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Who is James Sprunt?

Ben Steelman

A cotton merchant, author and philanthropist, Scottish-born James Sprunt was a major figure in Wilmington life from the time of the Civil War until the Roaring Twenties.

Sprunt was born in Glasgow on June 9, 1846. In 1852, his parents, Alexander and Jane Dalziel Sprunt, immigrated to Duplin County. Two years later, they moved to Wilmington, settling in a house at Ninth and Princess streets.

At the age of 14, Sprunt entered night school to study navigation. As a teenager during the Civil War, he served as purser on the blockade runners North Heath, Lilian and Susan Beirne. Captured and held at Fort Macon and Fort Monroe, he managed to escape and remained active in blockade running until the fall of Fort Fisher.

After the war, using five bales of cotton that he had managed to buy with his blockade running profits. Sprunt and his father launched Alexander Sprunt & Sons; its headquarters and warehouses were part of the present Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington. The Sprunts traded cotton and naval stores (tar, pitch and turpentine) to more than 50 agencies across Europe and also dealt in sugar, nitrates and cement. At one point, they were the largest cotton brokerage firm in the world.

In 1884, following Alexander Sprunt’s death, James Sprunt succeeded his father as British vice consul for Wilmington. (He was also the imperial German consul for Wilmington, 1907-1912.)

During the Wilmington riot of 1898, Sprunt defended African-American stevadores and laborers and an unknown number of others at his Champion Cotton Compress plant at North Fourth Street between Walnut and Red Cross. By some accounts, he fended off a white mob with small cannons hastily moved from his yacht, anchored nearby. Sprunt — who publicly supported the white coup d’etat in his writings — arranged for his employees to be escorted home safely.

Sprunt is associated with two of the region’s most historic homes. In 1895, he bought the Gov. Dudley Mansion, 400 S. Front St., Wilmington [Map this], from Pembroke and Sarah Jones (who were moving to Airlie). As a new owner, Sprunt added the second story to the house’s wings, made changes to the roof and frieze on the main block, expanded the walls around the property and planted the palm and palmetto trees on the grounds. Here, Sprunt entertained distinguished guests, including Cardinal James Gibbons, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson (then a Princeton University professor).

In 1904, Sprunt and his wife, Luola Murchison Sprunt, bought Orton Plantation from the estate of Mrs. Sprunt’s father. In 1910, they added the wings to the plantation manor and began laying out Orton’s famous gardens. In 1915, they built a family chapel on the property, later named “Luola’s Chapel.” Their handiwork is now open to the public at 9419 Orton Road SE, Winnabow [Map this], just off N.C. 133 near the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site.

A devout Presbyterian, Sprunt was an active member of Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church and contributed liberally to its mission station at Jiangyin, China. He also contributed to the building of a number of local churches, including Winter Park Presbyterian Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on North Fourth Street and the present St. Andrew’s-Covenant Church. The chandeliers in St. Stephen’s A.M.E. Church were a gift from Sprunt.

A longtime trustee for the University of North Carolina and Davidson College, Sprunt endowed a series of historical publications at UNC and a lecture series at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. He donated a wing to the former James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, im memorh of his daughter Marion Sprunt. Especially after losing a leg in a horse accident in 1882, Sprunt became concerned with the problems of crippled children, establishing a fund for their welfare. A number of youngsters from Wilmington’s mill neighborhoods were sent to Baltimore for treatment and rehabilitation at his expense. Sprunt also contributed funds and a 2,000-volume library to the Boys’ Brigade, a Wilmington youth center that was a forerunner of the Brigade Boys’ Club

Active in the N.C. Literary and Historical Association and the North Carolina Folklore Society, Sprunt completed several volumes of memoirs and wrote extensively on local history. His most important book, “Chronicles of the Cape Fear,” published in 1914 and substantially revised in 1916, remains an important source for the region’s colonial history. His other books include “Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear” and “Tales of the Cape Fear Blockade.” “Derelicts,” his account of Civil War blockade running, was republished in 2006 by Dram Tree books of Wilmington.

James Sprunt died in Wilmington, July 9, 1924, and was buried in Oakdale Cemetery. A World War II Liberty ship, christened the James Sprunt, was built in 1943 by the N.C. Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington.

Note: James Sprunt Community College in Kenasville is not named for James Sprunt of Wilmington. According to Duplin County Register of Deeds Davis H. Brinson, it is named for James Menzies Sprunt (1818-1884), a Scottish immigrant who became a teacher, Presbyterian minister and longtime pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Kenansville. James Sprunt Institute, active from 1897 to 1923, was named for him, as was James Sprunt Community College (originally James Sprunt Technical Institute), founded in 1960.

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