March 1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse

This Month in North Carolina History

Map of Battle of Guilford Courthouse
In a clearing in the woods in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1781, British soldiers led by General Charles, the Lord Cornwallis, clashed with Whig troops led by General Nathanael Greene in a battle that changed the course of the American Revolution in the southern colonies and contributed to the ultimate defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia.

In 1780 the British, stalemated in their attempt to subdue the northern and middle colonies, turned their attention to the south. Relying on their command of the sea, they quickly gained control of the coastal areas of Georgia and North Carolina. Whig forces responded by an attack on the British advance base at Camden, South Carolina, but were defeated and scattered. George Washington, disturbed by the deteriorating military situation in the south, entrusted command of Whig forces there to General Nathanael Greene, his quartermaster general. Faced immediately with a severe supply problem, Greene divided his army into several independent units which could supply themselves more easily. They were also rallying points for Whig militia.

From his base in Camden Cornwallis struck at Greene’s independent units, hoping to destroy them or drive them from the Carolina back country. British troops and loyalist militia were themselves defeated, however, at the battle of King’s Mountain in October, 1780, and the British Legion, sent to find and destroy a detachment of troops led by General Daniel Morgan, came to disaster at the battle of Cowpens in January, 1781.

Spurred on by the defeat at Cowpens and the capture or more than six hundred British soldiers, roughly a quarter of his troops, Cornwallis led his whole army into North Carolina in pursuit of Morgan and his prisoners. Cornwallis failed to take into account, however, the extreme difficulty of moving an army in the backcountry in winter, and Morgan stayed well ahead of him. On January 25th, at Ramsour’s Mill, North Carolina, Cornwallis burned his wagon train with all his supplies in an attempt to speed up his men.

Watching Cornwallis push on recklessly into North Carolina, Nathanael Greene saw a great opportunity to catch the British far from their base. He summoned the scattered units of his command to unite with Morgan, at the same time maintaining the withdrawal northward. In the end Greene withdrew all the way into Virginia, exhausting his pursuers. By early March 1781 Greene had pulled together more than four thousand of his men including 1500 troops of the continental line and was ready to offer battle. Greene prepared for Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, organizing his forces in three lines. The first two comprised militia troops who were expected to fire only a couple of rounds before retiring. Greene’s continental regulars filled the third line. On the 15th of March, 1781, Cornwallis arrived at Guilford Courthouse. Although he was outnumbered two to one, Cornwallis attacked head on, pushing aside the militia lines and ultimately forcing the retreat of the third line as well. Left in possession of the field, Cornwallis claimed victory. The “victory,” however, had cost him more than 25 percent of his army, which was no longer fit to keep the field. Cornwallis began a slow and exhausting march to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he could be resupplied by the British navy. Greene, on the other hand turned south into South Carolina and Georgia where he began attacking the troops left behind when his opponent marched north.

Greene’s decision to move south proved a wise one as he gradually drove the inland British garrisons back to the coast. Cornwallis on the other hand elected to move north into Virginia. There, as in North Carolina, his regulars were the masters of the ground on which they stood, but their supply lines were constantly disrupted by Whig regulars and militia. Cornwallis again had to retreat to the sea at Yorktown and the protection of the navy. There he found that the navy had been driven off by the French fleet, and he was soon besieged and forced to surrender by the combined armies of Washington and Rochambeau.

Babits, Lawrence E. and Joshua B. Howard. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. Raleigh, NC: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.


Gaston B. Means (1879-1938)

This guy is high up in the running for North Carolina’s most notorious character. Born near Concord in 1879, Means died a guest of the federal government in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1938. He once bragged that he had been accused of every felony in the book, including murder. At one time he worked for the FBI, although J. Edgar Hoover later called him “the most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history.” He had an uncanny ability to inspire belief in the tall tales he told and convinced many people to entrust him with money which they never saw again.

“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley”

Workmen on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh recently dug up a part of the city’s past. Long buried under the asphalt, a set of steel tracks remind us of the days when getting around in Raleigh, as in most other cities in the United States, meant a ride on the trolley. Owned by Carolina Power and Light, trolley lines radiated out, carrying folks from downtown to the “burbs.” According to an article by WRAL news, the trolley sytem remained in place until the early 1930s when it was replaced by the automobile.

