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Who were some military heroes of the Lower Cape Fear?

Ben Steelman

* Robert Howe (1732-1786), the highest ranking North Carolinian in the Revolutionary War and a Cape Fear Patriot leader, was born in what is now Brunswick County, the son of a prominent planter. Educated in England, he was appointed captain of the Bladen County militia in 1754 and represented Bladen County in the colonial assembly from 1760 to 1775. As a young man, he owned Howe’s Point plantation, on the west bank of the Cape Fear River (on land now occupied by the Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal) and also Clarendon plantation in Bladen County.

Howe became a friend of the colonial governor, William Tryon, who gave me several choice court appointments. During the 1760s, Howe commanded Fort Johnston at Smithville (modern-day Southport). In Tryon’s 1768 and 1771 campaigns against the rebellious “Regulators” in the North Carolina Piedmont, Howe served as colonel of the artillery.

Howe would quarrel, however, with Tryon’s successor, Josiah Martin, who removed him from his court posts and relieved him at Fort Johnston in 1773. In the early 1770s, Howe became closely associated with the Sons of Liberty. He soon became known as one of the most fervent Patriot leaders; in 1775, when Gen. Sir Henry Clinton offered amnesty to all Patriots in the colony, his decree excepted only Howe and Cornelius Harnett.

Elected to the provincial congress in 1775, Howe accepted command of the 2nd North Carolina Reigment of the Line, raised for the Contintental Army. On Dec. 9, 1775, with Col. William Wofford, he commanded Patriot forces at the Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk, defeating the British governor, Lord Dunmore. Soon afterward, in recognition of his service, he was promoted to brigadier general in the Contintental Army.

In the spring of 1777, Howe assumed command of the Southern Department, putting him in charge of defense of the Southern colonies. On Oct. 20, 1777, his promotion to major general was confirmed. Howe’s record in command was mixed. His attempts to invade British-held Florida and to seize St. Augustine, in 1777 and again in 1778, failed, at least in part because he had no authority over the fractious militia forces from South Carolina and Georgia. On Aug. 30, 1778, he fought a duel with Christopher Gadsden of Charleston over remarks about Howe’s performance in the field. He was relieved of command in September 1778 — according to Joseph Hewes over “a little ridiculous matter he has been concerned with in South Carolina, with regard to a female.” While waiting to turn his force over to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, in December 1778 he was forced to withdraw from Savannah by British invaders. A court-martial cleared Howe of wrongdoing in these military disasters.

Howe headed north and fought in the siege of Verplanck’s Point with Gen. Israel Putnam in June 1779. For a time, he commanded the American fortifications at West Point and served on the court-martial that condemned the British spy Maj. John Andre. George Washington trusted him and on two occasions dispatched him to quell mutinies in militia units.

Howe returned to North Carolina in 1783, heavily indebted. On May 12, 1776, British forces in the Cape Fear had burned his substantial house at Howe’s Point in reprisal for his victory at Great Bridge. In the 1780s, the Continental Congress assigned him to negotiate the purchase of land in Ohio from the Indians, but he returned to North Carolina against, stood for the General Assembly, was elected and headed to New Bern for the session. He died of a fever (sources disagree about the precise date). Often accused of womanizing, Howe seemed to have a propensity for quarreling with associates and subordinates which may have kept him from achieving his full potential.

* Johnston Blakeley (or Blakely) (1781-1814) was a U.S. Navy captain and a hero in both the battles with the Barbary pirates and the War of 1812. Born in Ireland, he emigrated to Wilmington with his family as a small child and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1796-1799. (University records claim he participated in a student rebellion and threatened to throw the university’s president out an upper-floor dormitory window.) Disastrous fires in Wilmington, however, destroyed warehouse properties that paid for his tuition; destitute, he entered the Navy as a midshipman on Feb. 5, 1800.

Blakeley served with distinction aboard the frigates John Adams and Congress in the war with the Barbary pirates. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1807 and in 1811 was given command of the schooner USS Enterprise. When war with Britain broke out, he seized British ships off the coast of New England.

In 1813, Blakeley was promoted to master commandant and given command of the 22-gun sloop of war Wasp. Sailing off the coast of England in 1814, he captured a number of British merchantmen and defeated the British warships HMS Reindeer and HMS Avon (which sank). Last seen by a Swedish ship on Oct. 9, 1814, the Wasp is believed to have been lost with all hands in a gale soon afterward. Blakeley received a posthumous promotion to full captain, the official thanks of Congress and a gold medal. North Carolina’s General Assembly presented a sword and tea service to Blakely’s widow and voted to pay for education of his infant daughter. At least three U.S. Navy vessels, including a Knox-class destroyer escort, were named for him, as was Blakeley Island off the coast of Washington state and the town of Blakely, Ga.

* William Gordon Rutherfurd (1765-1818), a hero for the other side. Born in Wilmington, he moved with his Loyalist family to the Caribbean during the American Revolution and, after attending universities in Scotland, entered the Royal Navy in 1788. A competent sailor, with powerful friends, he was promoted to post captain in 1796. At the Battle of Trafalgar, he commanded the ship-of-the-line HMS Swiftsure. Suffering from ill health, in 1814, he was made governor of Greenwich Hospital; the following year he was made Companion of the Bath upon the creation of the order.

