1819: Nathaniel G. Wilkinson to Dr. Levi Sawyer

This letter was written by Lt. Nathaniel G. Wilkinson, who served in the War of 1812 with 2nd Battalion, 6th U. S. Artillery. After the war he was posted at Norfolk, then at Fort Johnston (N. Carolina), and later in the 1820s as Captain and commander of Cantonment Jessup in Louisiana.

Nathaniel wrote the letter from Fort Johnston which was originally a British fort located on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, four miles above its mouth. Following the American Revolutionary War, peace prevailed, and Fort Johnston underwent a period of physical decay. The community of Smithville (renamed Southport) gradually developed around the fort. In March 1794 with war raging in Europe, the Congress appropriated funds for the first system of seacoast defense in the United States to fortify sixteen critical ports on the seaboard, provided that states provide the land. North Carolina quickly ceded the land to the federal government. Although reconstruction began in July 1794, work on Fort Johnston progressed slowly over decades. Politician Benjamin Smith ultimately agreed to sponsor the reconstruction of the fort. Major Joseph Gardner Swift characterized Fort Johnston as “dilapidated” upon inspecting the post in January 1810.

In spring 1812, the Army formed a new unit, the “Sea Fencibles,” composed of river pilots who resolved to serve on land and sea. Governor William Hawkins assigned four militia companies from coastal southern North Carolina to Fort Johnston to strengthen the defenses of Cape Fear during the War of 1812. Many locals feared that Fort Johnston provided inadequate defense for the region. The British, however, did not attack the region during the war.

After the War of 1812, an individual sergeant sometimes commanded Fort Johnston, and the Army abandoned it altogether at least once while engaging its troops elsewhere. Nevertheless, the surgeon began to record meteorological observations from the early 1820s. Its garrison departed to fight in Second Seminole War in 1836. The Army completed Fort Caswell two miles away in 1838, reducing the importance of Fort Johnston. The Fort Johnston garrison again departed to fight in Mexican–American War in 1846. The fort was seized by Confederates during the Civil War and was used as a training center and storage center. [Wikipedia]

The letter suggests that the US Government soon intended to build a fortification on Battery and Oak Islands. The construction of Fort Caswell on Oak Island, however, was not begun until 1825 and it took 11 years to complete it.

Nathaniel wrote the letter to Dr. Levi Sawyer (1785-1844) of Bolton, Worcester county, Massachusetts.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Fort Johnston, N. C.
30th July 1819

Dear Sir,

With pleasure I sit down to address you a few lines and have to inform you that Capt. [William] Wilson 1 and his company have returned to this place. The company will be stationed here, I think, for many years as it is though that a fortification will be erected on Battery and Oak Islands.

Mr. Potter wishes to sell his dwelling and storehouses; you could, I think, get them upon very good terms. He wishes to move to Louisiana. He has lately returned from there. 2

Russell has not paid me as yet and I have to request you will let me know what will be done in that case; I am afraid he does not wish to pay me.

Please to write me as early as possible on the occasion, You could, I am certain, get the sutting [sutlary] were you at this place, and if you wish it. I will speak to the Capt. for it, for you, before you come.

Times are hard in your part of the country and if you are not in pretty good business, I would advise you, if you could get the sutting [sutlary] to this company, to come to Smithville again. Be certain to write me as early as possible and I will let you hear from me again.

Should the forts be built on these islands I have mentioned and men stationed therein, you could soon make something very handsome.

Respectfully, I am your friend, — N. G. Wilkinson

[to] Dr. L. Sawyer, Bolton, Mass.

1 Capt. William Wilson was stationed at Fort Johnston. He commanded the 6th Military District.

2 In August 1818 the store of Robert Potter and a Mr. Gause at Smithville advertised the receipt of a variety of dry goods aboard the sloop “Fame”. They offered a variety of cordials,preserves, perfumes, hardware, candy, crockery, cutlery, etc. “All offered cheap!” 

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