Alexander Mebane, Patriot and UNC Trustee

mebane1On November 26, 1744, Alexander Mebane was born at Hawfields in Orange County. An ardent patriot, Mebane played an active role in the Revolutionary War. In December 1776, he served as a delegate to the Provincial Congress in Halifax and, the following year, became sheriff of Orange County, a post he held until 1780. Mebane also served as an officer in the Orange County militia.

At the war’s conclusion, Mebane was elected as an Orange County representative to the General Assembly and served as brigadier general of Hillsborough District militia. He also served as auditor of the Hillsborough Constitutional Convention of 1788 and the Fayetteville Convention of 1789. An Anti-Federalist, Mebane voted against ratification unless a bill of rights was included.

That same year, Mebane joined the first board of trustees of the University of North Carolina. In 1792, he served on the committee that chose New Hope Chapel Hill as the site for the new school. He even helped lay the cornerstone of Old East, the first building erected on campus. In 1793, Mebane was elected to Congress. The Alamance County town of Mebane is named in his honor.

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Planning North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Defense

l-110a1On November 25, 1780, senior officers of the Southern Department of the Continental Army met at Camp New Providence, near Charlotte, to develop a strategy to respond to General Charles Cornwallis’s impending invasion of North Carolina.

Decisions made at the meeting led to the Battle of Cowpens, perhaps the most complete American victory of the Revolutionary War.  Between October and December 1780, the Americans took the opportunity provided by Cornwallis’s retreat into South Carolina to regroup their army at the winter encampment.

The number of men at Camp New Providence ranged from 1,300 to 2,600 and consisted of both militia and Continental forces. Most of the major historical players in the Southern Campaign, including Generals Horatio Gates, William Smallwood, and Daniel Morgan, as well as lesser-known but equally important figures such as Otho Holland Williams, John Eager Howard and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, were stationed there.

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USS Huron Ran Aground Near Nags Head

The USS Huron. Photo courtesy of the Navy Historical Center.

The USS Huron. Photo courtesy of the Navy Historical Center.

On November 24, 1877, the USS Huron ran aground near Nags Head, en route for Havana from New York.  Commander George P. Ryan chose to sail close to shore to prevent having to travel against the Gulf Stream or taking the time to maneuver a route beyond the current.

During the night, rough seas and dense fog hindered the officers’ ability to navigate the treacherous coastline. The Huron came too close to the shore and ran aground around 1:30 A.M. Although the closest lifesaving station was only two miles away, it was closed until December. Some of the sailors braved the strong currents and cold temperatures and: 36 made it to the shore and 98  men died.

Two months later, another 85 men died when a second ship, the Metropolis, ran aground north of the Huron wreck. The two disasters prompted Congress to fund additional lifesaving stations and to increase their months of operation. Today, the wreck of the USS Huron is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources designated the wreck site as North Carolina’s first “Historic Shipwreck Preserve.”

Walter Reed Died

200px-walterreed1On November 23, 1902, Walter Reed, head of U.S. Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba, died.  During his time in Cuba, Reed conclusively demonstrated that mosquitoes transmitted the deadly disease. Reed called Hertford County home for much of his life before medical school.

Reed graduated from medical school at the University of Virginia at seventeen and continued his education at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in Manhattan. He joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1875, eventually becoming curator of the Army Medical Museum in Washington and a professor at the army medical school.

By the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Reed was considered a pioneer in the field of bacteriology. His interest in the cause of yellow fever was timely, as epidemics broke out in camps in Cuba and elsewhere. In 1900, Reed led the fourth U. S. Army Yellow Fever Commission.

Reed was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. An army hospital completed in 1909 in Washington, D.C., was named in his honor. The museum of which he was curator is now the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Elizabeth Steele, Nathanael Greene and Their Legendary Encounter

FEMALE PATRIOTISM: Elizabeth Maxwell Steele hands a dispirited General Greene two bags of coins.  Engraving by J. B. Hall, from painting by Alonzo Chappel, published  in J. A. Spencer’s History of the United States, 1858.

FEMALE PATRIOTISM: Elizabeth Maxwell Steele hands a dispirited General Greene two bags of coins. Engraving by J. B. Hall, from painting by Alonzo Chappel, published in J. A. Spencer’s History of the United States, 1858.

On November 22, 1790, Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, a legendary patriot during the American Revolution, died at her home in Salisbury.

Twice widowed, Steele was the only woman operating a tavern in Rowan County before the war. She was self-sufficient, wealthy and well-connected, and during the Revolution she used her means to become what she called a “great politician.” Steele wasn’t a politician in the modern sense of the word. Rather, she looked out for her family’s and her community’s interests by seeking and sharing information about the war.

Legend has it that in February 1781, Steele overheard General Nathanael Greene in her tavern complaining of being “fatigued, hungry, and penniless”. The story goes that she gave Greene two satchels of money and that the relieved general took a portrait of King George III off the wall and wrote on the back, “O George, Hide thy face and mourn.” He then hung the picture up backwards.

The portrait survives with those words chalked on the reverse. There is no way to authenticate the story, but it is known that Greene was in the vicinity at the time. Irrespective of the legend, Steele was an exceptional woman who was vital to local discourse during the Revolution.

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Creating the Town of Halifax

The plan for the town of Halifax, now held by the State Archives

The plan for the town of Halifax, now held by the State Archives

On November 21, 1757, the town of Halifax was established by the colonial legislature, which was meeting in New Bern. The act called for the establishment of a town on the lands of James Leslie on the Roanoke River. The new town was named Halifax, in honor of George Montagu, the second Earl of Halifax.

The site for the town is just south of the Virginia border and at the intersection of major north-south and east-west roads, with falls and rapids just upriver. The positioning made Halifax the head of river navigation, and quickly enabled it as a trading center and river port for goods moving between the backcountry, the plantations and Virginia.

The original plan called for 120 half-acre lots to be laid out on a grid about a four-acre market area. The buyer of each lot was required to build a house of certain size within three years. Within a year, the town and its area prospered enough that a new county, Halifax, was created with the village as its county seat.

Today the Historic Halifax State Historic Site encompasses many of the original town lots.

Death of Junaluska, Revered Cherokee Warrior


On November 20, 1858, distinguished Cherokee warrior Junaluska died.

Little is known of his early life. Although he was not chief, Junaluska spoke for the tribe in 1811 when he refused the Shawnee request for the Cherokee to join in fighting against the influx of settlers. As further indication of his loyalty to the United States, Junaluska recruited 100 warriors to join the war against the Creek Indians in 1814. An account of the conflict credits Junaluska for saving Andrew Jackson’s life at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama.

Junaluska returned to his farm in North Carolina and lived a quiet life until Andrew Jackson, then President of the United States, called for the removal of Cherokee to Oklahoma in 1838. Junaluska survived the Trail of Tears, but later walked home to North Carolina.

The General Assembly granted Junaluska citizenship in 1847, and gave him 337 acres of land and $100 in recognition of his military service. The land was at Cheoah, near what is now the town of Robbinsville, and was, ironically, part of his property prior to the Cherokee removal.

Visit: This Saturday, the N.C. Museum of History will host its 19th Annual American Indian Heritage Celebration, highlighting the history and culture of North Carolina’s eight state-recognized tribes.

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