Moores Creek Bridge

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Moores Creek Bridge

MOORES CREEK BRIDGE. 27 February 1776. Reports of Lexington and Concord so fanned the flames of revolution in North Carolina that within a few months the royal governor, Josiah Martin, fled; the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was adopted; a provincial congress was organized; and North Carolina raised two Continental regiments.

In spite of this revolutionary progress, North Carolina was deeply divided. In part, these divisions were the legacy of the recent Regulator conflict, but there was strong Loyalist sentiment as well as numerous advocates of neutrality. Those supporting the crown included a variety of groups across the entire colony. Some had been Piedmont Regulators; others were Tidewater planters or Highland Scots along the Cape Fear River. They were united only by their opposition to the revolt, and in some cases, opposition was created by antipathy toward the rebellion's leadership. Quakers and German Pietists, wanting nothing to do with either side's politics, sought only to be left alone. Perhaps only 30 percent actively supported the Whig cause. The Provincial Congress had little or no success in winning over the lukewarm and disaffected, but the Loyalists were not united initially. Their inertia enabled North Carolina to assist Virginia and South Carolina and be ready when the Loyalists finally began active opposition.

TORY PLANS AND WHIG RESPONSE

General Henry Clinton's Charleston expedition in 1776 was prompted largely by Martin's assurance, supported by other refugee governors and planters, that the South could be retained if a military force were present to support the Loyalists. Dartmouth approved Clinton's strategic diversion; Lord Germain endorsed it despite the protests of Generals Edward Harvey and William Howe. When Martin learned that reinforcements to augment Clinton's expedition would leave Ireland on 1 December 1775, he made plans for a coordinated Loyalist uprising in North Carolina. Included in his plans were instructions to the Loyalists to have their troops at Brunswick Town on 15 February.

In the meantime, General Thomas Gage sent Lieutenant Colonel Donald McDonald and Captain Donald McLeod to North Carolina to recruit for the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment. Arriving in Cross Creek (later Fayetteville), the two officers, Allen McDonald, and other Highland Scots raised the royal standard at Cross Creek on 5 February 1775, calling for armed supporters to assemble. Because of his reputation as a veteran of Culloden and the work of others, including the legendary Flora McDonald, one thousand Highland Scots had gathered by 18 February. Most were recent immigrants motivated not so much by loyalty to George III as by their dislike for the Lowlanders and Ulstermen so prominent in the rebel camp. Another five hundred men, including former Regulators, joined McDonald at Cross Creek.

In the absence of Colonel Robert Howe's Second North Carolina Regiment, Colonel James Moore's First North Carolina Continentals, about 650 men and five guns, formed the nucleus of the force that marched from Wilmington and camped about twelve miles south of Cross Creek at Rockfish Creek on 15 February. On the 18th Moore was joined by Colonel Alexander Lillington's 150 Wilmington minutemen, Colonel James Kenan's 200 Duplin County militia, and John Ashe's 100 Volunteer Independent Rangers.

About this time, McDonald sent Moore a copy of Governor Martin's proclamation and a letter calling on Whigs to join the royalist colors. After a delay in sending an express message to Colonel Richard Caswell, who was approaching from New Bern with eight hundred Partisan Rangers, Moore sent McDonald the Test Oath with the suggestion that bloodshed be avoided by the Loyalists joining the Whigs.

GATHERING AT MOORES CREEK

By this time McDonald knew the enemy was gathering around him. He decided to avoid a general engagement and march to the coast. His route was generally east across the Cape Fear and South Rivers, thence southeast toward Wilmington. Moore had to withdraw along the Cape Fear River and then intercept McDonald's march. When Caswell reported that he was between the Black River and Moores Creek, and that the Loyalists had crossed the former, Moore sent word to stop the Tories at Moores Creek Bridge, about eighteen miles above Wilmington. He asked Caswell to meet him there if possible, otherwise to follow the enemy toward that place.

Lillington and Ashe reached Moores Creek on the 25th. Caswell arrived the next day and threw up earthworks on the enemy (or west) side of the narrow but deep stream. He later abandoned the west camp and joined Lillington and Ashe on the east side, where a breastwork had been erected. After removing some of the bridge flooring, leaving a gap where the enemy could cross only on the log stringers, the one thousand Whigs deployed to cover the bridge. If subsequent Tory accounts are to be believed, the Whigs also greased the stringers. Through the chilly night of 26-27 February, they rested on their arms. Lillington seems to deserve most of the credit for the preparations at the bridge and for the subsequent action. Moore, at Elizabethtown blocking the route to Cape Fear, did not arrive until after the battle.

