Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Top five pieces of Old Wilmington legend and lore with local author John Hirchak

The Stede Bonnet historical marker near Southport, North Carolina. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Outlander North Carolina)
The Stede Bonnet historical marker near Southport, North Carolina. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Outlander North Carolina)

WILMINGTON — As Halloween approaches local ghost expert and author of Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear John Hirchak goes through his top five stories that, for him, best illustrate the mysterious, rich, and often bloody history of the Wilmington area.

For Hirchak these tales are more than lore and mystery: they also point to the heroism that can be found in unexpected people, like Mary Slocum.

“Here’s this woman coming out of the mist to suddenly tend the soldiers’ wounds … It’s just a freaky story — she dreams of her husband dying and saddled her horse and rode those forty miles to the battlefield, finding it just like she saw in her dream,” Hirchak said.

“It’s nice to know a little bit about the people who made Wilmington what it is — I don’t mean just the physical place, but more philosophically,” Hirchak said.

Top on his list goes to pirate Stede Bonnet and the bloody Battle of Cape Fear, a tribute to its 300-year anniversary that came and went on September 27 as Wilmington busied itself recovering from Hurricane Florence.

(Editor’s Note: Italicized paragraphs come directly from Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear.)

1. Stede Bonnet and the Battle of Cape Fear River

“Everyone knows Blackbeard, but few people know Stede Bonnet — over half of their careers were spent sailing together,” Hurchak said.

Edward Teach, who would later become known as Blackbeard because of his appearance in battle — he wore a long braided beard with slow-burning cannon matches dangling from his wide-brimmed hat — rose the ranks as a privateer during the Spanish War of Succession until he sailed his own ship aside Captain Hornigold, plundering numerous ships off the North Carolina and colonial coast.

Meanwhile, Bonett was born in wealth to a family of Barbados landowners. At 29, he paid for a sixty-ton sloop and sailed away from his life of status and leisure toward the Cape Fear coast. Within a few weeks, he had plundered four ships, and his reputation as a successful, well-bred pirate began to spread, earning him the name “the Gentleman Pirate.”

After Bonnet and Teach met at the port of Nassau in September 1717, they sailed together, plundering merchant ships along the east coast and becoming legends of the Golden Age of Piracy.

“At the end, Black Beard just robbed Bonnet, which is what you expect from a pirate. Stede Bonnett was hunting for Black Beard when South Carolina and Virginia decided they both had enough piracy on the east coast. South Carolina ends up capturing Stede Bonnet and Virginia ends up killing Black Beard,” Hirchak said.

An artist's rendition of the hanging of Stede Bonnet in Charles Town. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wikipedia)
An artist’s rendition of the hanging of Stede Bonnet in Charles Town. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wikipedia)

The capture of Bonnet occurred near modern-day South Port and Bald Head Island, when his troops fell in defeat to South Carolina militia sailors at the mouth of the Cape Fear, marking the end of a bloody six-hour battle.

The six-hour Battle of Cape Fear River was costly. The Sea Nymph suffered two dead and four wounded. The Henry suffered ten killed and fourteen wounded (some of who later died). The Royal James saw seven dead and five wounded (two of whom later died). The surviving pirates were taken aboard the Henry.

After a month of house imprisonment in Charles Town — since he was of noble birth, he was separated from the other pirates — Bonnet escaped alongside his boatswain. South Carolina Governor Robert Johnson ordered a bounty of 700 pounds for the infamous pirate’s capture, and in November Bonett was recaptured on Sullivan’s Island. He was hanged in White Point Garden in Charles Town on December 10, 1718.

For Hirchak, it was Bonnet’s courage and gentlemanly behavior — he and Blackbeard were never known to kill a captured man — that he encourages the people of the Cape Fear region to remember.

2. The Duel

Late one stormy summer evening in 1787, a half-drowned Englishman washed upon Wrightsville Beach. Rough seas had washed him overboard.

Four years after the end of the Revolutionary War, two longtime friends and veterans of the Continental Army faced each other on an open field off Market Street and modern-day Fourth Street. Major John Swann and Wilmington merchant John Bradley had fought together in the backcountry of North Carolina. But when Swann had taken in the half-drowned Englishmen out of a sense of honor towards a fellow officer, Bradley felt the act betrayed North Carolinians’ years of suffering at the hands of their old enemy. When Major Swann felt his honor under attack by his old friend, in anger he challenged him to a duel.

Early on the morning of July 11, 1787, Major Swann fired first and struck Bradley’s upper thigh, intentionally avoiding a fatal wound. Bradley then stood, “took careful aim and fired.”

