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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

North Carolina
in the American Revolution

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Division of Archives and History
Raleigh, 1959

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p10  Chapter 2

The Battle at Moore's Creek Bridge

The powder smoke above the villages of Lexington and Concord soon drifted away on the early morning breeze, but the shooting had just begun. The British soldiers had to fight their way back into Boston and to the safety of their fortifications. From behind every stone wall and nearly every tree along the way, the farmers of Massachusetts poured a leaden hail of bullets into their columns. The British found no rest in Boston. The people of New England, angry beyond all description, began to gather in a great army around the city. Earthworks were thrown up by busy shovels. Soon the booming of cannon and the crack of muskets announced to the world that the American colonies were now determined to throw off the yoke of British rule. From other colonies men came marching to lend a hand to the people of Massachusetts.

The Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. They were faced with a multitude of tasks — securing supplies, raising troops, and selecting a general to command their army. For commander-in‑chief they chose a tall, silent planter from Virginia, George Washington. The Congress also required each colony to recruit, equip, and train a specified number of soldiers. These were to be included within a military force known as the "Continental Army," to be under the command of General Washington. North Carolina was to raise two regiments, one under  p11 the command of Colonel James Moore of New Hanover County, the other under Colonel Robert Howe of Brunswick County.

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Robert Howe of Brunswick County served as a commander of a regiment of North Carolina troops in the Continental army. Howe was promoted from colonel to brigadier general and then to major general in command of the troops in the West. He was the highest ranking North Carolinian in the Continental army.

Governor Josiah Martin had no intention of allowing these things to come to pass in North Carolina. He too had been making plans. Every day, and sometimes far into the night, his goose quill pen had been busily scratching out plans and letters for the authorities in England. He wrote to Thomas Gage, the British general in Boston, asking for weapons and ammunition. To England he sent a plan which he felt would result not only in defeating the rebels of North Carolina, but would also be useful in taking South Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina, at this time was the most prosperous and important port in the South. If the British could take this town, the task of conquering the southern colonies would be made much easier.

In his letters to British government officials, Governor Martin had declared that he would be able to raise an army of North Carolinians who would fight alongside the British redcoats. So convincing were his letters, the British authorities decided to use some of his plans. They replied that early in 1776 two fleets, with two British armies on board, would drop anchor in the Cape Fear River. One of these would be coming from Boston under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. The other army would be sailing from Ireland with its general, Lord Charles Cornwallis. They were to meet off the coast of North Carolina, where they were to be joined by the troops of Governor Martin. The combined force would then take Charleston. After that, they thought, they could roll over the remaining southern colonies.

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Charles, Earl Cornwallis, was the other British commander sent to assist in putting down the rebellion in the South. He succeeded Clinton upon the latter's return to New York following his successful campaign against Charleston.

 p12  Josiah Martin was confident that he could recruit at least 3,000 loyal troops in North Carolina. Some of these he hoped to enlist from among the "Regulators." These people, from the neighborhoods of Hillsboro and Salisbury, were still angry because of their defeat at the Battle of Alamance in 1771 by the people of the eastern part of North Carolina under the command of Governor William Tryon. Because the revolutionary leaders of North Carolina were from the eastern section, Martin felt that the Regulators would have nothing to do with the movement.

Other loyal troops, he felt, could be enlisted among the Scotch Highlanders who had settled in the Cape Fear section of the colony. In 1746 they had revolted against the King of England and led by "Bonnie Prince Charlie," they had been defeated in the Battle of Culloden. After that, and before they migrated to the New World, they had taken an oath of allegiance to the King of England. And these Highlanders were people who believed in keeping their word. They had settled in eastern North Carolina around Cross Creek (present‑day Fayetteville) and Cross Hill (present‑day Carthage). Some had become prosperous merchants. Others had earned a good living by producing naval stores (tar, pitch, and turpentine) used in the construction of ships for the British navy.

General Gage sent two regular British army officers to aid Governor Martin in training and organizing his loyal troops. These two men, Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacDonald and Captain Donald McLeod, both originally from Scotland, were good choices for the job. They came ashore near New Bern. They had discarded their uniforms and were dressed in  p13 civilian clothes, but the New Bern Committee of Safety had heard they were coming. The two Scottish officers were good actors. When they were called before the Committee, they were so persuasive in their tales that the Committee not only allowed them to go their way, but also warned them against the activities of Governor Martin.

