(originally published in Avenue magazine, July 2005)
By Ron Odom
On February 27, 1776 a battle took place in southeastern North Carolina that would alter the course of the Revolutionary War. Most books on the Revolution, including many military histories of the war, do not even mention the conflict. Nevertheless, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, as it would come to be known, was one of those relatively minor tactical turn of events that influences the course of a larger war.
In the winter of 1775/1776, much of North Carolina was in full revolutionary fervor. The battle at Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, was for many North Carolina colonists simply the latest outrage against liberty by the Crown in a series of outrages going back to at least 1763, with the implementation of England’s “New Colonial Policy.” This policy involved a series of regulations dealing with land, trade, taxation and defense. Although they impacted North Carolina less than the other colonies, the aggregate social and economic effects of these laws, combined with later decrees like the Stamp Act (1765), the Tea Act (1773) and the Coercive Acts (1774), bound Carolinians to their colonial brethren in revolutionary rancor.
By early 1775, the authority of royal government in North Carolina was falling apart, and the state’s Provincial Congress conducted regular meetings in defiance of Governor Josiah Martin who refused to recognize the assembly and denounced its very existence. The Provincial Congress expressed sympathy for the people of Massachusetts, adopted non-importation and non-exportation agreements, criticized the acts and policies of the British ministry, and denied Parliament’s right to tax. Fearful for their safety, Martin and his family fled Tryon palace at New Bern to Fort Johnson, arriving on June 2. Six weeks later, the North Carolina militia forced him to flee again, to the British warship Cruizer, after learning that they planned to attack the fort. They did exactly that on July 18 and Martin watched the fort burn to the ground at the hands of what he called a, “savage and audacious mob.”
It was while off shore that Martin began to formulate a plan for the re-establishment of royal control, not just in North Carolina, but in the entire South as well. In broad terms, the plan called for the simultaneous movement of British troops to the area and the recruitment of loyalist forces from within the colony. The Tories would then rendezvous with British troops in Brunswick, near Wilmington. From there the combined force, led by Martin, would subdue the rebellion in North Carolina. Martin presented the plan to Lord Dartmouth, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, who agreed enough with the idea that it became an important focus of the British campaign against the rebellion. Moreover, the plan appealed to officials in the British government who consider North Carolina the weakest link in the colonial resistance.
On January 10, 1776 Martin issued his proclamation calling on loyal subjects to unite and help suppress the “harried and unnatural rebellion that has been excited by traitorous and designing men, and now threatens the subversion of His Majesty’s Government.” Six months earlier General Gage sent Lt. Col. Donald MacDonald and Capt. Donald McLeod to North Carolina to recruit a highland battalion. They remained on the scene and worked with Martin to raise a loyalist force, primarily in the Cross Creek area (present day Fayetteville), which was heavily settled by Scottish Highlanders. MacDonald and McLeod were also highlanders and their ability to speak Gaelic was invaluable in this effort. Also advantageous were the promises of free land, tax exemption for twenty years, and the reimbursement of any supplies used in return for service to the Crown. They succeeded in recruiting about 1600 loyalists, although only a third of them were equipped with firearms, many others carried only broadswords, or less.
Meanwhile, on February 13, 1776 a British armada, bound for North Carolina, sailed from Cork, Ireland transporting about 2,500 troops, under the command of Sir Peter Parker. Out of Boston, on January 20, sailed Sir Henry Clinton, also bound for the Cape Fear, on the twenty gun frigate Mercury, carrying two companies of light infantry and a few Highlanders.
As these forces converged on the area, the Patriots learned of Martin’s plan and began to mobilize themselves. Pleas to neighboring colonies brought them 500 pounds of gun powder from Virginia, and 1,000 pounds from South Carolina. In the low country, the area of the battle, the mobilization was already well advanced and organized. The primary officers in charge were Colonels James Moore, Richard Caswell, and Alexander Lillington. Moore, commander of the First Continental Line, was especially feared by loyalists who were compelled “at once to dread and esteem” him.
The local minutemen and militia were also called up, and one contemporary remarked that this motley rabble, “indeed made a most un-martial appearance, but the worst figure there can shoot from behind a bush and kill even a general Wolfe.”
At the news that loyalist forces were assembling at Cross Creek, Patriot forces began to take to the field. Col. Lillington was commander of the Wilmington district, where earthworks were created, and guns emplaced as women and children were sent outside of town. In New Bern, the militia was mustered under the command of Col. Caswell, with Col. Moore taking overall command. Moore was also the first to take the field against the loyalists, and when Gen. MacDonald marched out of Cross Creek on February 18, toward Wilmington, he was blocked by Moore at Rockfish Creek.
