Jethro Sumner, a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was born in 1733 in Nansemond County, Virginia. Sumner spent his adult life living in Bute County (present-day Warren County) where he worked as a planter and ran a tavern. Major General Nathanael Greene appointed him leader of the Continental forces in North Carolina in 1781 and he kept the post until the end of the Revolutionary War. After the war, Sumner served as the first president of the North Carolina chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati.
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Sumner first gained military experience serving in the Virginia militia between 1755 and 1761. He was appointed a lieutenant during the French and Indian War and acted as commander of Fort Bedford in 1760. By 1764 Sumner had moved to North Carolina, where he married Mary Hurst of Granville County. Sumner and his new wife used her inheritance to launch themselves in Bute County, establishing a substantial farm and opening a tavern in the area.
By 1768 Jethro Sumner was a prominent citizen of Bute County, serving as justice of the peace that year and sheriff between 1772 and 1777. He represented Bute at the North Carolina Provincial Congress in August 1775, and was elected major of the Halifax militia. He was then elected Colonel of the Third Regiment of the North Carolina Continental Line, and was dispatched to help defend Charleston in June 1776. Sumner’s regiment joined Major General Charles Lee, then commanding general of the Southern Department of the Continental Army, in the fight for Florida, but lack of supplies sent Sumner back to North Carolina in September 1776.
In the spring of 1777, Sumner’s troops joined General George Washington’s Continental army in Morristown, New Jersey, enduring the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Sumner returned to North Carolina in the spring of 1778 because of illness, and began to recruit more troops for the Continental Army. In January 1779, the Continental Congress elected Sumner to the position of brigadier general, with Sumner leading a new brigade of Continentals into the Battle of Stono Ferry in June 1779. He again fell ill, and returned to North Carolina, where he continued to recruit for the Continental army.
Sumner was appointed commander of a brigade of militia forces following his illness but resigned in protest following the appointment of Brigadier General Williams Smallwood of Maryland to command state troops. When Major General Nathanael Greene gained control of the Southern Department though, he recruited Sumner to join his forces, which he did with three small regiments of Continentals. Following the success of Sumner’s forces at the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781, Greene granted Sumner control of the North Carolina Continentals, which Sumner held until the end of the war.
After the Revolutionary War ended, Jethro Sumner returned to Bute County, which was renamed Warren County during the war for the Patriot hero Joseph Warren who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. On April 18, 1784, Sumner was elected the first President of the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati. The Society of the Cincinnati was a national society founded by Major General Henry Knox in celebration of the ideals of the Continental Army, and was presided over nationally by George Washington. Sumner continued working as a planter and operating his tavern until his death in March 1785.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 476—sketch by Hugh F. Rankin
Hugh F. Rankin, North Carolina Continentals (1971)
Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas (2005)
Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, “Fortitude and Forebearance”: The North Carolina Continental Line in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (2004)
Bill Sharpe, A New Geography of North Carolina, IV (1965)
William S. Powell, ed., The Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)