As soon as Martin heard of their arrival, he made MacDonald a brigadier general and McLeod a lieutenant colonel in the loyalist militia. A call was sent out for all loyalists to come to Cross Hill or Cross Creek. Some drifted in, but others were not able to answer the call of the governor. Some had been driven from their homes by the rebels and were hiding out in the forests. Others, marching to Cross Creek, were driven back by the Whigs, as the rebels were beginning to call themselves. Some were rounded up and clapped into jail. Others were just too frightened and stayed home. Some had even arrived at Cross Creek, only to decide the governor did not have much of an army, and had returned to their homes. The Tory army, nevertheless, increased.

All this activity in and around Cross Creek had not escaped the attention of the Whigs. They too began to move towards that town. They were a strange appearing group. They marched along, ill‑trained men in rough clothes, to the rattle of a not too well-beat drum, and occasionally even to the whine and scratch of an ill‑played fiddle. Two more soldierly units, the two Continental regiments under Colonels Moore and Howe, also began to move towards Cross Creek. Colonel James Moore, as senior officer present, assumed the command of all the patriot troops.

Governor Martin tried to draw attention away from his troops at Cross Hill. The warship "Cruizer" was sent up the Cape Fear as a threat. At Wilmington the ugly muzzles of cannon jutting over the tops of hastily thrown‑up earthworks frightened the sailors and they turned back. When the ship put a raiding party over the side, rifle fire from both sides of the river sent the men hastily rowing back to the protection of their ship. These same rifles kept popping away as the "Cruizer" dropped back down the river. This little incident made it clear that the governor could not hope to send aid to MacDonald by way of the Cape Fear River.

At Cross Creek, General MacDonald was trying desperately to whip his Tory army into shape. Reports were that the Whigs  p14 were closing in fast. He now had around 1,400 men under his command, but only 520 of them were armed. All available muskets and rifles were collected from the neighborhood. One man, who possessed some skill with a needle, was put to work sewing a British battle flag of red, white, and blue cloth.

On February 18, 1776, General MacDonald gave the orders to march. His Tory army didn't travel very far. Only seven miles out of Cross Creek, at a place called Rockfish Creek, they were brought to a halt. Just across the creek were Colonel James Moore and 2,000 Whig soldiers. MacDonald tried to bluff his way through. He sent a note to Moore threatening severe punishment to the rebels, if they didn't surrender to the troops of the King. Moore gave as good as he took, and his notes were just as threatening as those of his enemy. Moore was playing for time, hoping to delay MacDonald until reinforcements could come up.

MacDonald had to do something and do it quickly. He knew that Moore's troops outnumbered his and the longer he waited the more Whigs would join his enemy. When the possibility of a battle had been suggested, some of his Tories had quietly picked up their arms and had faded quickly among the trees. He now decided to try to outwit Moore by slipping away and trying another route to the sea. He drew up his troops in formation and began to speak. His voice grew bolder and louder as he called upon those men who were not ready to die for their cause to say so then and now. Twenty men, who admitted their "Courage was not Warproof," sheepishly stepped forward out of the ranks. Laying down their arms amidst the jeers of their former comrades, they fled into the shelter of the nearby trees. There was no such cowardice among the remaining Tory troops. When MacDonald had finished his fiery speech, they gave three mighty cheers as they marched away.

Almost back to Cross Creek the Tories marched. There they loaded into boats and rowed across the Cape Fear River. On the other side, the boats were destroyed to delay any pursuit. They then turned east and began the long march towards the coast.

MacDonald had outwitted Moore. It was not until the next morning that the Whigs discovered the absence of the enemy. Colonel James Moore was not a man to sit around and mope because he had been outmaneuvered by an intelligent enemy, and now he moved fast. Some of the troops under his command were directed to occupy Cross Creek. This prevented the Tories from  p15 having a base to which they could return. Moore had received word that troops under the command of Colonel Richard Caswell were marching from New Bern. He ordered these men to change their line of march and take a position at Corbett's Ferry on the Black River. Other troops were to try to reinforce Caswell at that place. If this was impossible, they were to station themselves at the bridge crossing the Widow Moore's Creek, just seventeen miles from Wilmington. Moore led his own troops to Elizabeth Town to block that road to the sea.