* John Henry King Burgwin (1810-1847), an Indian fighter and hero of the Mexican War, was born at The Hermitage, a plantation in the vicinity of modern-day Castle Hayne. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1830. Three years later, he was assigned to the 1st Dragoons. In 1837, he was promoted to captain. During an eventful career on the frontier, he once accompanied John James Audubon on a birding expedition in rural Iowa. In the Mexican War, he accompanied Col. Stephen W. Kearney’s column from Fort Leavenworth to New Mexico, where he commanded the occupation of Albuquerque. He served under Col. Stirling Price at the Battle of Embudo against local insurgents and was mortally wounded in the siege of Taos, dying on Feb. 7, 1847.

Originally buried at Santa Fe, N.M., Burgwin’s body was reburied at Fort Leavenworth on Sept. 22, 1847. The following year, it was transported to Wilmington, where it was greeted with great ceremony, and Burgwin was reburied again at The Hermitage. In 1872, after The Hermitage passed out of family ownership, Burgwin was reburied yet again at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. His monument — a 13-foot marble obelisk marked by the Burgwin coat of arms and replica of the captain’s cavalry saber — is one of the most striking in the cemetery.

* John Ancrum Winslow (1811-1873) was born in Wilmington, the son of a seafaring family from New England. He entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1827; during the Mexican War, he was commended for gallantry in the Battle of Tabasco. An abolitionist, Winslow stayed North at the outbreak of the Civil War and in April 1863 assumed command of the screw sloop USS Kearsarge. His most famous exploit was the sinking of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864. For this action, Winslow received the thanks of Congress and promotion to commodore. (Ironically, he and the Alabama’s commander, Raphael Semmes, had been cabin mates in pre-war service.) After the war, he was promoted to rear admiral and given command of the Navy’s Pacific squadron. He is buried in Boston. Winslow was not well-regarded in his hometown for a long time; Claude Howell claimed that as a young man he found a decades-year-old biography of the admiral in the Wilmington Public Library — its pages still uncut.

* William Wing Long (1818-1886), nicknamed “Old Blizzards,” an Indian fighter and Confederate major general, was born in Wilmington. (His historical marker stands on South Third Street.) At an early age, he moved to Florida, practiced law and served in the state legislature there. During the Mexican War, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, served under Winfield Scott in the Vera Cruz campaign and lost an arm in the Battle of Chalpultepec. He remained in the Army after the war, serving in campaigns against Western Indians.

Commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate service in July 1861, he famously quarreled with Stonewall Jackson over his conduct in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, but was nevertheless promoted to major general. He commanded troops around Norfolk and Elizabeth City, then in 1863 was transferred to Mississippi, where he supervised the construction of, and commanded, Fort Pemberton. Later in the war, he served under John Bell Hood at the battles of Franklin and Nashville and ended the war as part of Joseph E. Johnston’s force in North Carolina.

After the war, Loring engaged in banking in New York. In 1869 — recommended for the post by William T. Sherman — he accepted a general’s commission in the army of the Khedive of Egypt, taking command of the defenses of Alexandria and the coast; later he served as chief of staff in a campaign against the Ethiopians. Loring remained in Egypt until 1878, receiving the title of “Fareek Pasha” and several decorations. He retired to Florida and is buried at St. Augustine.

* Adm. Edwin Alexander Anderson (1860-1933) was born in Wilmington and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1882. He saw combat off Cuba in the Spanish-American War and earned the Medal of Honor for courage under fire while commanding a naval landing force during the U.S. intervention in Veracruz, Mexico in 1914. Promoted to rear admiral, he commanded a patrol squadron with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet in World War I and later commanded the U.S. Asiatic Fleet from 1922-1923. As such, he directed U.S. relief efforts in Japan following the massive Tokyo earthquaker of 1923.

* Charles P. Murray Jr., a Wilmington native, graduated from New Hanover High School and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before being drafted into the army in 1942. As a 1st lieutenant with the 3rd Infantry Division, Murray was serving as acting company commander on Dec. 16, 1944, when he and a scout platoon encountered a much larger German force, estimated at more than 200 men, near the town of Kayserberg, not far from Strasbourg. Murray personally called in artillery strikes and attacked the enemy with a grenade launcher, a Browning automatic rifle and a mortar. Although wounded by grenade fragments, he retained command until all his men were deployed, successfully blocking a German counterattack. For conspicuous heroism, Murray received the Medal of Honor on July 5, 1945. Murray made the Army a career and retired with the rank of colonel in 1973, after commanding an infantry brigade in Vietnam. He is the namesake of Wilmington’s Murray Middle School.

* William David Halyburton Jr. was born in Canton, N.C., but graduated from New Hanover High School in Wilmington in 1943. After briefly attending Davidson College, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned as a corpsman (medic) with the U.S. Marines. While serving as a pharmacist’s mate second class with the 1st Marine Division on Okinawa, Halyburton was killed in action on May 10, 1945 while tending the wounded under heavy Japanese fire. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Wilmington’s Halyburton Park is named in his memory.

* Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ashley Jr. (1930-1968), an Army Green Beret, born in Wilmington, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” near Lang Vei, Vietnam. Ashley led five assaults against superior North Vietnamese forces in an effort to rescue a besieged detachment of fellow Green Berets before being fatally wounded. Wilmington’s Ashley High School is named in his memory.

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