General John Ashe — North Carolina Patriot and Leader

1720–October 24, 1781

General John Ashe (1720-1781) was a leader of the Patriot Cause in North Carolina and a prominent leader during the Revolutionary War.

Stamp Act Proof, Photograph

John Ashe rose to prominence during the Stamp Act Crisis. This is one of the controversial stamps. Image Source: Smithsonian Institute.

Who was General John Ashe?

John Ashe (1720-1781) was a leader of the Patriot Cause in North Carolina and a prominent leader during the Revolutionary War. He rose to prominence in 1764 as an opponent of the Stamp Act and a member of the Sons of Liberty in Wilmington. He led an attack on Fort Johnston in 1775, joined the North Carolina Council of Safety, and commanded North Carolina Militia at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. In 1779, he coordinated with General Benjamin Lincoln to attack British forces but lost the Battle of Briar Creek. The loss damaged his reputation as a military leader and he returned home. Soon after, the British took control of Wilmington and he was captured. While he was held in prison, he contracted smallpox and died on October 24, 1781.

John Ashe Quick Facts

  • Ashe was born around 1720 in Grovely in New Hanover, now Brunswick County, to Elizabeth Swann and John Baptista Ashe.
  • His father, John Baptista Ashe, was a native of England and a lawyer who settled in the Cape Fear region and provided for his son’s education in his will, including Latin, Greek, and French.
  • Ashe served as colonel of the militia, became speaker of the house, and was described as an eloquent public speaker.
  • He married Rebecca Moore. They had four sons and three daughters. None of his sons survived childhood, but his daughter Mary married an Alston, and her son, Joseph, was governor of South Carolina from 1812 to 1814.

History of John Ashe

John Ashe was a prominent Revolutionary War leader from North Carolina, whose career was overshadowed by his defeat at the Battle of Briar Creek in 1779. Ashe was born near Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, around 1720. His father was John Baptista Ashe, a successful politician who died in 1734. In his will, he left provisions for John’s education and he enrolled at Harvard. He started class in 1746 but dropped out because he found the disciplinary requirements too restrictive.

Spanish Attack at Brunswick

Returning to his home colony, Ashe held minor civil posts and served as a captain of a militia company during the 1747 Spanish attack at Brunswick. In 1752, he replaced his uncle, John Swann, in the colonial legislature and emerged as one of the colony’s leading politicians, campaigning for free public schools and in support of the colony’s rights against England.

Stamp Act Crisis and Regulator Rebellion

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, John Ashe actively served and frequently led North Carolina’s rebels. He led the opposition to Governor William Tryon and the Stamp Act in 1764, but in 1768 Tryon made him a major general to help in crushing backcountry opposition to local Royal officials, an incident called the Regulator Rebellion. Ashe helped to finance the successful campaign against the Regulators.

Stamp Act in Boston, Illustration
Bostonians Reading the Stamp Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

American Revolutionary War

By 1775, Ashe was one of the major political and military figures in North Carolina’s Revolutionary movement. He captured Fort Johnston on July 12, 1775, and commanded a regiment at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February 1776. As a major general in the North Carolina Militia, he maneuvered his troops to keep the British from landing and the Loyalists from joining the fight. He was placed in command of an army of 200 Continentals and 1,000 militiamen, who were poorly armed and supplied. However, he achieved success in moving 900 of his troops to General Benjamin Lincoln’s camp in Charleston, South Carolina, by January 1, 1779.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Briar Creek

At that time, British, Loyalist, and Hessian troops under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell captured Savannah, Georgia. Reinforced by the British garrison from East Florida, Campbell led a detachment into the Georgia backcountry, capturing Augusta by the end of January. 

Ashe took his North Carolina troops to Purysburg, South Carolina, and from there to Fort Moore Bluff, across the Savannah River from Augusta, to block any attempt by the British to enter South Carolina. However, his command grew difficult as the enlistments for his men were about to expire, and South Carolina military leaders tried to lure his men away to join their forces.

The Battle of Briar Creek, which took place on March 3, 1779, was a calculated gamble by Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell. With 900 of the best troops in the British command, Colonel Mark James Prevost made a 50-mile march up the west side of the creek and across the creek at Paris’ Mills to attack Ashe’s command from the rear. The surprise was so complete that the Americans were unaware of the British presence until they formed for battle only 450 feet from Ashe’s camp. 

Both sides had roughly 900 to 1,000 men, but Prevost’s men were more experience, while Ashe commanded primarily inexperienced militiamen. The battle was over in little more than five minutes. The American line broke, most of the troops fled, and Ashe chased after them. 

Samuel Elbert, the commander of the Georgia Continentals and brigadier general of the Georgia Militia, held his ground until he and his men were overwhelmed. Most of them, including Elbert, were captured. 

The Aftermath of Briar Creek

Ashe was criticized for his leadership on the battlefield. He demanded and received a court martial and was acquitted of any wrongdoing. However, his military career was over, and his many contributions to the American cause in North Carolina were lost to the defeat at Briar Creek.

Return to Wilmington and Death

After Briar Creek, he returned to North Carolina, and his military career was effectively over. Despite his contributions to the American Revolution in North Carolina, his name became synonymous with the defeat at Briar Creek. In 1781, British forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis captured Wilmington. Ashe was taken prisoner and contracted smallpox. He died on October 24, 1781.

Interesting Facts About John Ashe

  • Ashe’s grandson, Joseph Alston, was Governor of South Carolina and married Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Theodosia was the widow of Mark Prevost — who defeated him at Briar Creek.
  • On November 8, 1778, he was commissioned as the first Major General in the North Carolina Militia and was given command of all forces.
  • Governor Richard Caswell sent Ashe to South Carolina to reinforce General Benjamin Lincoln, who was in the command of the Southern Army.

Significance of John Ashe

John Ashe is important to United States history for the role he played in the American Revolution and War for Independence as a colonial legislator, Stamp Act patriot, and army officer.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title General John Ashe — North Carolina Patriot and Leader
  • Date 1720–October 24, 1781
  • Author
  • Keywords John Ashe, Stamp Act, Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Battle of Briar Creek
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 5, 2024