While all of this was going on, MacDonald's army gradually was pushing its way through the wilderness. The wagons carrying supplies creaked slowly across the rough terrain. Bridges had to be braced to hold the heavy loads. Patrols constantly had to scour the countryside to prevent an ambush by the enemy. On February 23, three days after he had left Rockfish Creek, MacDonald reached Corbett's Ferry on the Black River.

General MacDonald had planned to use the ferry to cross the river. A five‑man patrol scouting for Caswell was captured. From it he learned that Caswell and his men were waiting for him on the other side of the stream. The Tory general's only hope was to outwit Caswell just as he had outwitted Moore. A small group of men were left at the ferry while the main body of his men marched upstream. Those who remained kept out of sight, but they were extremely noisy. They tramped through the woods, shouting to each other. Some beat drums; others played shrill tunes on the bagpipes. Still others concealed themselves along the river bank and sent an occasional rifle shot whining across the stream to prevent Caswell's men from becoming too curious. On the other side, Caswell thought MacDonald's entire army was getting ready to try a crossing. He ordered his men to dig in.

Upstream, MacDonald, using his extra time, completed a bridge across the river. By eight o'clock on the morning of February 26th his men had made the crossing and once again were on the march.

Colonel Caswell soon discovered that he had been led astray by a few bagpipes, drums, and rifle shots. He immediately led his troops on a fast march to get to Moore's Creek ahead of the Tories. When he arrived, he discovered that Colonel Alexander Lillington was already on the ground and had begun to  p16 throw up earthworks. Caswell crossed to the other side and began to dig in with his back to the creek.

MacDonald drove his men, but when he was within six miles of the bridge he learned from his scouts that Caswell had won the race. He sent a messenger into the camp of the enemy to demand Caswell's surrender. Actually, MacDonald knew that Caswell had no intention of surrendering, but the messenger had been sent to spy. When he returned he reported to the Tory general that Caswell had encamped on the near side of the bridge, with his back to the creek.

MacDonald was an old man and the strain of the forced march overcame him. Finding that he was now too ill to lead his troops into battle, he called his officers to his bedside. They were confident they could defeat the rebels and wanted to attack early enough next morning to surprise Caswell's men as they still lay sleeping around their campfires. The sick general then appointed Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacLeod to lead the assault.

Early that evening, rifles, muskets, and ammunition were checked. A number of the Tories had no firearms, but they were prepared to go into battle swinging their claymores, the traditional broadsword of the Scotch Highlanders. At one o'clock in the morning they began the march towards the enemy camp.

It was dark. Clouds scudding across the sky obscured the faint light of the moon and the stars. The Tories lost their way and spent much of their time floundering in the muck and mire of the swamps. A little before dawn they saw the fires of Caswell's camp flickering through the trees. Silently, the Tories formed themselves into three columns. Just as silently they entered the Whig camp, ready to pounce upon the sleeping enemy. There was no enemy! During the night Caswell had pulled back across the creek to join Lillington's troops, leaving his campfires burning to confuse the Tories. The tables were turned. This time the Whigs had outwitted the Tories. Now the Tories had to attempt an assault across the bridge.

McLeod pulled his troops back into the shelter of the trees to form for the attack. A rallying cry, "King George and Broad Swords," was passed along the line. Three cheers were to be the signal for the attack. They waited for the first signs of dawn. Suddenly, there was a burst of rifle fire near the bridge. McLeod decided to wait no longer, although it was not yet daylight. Three cheers rang out, drums began to roll, and the shrill squeal of [p17] p18 bagpipes cut through the cool morning air. The line moved forward.

Moore's Creek Bridge was of crude construction. Beneath it the water was dark and deep. Two massive logs had been thrown across the creek, and these had been planked over to provide the crossing. The wily Whigs had removed most of the planks and had then coated the bare logs with soap and tallow. It was almost impossible to maintain a footing on the greasy, round logs. On the other side of the stream, the dim outlines of earthworks could be seen in the first gray light of dawn.

Donald McLeod was a recklessly brave man. He had come to fight, and he was determined to do battle or to die. He thrust the point of his sword into the slippery log to aid him in maintaining his balance. With a shout of encouragement to his men, he started across the bridge. His men, good soldiers that they were, followed.

As the first wave of men started across, a volley of musket fire sparkled from the earthworks like fireflies in the faint light. There was the louder boom of two cannon as they slammed a load of death across the bridge. McLeod, his body riddled with lead, fell to the ground. He struggled back onto his feet, still shouting encouragement to his soldiers and pointing his sword forward. Another hail of bullets tore into the body of this brave soldier and he fell to the ground only a few paces from the Whig fortifications.

