John Ashe (1720-1781), the eldest son of John Baptista Ashe (1695-1734) and Elizabeth Lillington Swann (1698-1729), was born in Grovely, Cape Fear, North Carolina in 1720. When he was 10 years old, his mother died, and his father died four years later. His maternal uncle, Speaker Sam Swann, raised John and his two siblings at Rocky Point.
John excelled as an orator and was considered unequalled by any of his contemporaries in North Carolina. He attended Harvard, but did not graduate. At the age of thirty-one he became a Justice of the Peace for New Hanover County, and the next year he was elected to the Assembly to succeed his uncle, John Swann, then appointed to the Council.
Early in life, John Ashe married his cousin, Rebecca Moore, the sister of Judge Maurice Moore and of General James Moore. His eldest son, John, took up arms early in the Revolution; his son, Captain Samuel Ashe, commanded a troop of Light Horse, serving in New York and Pennsylvania; William was lost at sea on board a privateer, and A’Court died in his youth; His daughter Mary, in 1777, married Colonel William Alston; Eliza Maria married William H. Hill. None of his sons left issue, and none of his descendants bear his name.
In 1754, the French and Indian War broke out, and Colonel Innes was appointed to command a regiment raised in North Carolina for the protection of Virginia. John Ashe was then the senior Captain in the Innes Militia Regiment, and he was now appointed Major of that Regiment, and an Aide of Colonel Innes As such, he went to Virginia for him on military business.
He also continued an active member of the Assembly. At its session in December 1758, “Mr. Ashe, according to order, laid before the House an address to his Majesty,” in which after mentioning the expense the province had borne in defence of the Colonies, the Assembly asked that the allowance the Crown was expected to make by way of reimbursement “might be used in purchasing a glebe for each Parish, and erecting and establishing a free school in each County.” The address was ordered to be presented to the King, but John Ashe’s plan for free schools was not to materialize. Governor Dobbs had other views, and the fund allowed by the King was eventually dissipated through the contrivances of the Governor.
At the Assembly of 1762 Swann declined to serve longer as Speaker, and John Ashe, who had constantly risen in importance, succeeded him. At the Assembly of February 1764, he was re-elected to that commanding position. In 1765, Governor Dobbs died and the Lieutenant-Governor, Colonel Tryon, became Governor. At the end of the year, news arrived from England that Parliament had decided to tax the colonies through the infamous Stamp Act. John Ashe warned Governor Tyron that the people would resist to blood and death. In opposition to the Stamp Act, he led a troop of 500 men, and attacked Fort Johnston, ran the Royal Governor on board a sloop-of-war, and destroyed the fort. This was considered as an overt act of treason against the Royal Government.
Despite these activities, John Ashe was nominated as Treasurer by both the Council and the Assembly. In December, 1776, Caswell being elected Governor, John Ashe was appointed Treasurer, and in 1777 he was elected by the Assembly, and he held that post until 1781 when he died.
In late 1778, it was agreed that John Ashe should accept the commission of Major-General in order to fight the British forces, and Governor Caswell agreed to perform his duties as treasurer in his absence. Orders were issued at once for a total of 5,000 militia to be drafted and assembled at Elizabethtown under the command of Major-General Ashe. Despite great efforts, less than half the number of militia were assembled, and many of those had no weapons.
General Lincoln’s forces were posted along the Savannah River, and when Major-General Ashe reached that vicinity he was ordered to proceed immediately to Augusta and to cross the river and to take post at Briar Creek, and then himself to return to Lincoln’s camp for a council of war. He reached Briar Creek on 27 February 1779, and in obedience to instructions left his command in charge of General Bryan and attended the council, at which it was agreed that he should cross Briar Creek and strike the enemy at their first post down the river. He reached his camp at noon on 2 March 1779, having already alerted General Lincoln of its unfavourable position and that it was susceptible to a surprise attack from the rear by a superior force.