The Tories had been advancing for three days through rough, swampy terrain, and late on 26 February they camped six miles from the bridge. After scouts reported the enemy occupying a position on the west bank of Moores Creek (see above), the Loyalists resumed their advance at 1 a.m. McDonald had become ill on 26 February, and command passed to Donald McLeod, now promoted to lieutenant colonel of the North Carolina Loyalist militia. Captain John Campbell led the advance guard of eighty picked Scots armed only with claymores; fourteen hundred men made up the main body, and three hundred riflemen brought up the rear. A shortage of arms meant that only about five hundred men were equipped for combat.

THE FIGHTING

The Tories intended to surprise the Whigs camped on the west bank. On entering the camp, they found it abandoned. This led the Tories to believe that their crossing would be unchallenged. As they formed into a battle line before crossing the bridge, rifle shots were fired near the bridge. Campbell's advance guard, accompanied by a few others, including McLeod, immediately went out onto the bridge, shouting "King George and Broadswords!" Once across, they moved up the road at a rush. Whig infantry and two artillery pieces opened fire at a range of thirty yards from behind breastworks, and the Tory attack was shattered. McLeod and Campbell were killed with several of their men within a few paces of their objective. Others were hit on the bridge or simply fell into the deep stream and drowned.

The Whigs then counterattacked. Some rushed forward to replace planks on the bridge and pursue the panic-stricken Tories. A small detachment forded the creek, pushed through the swamp, and hit the enemy rear.

Moore had directed the Second and Fourth North Carolina Regiments, under Lieutenant Colonels Alexander Martin and James Thackston, to occupy Cross Creek, and their presence undoubtedly accounts for the numerous prisoners and weapons taken after the battle. General McDonald, several other officers, and 850 men were taken prisoner. The booty included £15,000 in specie, 13 wagons, 1,500 rifles, 350 muskets, and 150 swords and dirks. This haul came not only from prisoners but also from known and suspected Tories in the region. The prisoners were jailed and their property was subjected to looting and burning, forcing many Highlanders to flee the province.

About thirty Tories were killed or wounded in the brief action at the bridge. Moore estimated total enemy casualties in killed, wounded, or drowned as about fifty. Only two defenders were hit, and one, John Grady, died on 2 March.

COMMENT

While Moore, Lillington, and Caswell deserve praise, as do the North Carolina political leaders responsible for raising their armed forces, the king's representatives failed him at all levels of planning and execution. Governor Josiah Martin was overoptimistic about Loyalist support and premature in calling it out. The Charleston expedition, delayed by late arrival of the fleet, was doomed to failure because local support had been defeated. McLeod went forward without knowing what lay in front of them. The east bank breastworks were not only across the road, but paralleled it. McLeod appears to have run into a classic ambush and paid the price. At least nine bullets and some twenty-four shot struck him down, evidence the Whigs were firing buck and ball, and at very short range.

The Halifax Resolves were adopted on 12 April 1776 by North Carolina's Provincial Congress, and exactly a month later, Sir Henry Clinton declared North Carolina in a state of rebellion. Lord Cornwallis landed from Clinton's fleet at Brunswick Town and ravaged the area. Colonel Robert Howe's plantation was virtually destroyed and Brunswick Town burned, but North Carolina was spared further British military operations for almost five more years. The delay bought by the Whig victory at Moores Creek Bridge gave the new North Carolina state government time to solidify its hold over the populace and build the infrastructure that would support the revolt.

SEE ALSO Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Halifax Resolves; McDonald, Flora; Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence; Norfolk, Virginia; Reedy River, South Carolina; Regulators; Test Oath.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Johnston, Peter R. Poorest of the Thirteen: North Carolina and the Southern Department in the American Revolution. Haverford, Pa.: Infinity Publishing, 2001.

Rankin, Hugh F. The Moores Creek Bridge Campaign, 1776. Conshohocken, Pa.: Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1986.

                           revised by Lawrence E. Babits

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Moores Creek Bridge

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