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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 6 No. 3 (Jan. 1907), pp177‑184

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p177 The Battle of Rockfish Creek
in Duplin County


by J. O. Carr

A period of one hundred and twenty-five years has elapsed since the battle of Rockfish Creek was fought in Duplin County on the 2d of August, 1781; but not one line has ever been written to commemorate this event, and few historians know of its occurrence.

In order that the reader may better understand the subject of this sketch, it is well to give an account of the relative movements of the American and British armies in North Carolina at that time.

About the first of February, 1781, Maj. James H. Craig, a British military officer of repute,1 entered the Cape Fear River with several hundred soldiers prepared to take and hold Wilmington. He had been sent from Charleston by Lord Cornwallis with instructions to seize the town and make it a place of refuge for the Tories and a place of retreat for the British army in case of any disaster, while Cornwallis himself proceeded to the Piedmont section of the state with the hope of completing the conquest of North Carolina.

On the very day that Craig entered Wilmington the battle of Cowan's Ford was fought, in which the brilliant and gallant William L. Davidson was killed, and Cornwallis and Gen. Nathaniel Greene were engaged in the famous campaign of 1781. Craig immediately issued a proclamation urging the people of North Carolina to renew their allegiance to the royal government, and the Tories throughout the State were rallying around the standard of the enemy — some because of their loyalty to the English government, and others because they saw no hope in further resistance; but there p178were yet many who were willing to die in the cause they had espoused. It is said that twelve out of fifteen companies of militia in Bladen County were at heart favorably disposed to the Crown, though still enlisted in the American cause. To some extent a similar condition existed in Duplin and New Hanover Counties, and in June, 1781, out of a draft of 70 in Duplin for the Continental army only 24 appeared.2

Immediately after arriving in Wilmington, Maj. Craig began depredations in the county and sent a party up the North East River to the "great bridge," which spanned the river about twelve miles north of Wilmington, where it was crossed by the Duplin road. The bridge was demolished and some American store-ships, which lay concealed there for safety, were burned. It was not easy to understand why the bridge was destroyed unless it be that Craig feared an attack from the Militia of the adjoining counties. This was the main crossing into the northern part of New Hanover and Duplin, and continual vigilance was kept at this post by the opposing forces. The Militia of New Hanover, Bladen and Duplin, consisting of about seven hundred men, took position here to prevent incursions into the country. Temporary p179fortifications were made and after some skirmishing across the river Craig's men returned to Wilmington, and the Militia under command of Gen. Alexander Lillington continued to hold the post until the army of Cornwallis entered Wilmington in April, 1781. Realizing the impossibility of holding the place longer, Gen. Lillington ordered a hasty retreat to Kinston, where he disbanded the Militia, except one company, on the 28th of April, 1781, at which time Cornwallis had proceeded to the heart of Duplin, where he was carrying consternation to the hearts of the people. Checkmated and outgeneraled by Greene in his marvelous retreat through the State, Cornwallis was wreaking vengeance on the inhabitants and was leaving behind him desolation and ruin. He left Craig still in charge at Wilmington for the purpose of rallying the Tories and keeping the Whigs subdued in the surrounding country, and there did not remain a semblance of an American army in North Carolina. However, Craig's repeated expeditions into New Hanover, Duplin and Onslow made it necessary to reorganize the Militia, and four hundred men were collected in Duplin under Col. Kenan, and quite a number in Bladen under Col. Brown.


[image ALT: An engraving of a small, unpretentious two-story wooden house in a wooded area; a low picket fence is seen in the foreground. It is the home of American Revolutionary War patriot Alexander Lillington near Rocky Point, North Carolina.]

Home of Alexander Lillington


[image ALT: The signature of Alexander Lillington, a North Carolina Revolutionary War patriot.]