The rain of shot sweeping across the bridge toppled the Tories like tenpins. Many, scrambling across the slippery logs, were dashed into the deep waters below. Few made it to the other shore. Some took refuge behind trees and returned the fire of the Whigs for a little while. Tory officers dashed among their men, shouting "King George and Broad Swords," but it was too late. The men panicked. Even some of the officers had fled at the first volley.

The flight became a rout. There was a general rush in the direction of their camp of the night before. Harness was ripped from the backs of horses and frightened men rode them swiftly through the trees. Others dashed headlong through the forest, tripping over roots, scratched by briars, and sprawling into the murky waters of the swamps.

As the Tories fled, the Whigs leaped over their fortifications with shouts of victory. For a short distance they pursued the  p19 Tories. But the battle was over. Some say it lasted for only about three minutes. In that short interval, only two of the men under Caswell and Lillington had been wounded, and only one of them later died of his wounds. At least thirty of the Tories had been killed, but it was estimated that many more later died of their wounds.

The Tories covered the six miles back to their camp at a much faster pace than they had marched to battle only a few hours earlier. They found their sick general, MacDonald, still sleeping peacefully in his tent, unaware of the disaster which had overtaken his little army. The remaining officers held a hasty council of war. As the Whigs now blocked their return to Cross Creek, they decided to divide their remaining ammunition and make their way back to their homes as best they could. To protect themselves, they decided to march in a group for a portion of the way. General MacDonald, still too weak to travel, was left in his tent.

Back at the battlefield, Caswell and Lillington had been joined by Colonel James Moore. Moore assumed command and organized the troops for the pursuit of the enemy. Scouting parties soon were roaming the countryside in search of the fugitives. MacDonald was among the first to be captured. He was taken to New Bern and later to Halifax, where he was placed in jail.

MacDonald's Tory army soon suffered the same fate as their commanding officer. They had marched but a little distance when they were suddenly surrounded by mounted Whigs. They surrendered without firing a shot. About 850 of the privates were allowed to return to their homes after promising they would not fight again. The officers were taken to Halifax and there placed in the same jail as their general.

The Tory thrust had been put down, but Governor Josiah Martin could not bring himself to believe it. He was still aboard the "Cruizer," still writing letters to the officials in the British government. The defeat at Moore's Creek Bridge, he said, was really nothing to worry about. Future plans were sure to work out and North Carolina would once again become a British colony.

The people of North Carolina felt differently. They felt the victory settled once and for all the question of any danger from the Tories. The Whigs, now feeling safe, and perhaps a little cocky, began to persecute the loyalists. Many of those who still favored the King were forced to hide in the swamps and forests  p20 in fear of their lives. There was continued fighting around New England and New York, but those places were far, far away. It appeared to be all over in North Carolina. It wasn't, and the Whigs were due for a rude awakening.

In May, 1776, war seemed to have come again to North Carolina. The British fleet carrying the troops of Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis dropped anchor in the Cape Fear River. They had been scheduled to arrive in February, but heavy seas and winter storms had delayed their arrival. Had they arrived on time, the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge might have had a different ending. Now, to the Whigs, their arrival appeared to be an invasion of North Carolina. They began to arm themselves again and calls for aid were sent to the sister colonies of Virginia and South Carolina.

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Sir Henry Clinton sailed from England with his troops and, upon Governor Josiah Martin's request for aid, anchored off the Cape Fear River. Too late to aid the loyalists at Moore's Creek Bridge, Clinton continued to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was driven off by the South Carolinians. Later, on May 12, 1780, he forced the surrender of the city.

They had little to fear. The original British plans called for the Tories to join the British fleet. Instead of a victorious Tory army, the British generals found only an angry Josiah Martin sulking aboard the "Cruizer." Some landing parties were put ashore to make raids along the river. A few houses were plundered of their valuables and some of the plantation homes along the river were burned. That was about all the damage the British were able to do, for they soon weighed anchor and sailed south for an attack on Charleston, South Carolina.

The North Carolinians had overcome their first obstacle on the road to independence. They had played havoc with the scheme of a royal governor, and they had defeated their enemies in a pitched battle. The threat of British invasion seemed more remote than ever after the South Carolinians had driven the British fleet away from Charleston. Now they were free to establish a government of free men.

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