At 3 o’clock, on the afternoon of 3 March 1779, information was received that the enemy were approaching and were only eight miles away. “We immediately beat to arms, formed the troops into two lines, and served them with cartridges, which they could not prudently have been served with sooner, as they had several times received cartridges which had been destroyed and lost for want of cartouch boxes. We marched out to meet the enemy — some carrying their cartridges under their arms, others in the bosoms of their shirts, and some tied up in the corners of their hunting shirts.” A few Georgia Continentals and Colonel Perkins’s Regiment, on the right of the first line, engaged the enemy. The Halifax Regiment, on the left of the second line, broke and took to flight. The Wilmington and New Bern Regiments, after firing two or three rounds, followed their example. The Edenton Regiment continued for two or three discharges longer, when they gave way, just as Colonel Lytle with his light infantry and a brass piece came up. He saw the impossibility of rallying the troops, and he followed in rear of the fugitives, reserving his fire.”
Major-General Ashe, who had been in the rear of Colonel Perkins’s Regiment and the Georgians on the first line, hurried to check the fugitives but, although assisted by Majors Blount, Doherty, Colonel Perkins and other commanding officers, was unable to rally them. They made their way to the river, where most of them crossed, while others turned up the swamp and reached Augusta. The loss was ten or twelve killed, about the same number drowned, some missing; but a large majority threw away their arms in their
flight. There were about 600 in the camp at Briar Creek, and they were assailed by 800 British Regulars, and their defeat was inevitable. General Lincoln had erred in placing this force at the bottom of a bog from which there was no avenue of escape, except by dispersing through the swamps.
Major-General Ashe immediately asked for a Court of Inquiry, which, after the examination of many witnesses, decided: “That General Ashe did not take all the necessary precautions which he ought to have done to secure his camp, and to obtain timely intelligence of the movements and approach of the enemy; but they entirely acquitted him of every imputation of a want of personal courage, and thought that he remained in the field as long as prudence and duty required.” Major-General Ashe himself thought that he did everything in his power to obtain timely intelligence of the movements of the enemy. However, this inglorious termination of his expedition weighed heavily upon him. Excuses
that even form a reasonable justification, such as orders to site his camp in a place with no escape, the lack of adequate weapons for his troops, etc. did not relieve the sting of defeat. The period for which his men were enlisted expired on 10 April 1779 and they were dispersed to return home. Somewhat later, General Ashe himself returned to his home, keenly feeling the misfortune that had befallen his command. He resumed his duties as Treasurer, but General Lillington having been appointed Brigadier-General of his district on 4 February 1779, he had no subsequent military command.
As Treasurer, he participated in the issuance of 50 dollar notes with a print run of 8,000. Some of them bear his signature:
The words, Fundamentum Mihi Aere Perennius, in Latin translate to: “A foundation for me more enduring than bronze.”
In the last days of January, 1781, Major Craig took possession of Wilmington, and from that time onward his Tory bands ravaged the country, making captures of such Whigs as they could find. “Two of the General’s sons, having been taken, were confined on a prison-ship and sentenced to be shot. One was Samuel Ashe, a Captain in the Continental Line, the other his youngest son, William. A day was fixed for the execution, and it would
have taken place if Major Craig had not received authentic information from the Whig camp that a dreadful retaliation was in their power.” The General himself took refuge in the recesses of Burgaw swamp. He was betrayed, and a party of dragoons was dispatched to capture him. Attempting to escape, he was shot in the leg and was carried as a prisoner to Wilmington. While imprisoned, he contracted smallpox and, while convalescing, was paroled and returned to his home, where he at once made preparations to remove his family to the back country.
In October 1781, he began this journey and, with his family, reached the residence of Colonel John Sampson, in Sampson County. There suddenly the end came. Taken with a paroxysm of pain at 12 o’clock at night, he expired before the dawn of day.
Speaking of his powers of oratory, Mr. George Hooper is quoted as saying: “He struck the chords of passion with a master hand. His words roused the soul like the roll of the drum or the roar of artillery at the commencement of an action. Every breast heaved, as if with the sentiment of the Athenian orator: ‘Let us away ! Let us arm ! Let us march against Philip!’”
Mr. Sam Strudwick, who had “mingled in the fashionable and political circles of the great metropolis of England, speaking of Major General Ashe, declared emphatically that there were not in the city of London four men superior in intellect to John Ashe.’
However, his chief title to fame rests neither on his powers of oratory nor his intellectual capacity, but rather on his resolute patriotism and bold leadership in starting the ball of revolution that brought independence to his country.
Source: “Biographical History of North Carolina from the colonial times to the present” by Samuel A’Court Ashe (1906)