January 1716: North Carolina “Blue Laws”

This Month in North Carolina History

Copy of 18th century law preserving blue laws

Sundays in North Carolina used to be a lot quieter than they are today: perhaps less hustle and bustle, but certainly a lot less commercial activity. Throughout most of the twentieth century Sunday was a day of rest, not just by religious conviction, but also by law. Varying from county to county and town to town, North Carolinians were firmly in the grip of the “blue laws.” Business activity was strictly limited. In most places only drugstores and gasoline stations were open. In Raleigh in the 1930s almost everything was closed on Sunday, although you could play golf, swim in public pools, and, strangely enough, gamble on slot machines.

Sunday had long been recognized as a day of rest, and for most devout Christians it was also a day set aside for worship. From early days in Europe and later in colonial America, however, the restful nature of Sunday was protected legally. Story has it that the first Sunday law passed in the New Haven colony in 1665 was printed on blue paper, thus giving a name to all the “blue” laws that followed it. In January 1716 (1715 in the Julian Calendar) the colonial assembly of North Carolina adopted the first Sabbath Observance Act prohibiting improper activities, including profanity and prostitution, on Sunday. Replaced by an act of 1741, this remained the Sabbath Law of North Carolina throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. Although this Sabbath Law was never repealed, it was often observed in a very casual manner. An observer in 1858 noted the people conducted business, gambled, hunted, fished, and engaged in all sorts of other activity on Sunday throughout North Carolina.

In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth Sunday Closing Laws were tightened down through action on the local level. This resulted in a patchwork of legislation varying from town to town and county to county. Sometimes there were even significant differences between the level of Sunday activity in a town and in the county surrounding it. In 1961 the General Assembly enacted a new state Sunday Closing Law, but in 1962 the state Supreme Court threw it out as unconstitutionally vague. While the Supreme Court may have been hostile to a statewide law, it continued to turn away challenges to local “blue laws,” and it was not until the 1970s that local government—for the most part in the bigger towns and cities—began to repeal the Sunday Closing Laws. Although some of the laws remain on the books, in general, most areas of commerce, entertainment, sports, and recreation on Sundays in North Carolina have become a livelier, busier time.


Laband, David N. and Deborah H. Heinbuch. Blue laws: the history, economics, and politics of Sunday-Closing laws. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, c1987.

Johnson, Guion Griffis. Antebellum North Carolina: a social history. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Jeter, Frank, “Blue laws and slot machines.” The State, 53:2 (July 1985), pp. 14 and 31.

“Court throws out state’s ‘Blue Law’.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), 24 May 1962, as found in “North Carolina Clipping File through 1975,” reel 5, vol. 18, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1715 – 1716” as found in the The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, (Digital Edition), Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

Image Source:

A collection of all the public acts of Assembly, of the province of North-Carolina, now in force and use : together with the titles of all such laws as are obsolete, expir’d, or repeal’d. Newbern: Printed by James Davis, M,DCC,LII. [1752].

Map gets it right


Nick Graham, the ever-alert manager of the digitization project, North Carolina Maps, knows that I love maps and, at one time, studied the history of highways in North Carolina. He recently alerted me to a great 1924 highway map of North Carolina digitized from the collection of the State Archives in Raleigh. The back of the map has a chart of distances between towns and a lot of information about driving in the state – the state-wide speed limit was 30 mph. Our favorite thing, however, was a motto written in bold letters across the bottom saying “It is Harder to Get Lost in North Carolina than to Find the Way in Many States.”

November 1879: Colored Industrial Association Fair

This Month in North Carolina History

On November 18, 1879, the North Carolina Colored Industrial Association Fair opened in Raleigh at the site of what had been a military hospital. Thousands of African Americans flocked to the state capital to participate for the first time in an event that would display to all the extent to which they had established themselves in the world of free people. Held about a mile outside Raleigh, the fair featured a speech by Governor Thomas J. Jarvis, who was conveyed to the fairground in a parade of decorated carriages and African American military units. The four main buildings at the fair were devoted to handicrafts, agriculture, machinery, and art. Displays of tobacco, wine, corn, hams, and pumpkins vied with exhibits of wagons, plows, harnesses and even coffins. Many of the handicrafts, especially the spreads and baby hoods, would, in one reporter’s opinion, “hold their own in any Northern fair I have ever attended.” Amusements such as a Punch and Judy show and an “electric machine” were much admired and, in the case of the latter, a bit feared. Horse races and a walking race provided entertainment.