MacDonald’s journey from here would involve a series of marches and counter marches as he tried to avoid, if possible, making contact with the Patriots. His primary objective was the delivery of his army for a link up with British forces on the coast. Moore’s goal was to intercept MacDonald’s forces and prevent their arrival on the coast. After being blocked at Rockfish Creek, MacDonald slowly and cautiously marched eastward in the direction of Caswell’s force, all the while expecting an ambush. He eventually made his way toward Negro Head Point Road, a route to Wilmington in which he expected little opposition.
In doing so, MacDonald outmaneuvered Caswell forcing him to abandon his defensive position at Corbett’s Ferry, and fall back to Moore’s Creek Bridge. Moore, knowing that the loyalist force had to cross the bridge on their way to Wilmington, ordered Lillington to join Caswell there. Moore moved toward Wilmington with the idea of attacking the rear of MacDonald’s column, while Caswell blocked the front, in a classic pincer movement.
Lillington arrived at the bridge on the 25th with 150 men, and he immediately recognized the defensive advantages of the position. The swampy creek, about forty feet wide, could only be crossed at the bridge and a slight rise overlooked the approach to it on the east side. Lillington built a low earthwork on top of the rise to provide cover for militia men who would be lying behind it. His forces also possessed artillery support as well, a two and a half pound cannon named “Old Mother Covington” and her “daughter” a half pound swivel gun. Henceforth, Patriot forces, although outnumbered, had the advantages of surprise, superior fire power, and a superior battle field position over looking an area where they could canalize the enemy into a tight ambush spot.
Caswell arrived the next day with 850 men and took command. He initially deployed his men to the opposite side of the bridge; perhaps with the intention to deceive given that he moved them back across to join Lillington’s troops during the night. Intentional or not, the maneuver proved effective for the Patriot goals.
Earlier on the 26th MacDonald sent a messenger under flag of truce to make a peace offering to Caswell. The offer was refused, but the messenger returned to report that Caswell’s men were encamped on their side of the bridge six miles from their position, and that it was “very Practicable” to attack. This report, and the insistence of his younger officers, convinced MacDonald, against his own misgivings, to attack the next morning.
At 1a.m. on the 27th the loyalists, now under the command of Capt. McLeod after MacDonald fell ill the day before, began their march to the bridge. The going was slow as they picked their way in the dark through the thick woods and swampy ground. They reached Caswell’s camp ground an hour before dawn to find it deserted, with fires burning low.
McLeod cautiously moved his men toward the bridge around daybreak. They received a smattering of fire from across the bridge where the 1,100 patriots lay in wait. Tired of waiting, McLeod ordered the signal for attack, and the men obeyed giving three cheers of “King George and Broad Swords” followed by the beat of drums and playing of bagpipes.
An advance party of about fifty men were ordered across the bridge, as they crossed they discovered that the rebels had removed some of the planks and greased the bridge with “soft soap and tallow” making it even more treacherous to cross. Many slipped and fell into the creek, where reportedly some drowned. Those who made it across got to within thirty paces of the rebel position when they were met with a “proper reception” in the form of withering musket and cannon fire.
McLeod urged his men forward and eventually fell, “with upwards of twenty nine balls through his body” by one account. Nearly all of this first wave was killed or wounded and the whole force soon retreated in “irretrievable despair” according to one contemporary. Only one patriot, John Grady of Duplin County, died of his wounds a few days later. It was all over in about three minutes, and a complete victory for the rebels.
In the subsequent weeks, Patriots captured and disarmed almost all of the loyalists who had participated in the battle, including Col. MacDonald. Officers were imprisoned, or banished from the colony; soldiers were paroled to their homes. Battle spoils included 350 guns and shot bags, 150 swords and dirks, 1,500 “excellent rifles” two medicine chests, and 15,000 pounds sterling.
Of greater significance is the effect the victory had on Patriot morale as it strengthened revolutionary feeling throughout the colonies. The victory convinced North Carolina to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress to vote for independence from Great Britain, making them the first colonial government to call for total independence. Concomitant with this was the disappearance of any significant or organized loyalist presence after the battle.
This was recognized by the British who decided to give up their plan for a campaign in the South, and shift emphasis back to the northern colonies. Thus the southern colonies were unmolested by the British for about three years, and any remaining Tory elements in the colony were left without support. The Moore’s Creek battle has been called “The Lexington and Concord of the South” and although it may not be as significant as “the shot heard around the world,” the patriots of southeastern North Carolina, like their contemporaries in Massachusetts, risked everything for what they believed in, and in their own way changed the course of history.