colors, followed by an invocation by the Rev. Dr. A. Clark Wiser, state Chaplain of the organization. The Pledge of Allegiance followed, and then a SAR pledge for its members.

Clinton Mayor Lew Starling welcomed guests to the city and to what he called a great an historic occasion, and he thanked all those attending for their participation. There were then words from Karen Powell and Betsy McCullen of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Thomas Ashe Lockhart, a descendant of John Ashe, then gave remarks from the family, expressing how proud he was to be a relative of someone who fought for his freedom.

Dr. Wiser was called to the podium once more for the dedication and unveiling of the small, engraved marker. During this part of the ceremony, various people came before the marker and either saluted or bowed to show their respect. A recessional and retrieval of the colors ended the ceremony.

So who was John Ashe and why is he a significant figure in North Carolina history, and how did he come to be buried in such an obscure place as the old John Sampson Cemetery in Clinton?

Born to a prominent colonial family in Brunswick County around 1720, John was the son of John Baptista Ashe and Elizabeth Lillington Swann.  The elder Ashe emigrated from England to the Cape Fear region, where he served on the Governor’s Council and was active in local governmental affairs.

When young John was 10 years old, his mother died, and his father died four years later. His uncle, Samuel Swann, raised John and his two siblings at Rocky Point, just above Wilmington.  Although John Baptista Ashe died in 1734, in his will he provided for a good education for his children. The younger John attended Harvard, but did not graduate. He returned to New Hanover County where he built a fine plantation which he named “Green Hill,” located on the Northeast Cape Fear River near Rocky Point.

The friendship between John Sampson and John Ashe was most likely forged early when both were young men in the Wilmington area.  It was a much smaller community then, with a population of only a few hundred people.  Both were active in politics and government.  In addition, they were both among the early members of St. James Episcopal Church, which was established in 1729.  The church continues today on the corner of Third and Market Streets.

In 1748, in what became known as the Spanish Alarm, three Spanish ships sailed up the mouth of the Cape Fear River and captured Brunswick Towne.  With the city of Wilmington being threatened, Sampson, Ashe, and several other local leaders were tasked with raising a local militia to repel the invading Spaniards.  They managed to retake Brunswick Towne, killed many and sank two of the ships while the third one escaped to sea.  Both Ashe and Sampson were given the military rank of colonel, an honorary title that John Sampson retained for life.

John Ashe

John Ashe

John Ashe remained active in the militia and in 1752 was elected to the General Assembly. In 1762 his uncle Samuel Swann declined to serve longer as Speaker of the House, and Ashe, who had constantly risen in importance, succeeded him.  He was described as an eloquent speaker, patriotic, and strong willed.

The Stamp Act, passed by Parliament in 1765, was the first direct tax placed on the American colonies by Great Britain and was intended to raise revenue to defray Britain’s national debt. The cost of the stamps ranged from a half-penny to 10 pounds.  Items that required a stamp included legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards.  Britain promised to use the money to defend the American colonies, but the colonists protested, claiming it was taxation without representation. The measure was met with great disdain throughout the colonies.

When the outraged citizens of Wilmington were ordered to accept the Stamp Act, Ashe warned Governor Tyron that the people would resist.

Dr. William Houston, a Duplin County physician and early Irish immigrant, was selected by Governor Tryon as North Carolina’s Stamp Master. His appointment led to public demonstrations and Houston being hanged in effigy in Wilmington, New Bern and Cross Creek throughout October 1765. Upon arriving in Wilmington the following month to take his post, Houston was confronted by Colonel Ashe and several hundred protesters. Houston publicly declared that he did not want to be responsible for government actions with which the public disagreed, but the unsatisfied crowd forced him to the county courthouse anyway, where he (Houston) was made to sign a written pledge “never to perform the duties of his office.”  The colonists succeeded in preventing any enforcement of the hated Stamp Act in North Carolina, and their actions were influential in Parliament’s decision to repeal the act in March 1766.

In 1775, Colonel Ashe resigned his Royal commission and was elected to the same rank by the people of New Hanover County, becoming the first to accept a military commission at the hands of the people.  Later that year he led a force of 500 men and destroyed the British garrison of Fort Johnston, reducing it to ashes. In that affair, he took the full responsibility upon himself and with his own hands applied the torch that burned the fort.

In February of 1776, Ashe led his regiment in the American victory at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. Later that year, the Provincial Congress that met in Halifax promoted Ashe to the rank of a Brigadier General.

In early 1779 he marched his troops to the defense of Georgia, and took post at Brier Creek, about forty-five miles below Augusta.  There, on March 3, 1779, he was surprised and defeated by a superior force of British Regulars. General John Ashe, known to contemporaries as “General John” to distinguish him from his father and his nephew, is unfortunately not recalled for his legendary oratory skills but for his devastating loss at the Battle of Brier Creek. The defeat was total and resulted in the forfeit of Georgia to the British. Ashe requested his own court martial, during which it was declared that he displayed no cowardice, but was still censured for his lack of foresight.  By 1780, General Ashe returned to his residence at Rocky Point, broken in body and mind, but remained active in suppressing Loyalist activity in the area.

On January 28, 1781, a fleet of eighteen vessels flying the British flag dropped anchor in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. On board were 450 Redcoats under the command of Major James Craig.  There were approximately 200 houses in Wilmington, and its population was almost 1,000. However, they were just civilians, unprepared to fight or defend their homes.  Major Craig quickly took possession of the town, and immediately set about capturing the most famous Whig leaders in the area and bringing them to Wilmington. From that time onward, Tory bands ravaged the country, making captures of such Whigs as they could find.

DrSamuelPowell

Dr. Samuel C. Powell, SAR Foundation President, speaks of the sacrifices of our forefathers.
(Photo court courtesy of Adams Capps)

General Ashe himself took refuge in the recesses of Burgaw swamp. He was betrayed by a confidential servant, and a party of British dragoons was dispatched to capture him. Attempting to escape, he was shot in the leg and was taken prisoner to Wilmington.  Once there he was placed in Craig’s “Bullpen”, an open-air jail located at the base of Market Street.  While imprisoned, he contracted smallpox and in the fall of 1781 when it became obvious that he was going to die, he was paroled and released.  Seeking to join his family which had fled to Hillsborough, Ashe traveled north and made it as far as the home of his old friend, John Sampson.  He was placed in empty slave quarters and died there on October 24, 1781.  He was buried in the old John Sampson Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

On October 19, 1781, the Battle of Yorktown, VA ended when the Continental Army, led by George Washington, defeated the British, led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis.  It proved to be the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, as the surrender by Cornwallis, and the capture of both him and his army, prompted the British government to negotiate an end to the conflict.  Though it occurred several days before he died, it’s unlikely that John Ashe was aware of Cornwallis’ surrender.