After the departure of Cornwallis, Craig's forces first proceeded toward New Berne with the purpose of subduing all the country east of the North East River, and on June 28th, 1781, Gen. Lillington sent a dispatch from Richlands, Onslow County, to Major Abraham Molton in Duplin, informing him that the British with about eight hundred Tories and regulars were advancing from Rutherfords Mill3 towards p180Richlands, and instructing him to muster all the forces he could without delay.4 Molton immediately informed Gov. Burke of the situation and proceeded to raise a levy of troops in Duplin. It seems that Col. Kenan was otherwise engaged at this time, probably guarding the crossing at Rockfish Creek. On July 6th, Col. Kenan wrote Gov. Burke that one hundred Duplin men had marched to join Gen. Lillington at Richlands Chapel and fifty others were ready to go. Again on July 9th, he wrote the Governor that the enemy, which was moving towards Richlands, had returned to Rutherford's Mill, and that he had ordered a draft of two hundred men to be made from Duplin immediately, but that he had no powder nor lead — not one round — and urged the Governor to supply them with ammunition, as they could not take the field until supplied. And again on July 15th, he wrote the Governor that the enemy had moved out of Wilmington and were rebuilding the "long bridge"; that it was their intention to give no more paroles, but would sell every man's property who would not join them; that they had one hundred light horse, well equipped, and four hundred and seventy foot; and that he was informed that they were determined to be at Duplin County House the next Monday.5 He further stated that they had no ammunition and could get none, and renewed his request to be supplied. On July 24th, Gen. Alexander Lillington wrote the Governor that a part of Caswell's army had reached Rockfish, in Duplin County, which was then held by Col. Kenan, and that Col. Kenan had informed him by letter that he had no ammunition.6 It is apparent from all these communications that Kenan, Caswell and Lillington regarded the situation as serious, and thought p181it very important that Craig's army should be checked in its march through the State. The importance of this resistance is readily seen when we consider the fact that Cornwallis had traversed the State and had just passed into Virginia without serious damage to his own army; for, while he had won no decisive victory, yet he had, in effect, subdued the State and had left it with no organized army; and Craig's expeditions were intended to give courage to the Tories, who were ready to support the enemy at any time.

p182 Rockfish Creek, now the dividing line between Duplin and Pender Counties, was then the boundary between Duplin and New Hanover. The old Duplin road leading from Wilmington, along which Cornwallis had marched, crossed the creek about a half mile east of the Wilmington and Weldon Rail Road, and passed a few yards west of where the present county bridge now stands. This was the most convenient place for an army to make its passage, but it was hoped, and without much reason, that the Militia would be able to entrap the British here and win a signal victory, and likely such would have been the result had our troops been supplied with ammunition. Col. Kenan, who was chief in command at this time, and who had planned the attack, fortified himself on Rockfish Creek, at the crossing above described, by throwing up dirt-works just north of the ford, slight traces of which can now be seen, and waited the approach of the enemy. The fortifications were well planned so as to give the Militia every possible advantage as the enemy was crossing the creek, for their only hope was to make an attack while a crossing was being attempted. Craig had light artillery, some cavalry and over four hundred footmen, all well equipped, and was more than prepared to resist any force that the Whigs could put in the field. On the 2d of August, 1781, he attempted to cross the creek and was vigorously attacked by the brave Militiamen under Col. Kenan, though without ammunition sufficient to even give hope of success. Craig used his entire force, including his artillery, and the inevitable result was the defeat of our troops, outnumbered and unequipped as they were. There is now in existence an old cannon ball, about three inches in diameter, which was left at the place of battle by the British army; and while it is insignificant as compared with modern instruments of warfare, yet it was much superior to anything used by the Duplin Militia.


[image ALT: A photograph of a very narrow and very thin wooden bridge crossing a river, about 8 to 10 meters above it, in a swamp-like woodland scene. The bridge is just wide enough for one pedestrian to cross, and is supported by two plain wooden poles plunging into the river. It is an early‑20c view of the bridge over Rockfish Creek, NC at the site of the Revolutionary War battle of Rockfish Creek Bridge.]

