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The town of Wilmington was important to the success of Lord Cornwallis's campaign. While he was pursuing Greene through the western part of North Carolina, things had been happening in the region along the coast. On January 28, 1781, a fleet of eighteen vessels flying the British flag dropped anchor in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. On board were 450 redcoats under the command of Major James Craig.
In 1781 there were approximately 200 houses in Wilmington, and its population was almost 1,000. The populace, however, were civilians, unprepared to fight or defend their homes. There was no opposition as Craig took possession of the town. He immediately put his soldiers to work throwing up fortifications around the town. Patrols were sent out to round up all the prominent Whigs in the neighborhood. Some of the natives tried to escape. Thomas Bloodworth, the tax collector, loaded everything pertaining to his office on board a small vessel and dispatched it up the Cape Fear River. Craig's soldiers, after a •twenty-mile ride across the country, caught up with this boat, captured it, and then burned it.
Other patrols, mounted on the best horses of the Cape Fear region, rode constantly. Cornelius Harnett, who lived just outside of Wilmington, attempted to flee. He fell ill in Anson County, and there he was captured by Craig's men. Some say that his death soon after this was the result of his ill‑treatment by the British. General John Ashe suffered a similar fate. He hid out in a swamp, but he was betrayed to the enemy by one of his servants. When he attempted to escape, he was shot in the leg. Soon afterwards he died of smallpox. Other leading Whigs were captured, some by the Tories, who turned them over to the British in Wilmington.
With the British soldiers in the area to protect them, the Tories became bolder. To keep them under control, General Alexander Lillington called out the militia. He fortified a position at Heron Bridge, •about ten miles up the Northeast River from Wilmington. Near the end of February, Craig made a surprise attack upon Lillington and his militia, but he could not dislodge the stubborn rebels. After two days of bombarding the American position, Craig gave up and returned to Wilmington, leaving Lillington and his men in command of Heron Bridge.
p62 There were others in and about Wilmington who annoyed the enemy. A story is told about a gunsmith named Bloodworth. He used to take his favorite rifle down to the Northeast River, across from the spot where the British soldiers brought their horses to water. Concealing himself in a hollow tree, Bloodworth waited patiently until one of the red‑coated troopers came into range. It was only after several of the British soldiers had been killed that his hiding place was discovered. A detachment was sent across the river to capture this bold sniper, but Bloodworth made his escape.
Craig's men were working on the fortifications when Cornwallis's men marched into town on April 7th. The general immediately established his headquarters in one of the finer houses in town; the church building was put to use as a hospital for the sick and wounded.
Cornwallis spent much of his time over the planning table. Should he return to South Carolina to make another strike at Greene, or should he consolidate the meager victory he had won in North Carolina? His army was in no condition to fight another battle. On the other hand, Major General Phillips was in Virginia with an army of fresh troops. And Virginia, he thought, should be a tranquil and subdued state as a result of the ravages of the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold. Arnold had ranged over Virginia, plundering and pillaging as he rode. Virginia offered Cornwallis the prospect of fresh troops and new fame. He decided to march northward.
Cornwallis's army rested just a little over two weeks in Wilmington. When they marched out of town they were minus one of the persons who had been with them ever since the fall of Charleston. This was the former royal governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin. Even so enthusiastic an optimist as Martin no longer could foresee the return of North Carolina to royal rule. Pleading illness, he boarded the first ship sailing from Wilmington to England.
Once again the red‑coated army was on the move. Trudging along the rutted, sandy roads, they marched slowly and almost deliberately into Duplin County. The entire countryside was terrorized. Tories and other hangers‑on, who followed the British army like a flight of vultures, plundered every farm and plantation along the way. Some homes roared up in a mass of flames and smoke-blackened chimneys marked the path of the marching p63 column. Horses and cattle were driven off, and slaves were forced to come along with the army. Many Whigs loaded their families and most valuable possessions into wagons and hastened to a safer area.
Cornwallis met with no opposition until May 6, 1781. At Peacock's Bridge over Contentnea Creek (near Stantonsburg), were stationed 400 determined militia from Pitt County under Colonel James Gorham. Although these citizen soldiers were able to make a brief stand at the bridge, they were soon scattered when a cavalry charge was made by Tarleton and his men. Tarleton then was sent on across the Tar River to scout and disperse any Whigs who later might cause trouble. At Swift Creek and Fishing Creek, small detachments of Americans were bold enough to challenge him, but they were dispersed with little trouble.