The fair was the brainchild of Charles Norfleet Hunter. Born into slavery in Raleigh in the late 1850s, Hunter became a journalist and educator after the Civil War and was a voice of the African American community in North Carolina. He believed that African Americans in North Carolina and throughout the South had made great progress since emancipation and had much in which to take pride. He also believed that the progress of the race depended and would continue to depend on the goodwill and kindness of whites. The Colored Industrial Association Fair embodied these beliefs. It was a showcase of African American achievement, but Hunter emphasized to reporters the importance of the support of prominent white people in bringing the fair about. In the end, however, it was race pride that made the fair an important part of North Carolina’s Black community for nearly fifty years.

Logan, Frenise A. “The Colored Industrial Association of North Carolina and its Fair of 1886,” North Carolina Historical Review, XXXIV:1 (January 1957) : 58-67.

Haley, John H. Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 6, 1879.

Maxine Swalin, 1903-2009

Maxine Swalin died at her home on October 8, 2009. Wife of the late Benjamin F. Swalin, long-time Director of the North Carolina Symphony, Maxine worked with her husband to rescue the Symphony from its low point in the late 1930s and build it into a nationally recognized musical institution. Her contributions to the orchestra were widely recognized, and, in 1989, she received the North Carolina Award for Public Service.

Read more about Maxine Swalin here.

“The Collard Poems”

Your mother may have told you to eat your greens, but I bet she never told you to rhyme them. In 1984 the Collard Festival in Ayden, North Carolina, published a book of odes to collards called Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems. The taste, the color, the texture, and the lore of collards are celebrated in verse. There are poems about cooking collards, eating collards, planting collards, and missing collards. It is not all a love feast, however. One young poet wrote:

Collards is the worst stuff
I ever swallord!

October 1853: The North Carolina State Fair

This Month in North Carolina History

State Fair button from Lew Powell Collection in NC Collection Gallery

October in North Carolina is the season for the State Fair. Crowds from around the state are drawn to an exciting combination of agricultural exhibits and midway attractions. A visit to the pig house, followed by a ride on the “Ring of Fire,” topped with fried chicken and funnel cake makes for a happy visit, especially if your digestion is robust. Popular entertainers, baby ducks, fireworks displays, pony rides, the world’s biggest frog, and the best peach preserves in North Carolina (blue ribbon) are all part of the mix.

The Fair itself grew out of the agricultural reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century. The North Carolina State Agricultural Society, organized in 1852, encouraged the adoption of good farming practices and agricultural education. In 1853 the Society organized the first State Fair to promote scientific farming and recognize the efforts of individual farmers. The Fair, a popular success in the 1850s, was interrupted by the Civil War but began again in 1869. The state of North Carolina took over the Fair from a financially strapped Agricultural Society in 1930, and for a few years the Fair was run by a circus promoter. In 1937, however, it was made a division of the Department of Agriculture where it has remained ever since.

The exhibition of prize livestock and crafts was the main emphasis of the Fair in its early days, but there was always an element of entertainment. Political speeches were an important part of the Fair if it were an election year. Horse racing was a perennial favorite activity almost from the beginning up through the early twentieth century. Athletics had a part in the Fair from early days. In the latter nineteenth century first baseball and then football games were played at the Fair. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, North Carolina State University played annual games on Thursday of Fair week, often against either the University of North Carolina or Wake Forest University. Individual entertainment events began early—a favorite was a balloon ascent followed by a parachute jump. In the 1870s carnival events and “freak” shows began appearing, and by 1895 a modern midway of rides and shows was an annual feature.

The State Fair was a popular occasion from its origin and has become a fixture of the social life of the state. The entertainment aspect of the Fair has grown over the years, but the heart of the event remains the crafts and the animals. People crowd in to see the prize winning pies and preserves, the beautiful horses and cattle, the blue ribbon pigs and mules, and unusual breeds such as silkies, a type of chicken covered all over with fine feathers. A young fan of the Fair, on seeing them for the first time, pronounced them to be “chickens with pants on.” All of this and more is on display at the North Carolina State Fair.

McLaurin, Melton A. The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years. Raleigh: Office of Archives and History and the North Carolina State Fair Division, c2003.

Image Source:
“Souvenir of Fair, Raleigh, North Carolina,” button from the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection, North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Special Collections Library.