Major Swann was dead before his body hit the ground … [Bradley’s] remaining days were spent wallowing in regret, for he knew that when he raised his pistol and took aim at his friend, he had momentarily paused. In that brief moment, he should have recognized that Major John Swann was guilty of nothing more than being compassionate and forgiving; that he never failed to pursue the admirable path; and that, in his final moments on earth, he was prepared to stake his life on the premise that friendship should indeed trump honor. Instead, Bradley had pulled the trigger.

3. The Rouse’s Tavern Massacre

Author John Hirchak's rendition of Rouse's Tavern. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy John Hirchak)
Author John Hirchak’s rendition of Rouse’s Tavern. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy John Hirchak)

Taverns, often referred to as public houses or “pubs”, played an important role in colonial America. The tavern was a gathering place and a link to the overall world. It was a place to socialize, share news of the day, administer law and conduct business. It was also an ideal environment to discuss insurrection. 

It was at Rouse’s Tavern, located on present-day Market Street near Ogden, where Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bludworth and Major James Love planned their escapades against the British troops that had reoccupied Wilmington in January of 1781. Under their lead, revolutionaries would kill British sentries along the roads into Wilmington, then hide and ambush British cavalry regiments sent to capture them.

After a day of raiding British-occupied cattle farms, Love and his men settled in for porters and a night of sleep at Rouse’s Tavern. After midnight, British Major James Craig led over soldiers from their base in downtown Wilmington to the pub.

Upon their arrival, Craig issued an order that no quarter be given. The redcoats quietly entered the tavern and bayonetted and shot to death at least ten men, many of whom were still asleep. Major Love was awakened and attempted to escape, slashing wildly with his cutlass and using his saddle as a shield. He made it out the front door, but the redcoats quickly surrounded him, forcing him to retreat to a mulberry tree about thirty yards from the tavern. The redcoats attacked en masse, goring Love to death with their bayonets. 

4. “Old Bless”

Camped nearby was a man known as Bludworth, or Colonel Bludworth, who spent the next few months designing a long-barreled rifle capable of firing accurately from seven hundred yards, one he nicknamed “Old Bless.” In a canoe with his oldest son and family friend, the three paddled to a point where the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear merged, hidden by cypress trees.

They built a platform in one of the largest trees with a view downriver, and for the next week, the three men began sniping British troops receiving rum rations along the docks between Princess and Grace Streets. When a Loyalist saw the three men canoeing on the river carrying a long rifle, twenty redcoats were sent to the men’s’ hideout.

At nightfall, the troops bedded down, and the three men crawled out of their tunnel and made their way to their hidden canoe. A sleeping British sentinel awoke to the sounds of rustling reeds and called out, “Who goes there?” Bludworth imitated the snort of a wild pig, and the sentinel was fooled into believing it was nothing more than an animal. The guard eventually fell back to sleep, and the three men escaped. 

5. Mary Slocumb’s legendary ride

When Colonel Ezekiel Slocumb rode off with 80 revolutionaries to what is now called the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, his wife Mary stayed behind to care for their infant son.

On the second evening after Ezekiel’s departure, Mary dreamed she was walking through a foggy, wooded forest. Soon, she came upon a clearing and stumbled on the bodies of twenty or so dead or wounded soldiers. To the side of the group was a lone body covered in a bloodied guard cloak that she immediately recognized as that of her husband. 

Mary awoke, saddled her horse, and rode toward Wilmington toward Moores Creek through the night.

A thick blanket of fog soon enveloped her. She was startled by the thunderous reports of cannon and musket fire somewhere close by … Soon, she stumbled upon a clearing where the fog had mostly lifted. To her horror, she found twenty wounded and dead soldiers, just as in her dream. As she reluctantly looked over the seemingly lifeless men, she came upon a lone body, covered near head-to-foot in a bloodied guard cloak, just as in her dream. 

One part of her dream, however, was inaccurate: her husband was alive, presently chasing the defeated Loyalist soldiers. She went on to comfort and tend to the wounded soldiers, gaining the admiration of Colonel Richard Caswell.

Centuries later the story was discredited by many historians, as it was discovered that Ezekiel Slocumb was too young during the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge to be an enlisted soldier. Some, including Hirchak, have surmised that years later when recalling the story, the 76-year old Mary Slocumb simply mistook the location and that the referenced battle was, in fact, the 1781 Battle of Rockfish, two miles away.

“It was given way too much credence in the beginning and no credence in the end. For her to mistakenly say the wrong battle doesn’t take away from her heroic deeds in treating those wounded soldiers,” Hirchak said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com

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