Rockfish Creek Bridge

The accounts of this battle have only been preserved by p183two eye-witnesses, and these are not as complete as we would like to have them; however, they throw some light on the matter, and without them we would have nothing reliable.


[image ALT: A schematic map of the American Revolutionary War battle of Rockfish Creek Bridge: a road crossing a river, and two opposing sites on opposite sides of the river, the Americans right by the bridge and the British some distance away.]

The Battle Ground

Col. Kenan on the same day wrote the Governor as follows:7

Duplin, August 2d, 1781.

Sir:— I imbodied all the Militia I Could in this County to the Amount of about 150 men and was reinforced by Gen'l Caswell with about 180 and took post at a place called rockfish. The British this day Came against me and the Militia again after a few rounds Broak and it was out of my power and all my Officers to rally them. They have all Dispersed. Before the men Broak we lost none, But the light horse pursued and I am afraid have taken 20 or 30 men. I Cannot Give You a full acct., but the Bearer, Capt. James, who was in the Action, Can inform your Excellency of any Particular. He acted with Becoming Bravery during the whole action. I am now Convinced this County with Several others will be Overrun by the British and Tories. Your Excellency will Excuse as I cannot Give a more full accot.º

I am Sir Your very humbl St.


[image ALT: The signature of James Kenan, a North Carolina Revolutionary War patriot.]

On the 30th of November, 1784, William Dickson, who participated in the fight, wrote a letter to his cousin in Ireland, which contained the following reference to the battle:

"Col. Kenan's Militia had not made a stand more than ten days when Maj. Craig marched his main force, with field pieces, defeated and drove us out of our works, and made some of our men prisoners (here I narrowly escaped being taken or cut down by the dragoons). The enemy stayed several days in Duplin County (this being the first week in August, 1781). The Royalists gathered together very fast, and we were now reduced again to the uttermost extremity. p184The enemy were now more cruel to the distressed inhabitants than Cornwallis' army had been before. Some men collected and formed a little flying camp and moved near the enemy's lines and made frequent sallies on their rear flanks, while others fled from their homes and kept out of the enemy's reach. Maj. Craig marched from Duplin to Newbern, plundered the town, destroyed the public stores, and then immediately marched back to Wilmington to secure the garrison."8

The battle of Rockfish is not one of the important battles of the Revolution, and its result, whatever it might have been, could in no way have affected the ultimate issue of the war. However, it throws some light on the history of the times and shows us what the brave home guard of the Revolution had to contend with, and how important a part of the great army it was. Without the "Militia," life would have been intolerable in Duplin during the great struggle, and Toryism would have deterred the people from giving support and aid to the far‑away soldier, who was doing battle for our freedom. After the defeat of the "Duplin Militia" at Rockfish, Craig laid his cruel hand upon the inhabitants of Duplin, robbed them of their property, and inflicted upon them every indignity and outrage known to merciless warfare.


The Author's Notes:

1 Note. — Sir James Henry Craig was born in Gibraltar in the year 1749. He entered the English Army at the age of fourteen and was well trained in the art of soldiery. He came to America in the year 1774 and was in service here from the battle of Bunker Hill until the evacuation of Charleston in 1781. He was thirty-two years of age when he took possession of Wilmington and began his work of devastation in the surrounding counties. In 1807 he was made Governor-General and Commander-in‑Chief of Canada. He was a soldier of fair ability, but as a civil officer was a petty tyrant and oppressor. His administration as Governor of Canada was a failure, and he returned to England in 1811, where he died the following year.

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2 Colonial Records, vol. XV, p490.

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3 Rutherford's Mill was east of the Northeast River, between Wilmington and Richlands.

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4 Colonial Records, vol. XV, pp496 and 499.

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5 Colonial Records, vol. XV, p535.

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6 Colonial Records, vol. XV, p567.

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7 Colonial Records, vol. XV, p593.

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8 Dickson Letters, p17.


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Page updated: 5 Feb 12