Tarleton received word that a fairly large group of North Carolina militia was assembling at Halifax. By travelling across country and approaching the town from an unexpected direction he was able to surprise them. The ensuing fight was short. Thundering horses and flashing sabers put the disorganized militia to flight. In this brief skirmish the British suffered a loss of three men and several horses. Some of the bolder militia began to throw up earthworks on the far side of the Roanoke River. When British soldiers approached the stream, they were treated to a storm of musket shots from the other shore. The militiamen made such a nuisance of themselves that a small force was sent across the river to drive them out.
The citizens of Halifax were subjected to many indignities after the troops of Cornwallis occupied the town. Homes were plundered of valuables and the people insulted. At one time the situation was so much out of control that Cornwallis court-martialled and executed a sergeant and a dragoon for outrages for which they had been responsible.
In late May, Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, marched out of North Carolina on the road to Petersburg in Virginia. He had spent over three months in the State and had accomplished little. In late January he had entered North Carolina with a veteran army; he now was leaving its borders with but a shadow of his once fine fighting machine. He had fought one major battle, for which he had made a hollow claim of victory. At both the Cowpens and Guilford Court House he had lost some of the best soldiers under his command. It was the loss of these soldiers that p64 was partly responsible for Cornwallis's defeat and surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781.
Craig continued his activity at Wilmington and vicinity. He offered rewards for enlistments in the British service and, when the Whigs made no response, he encouraged the Tories to persecute them. He constructed outlying fortifications as far away as Rutherford's Mills (near present‑day Burgaw). When General Alexander Lillington attempted to call out the militia in Onslow County, detachments of dragoons were sent to break up the assembly.
Tories in eastern North Carolina continued their strikes against the despised Whigs. Some Whigs were forced to flee from their homes and hide in the swamps. When possible, they struck back. For instance, when one McLaurin Colvill was appointed a colonel in the loyalist militia, his house was surrounded on a dark night by the Whigs who killed him.
Pitched battles were not unknown. When the Tory "flying army" of Colonels Hector McNeil and Davean Ray drove off the stock of the Whigs of Cumberland County and then tried to force them to give up their arms, they met resistance. Colonel Thomas Wade of Anson County called out his militia regiment. Smaller groups from Montgomery and Richmond counties joined him.
On Saturday night, August 4, 1781, Wade met the Tories at Beatty's Bridge on Drowning Creek. A sharp skirmish followed, with rifles cracking on both sides of the creek until nearly midnight. Soon the Tories had enough fighting and retreated, their losses amounting to twelve men killed and fifteen wounded. None of Wade's men had been killed, and only four had suffered wounds.
Most of the time, however, Major Craig managed to keep the Whigs of eastern North Carolina off balance. He announced that he would seize and sell the property of all those who resisted British measures. By August 1, 1781, he declared, all the inhabitants of the area were to come into Wilmington and take the oath of allegiance to George III. If they refused, they would be suspected as being enemies of the King, and would be in danger of having their property confiscated and losing their lives. Few Whigs came in to take the oath. On August 1st, Craig marched out on an expedition to punish all those who had not complied with his requirements.
p65 At Rock Creek (sometimes called "Rockfish" and near present‑day Wallace) he was opposed briefly by the patriot militia of Duplin County under Colonel James Kenan. The engagement lasted only a short while because Kenan's men soon exhausted their ammunition. They retreated. None of these courageous Duplin County men lost their lives, but about twenty or thirty were taken by the British cavalry who pursued them after the skirmish.
For ten days Craig remained in Duplin Creek. Many of those who refused to take the oath saw the torch applied to their homes. Some 300 loyalists came in and joined the British. When Craig's column marched towards New Bern, small groups of mounted Whigs made nuisances of themselves by darting in for a sudden strike. This was all they could do. They did not possess the ammunition to make a stand.
Around 2:00 P.M., on Sunday, August 19, 1781, Craig's force arrived in New Bern, his trail marked by the ruins of Whig plantations. Among the homes that had been burned was that belonging to General Alexander Lillington. Some of the loyal natives of New Bern welcomed the British; some of the Whigs took pot shots at them as they entered the town. One of the first things Craig had his men do was to destroy all the rigging of the ships tied up along the waterfront. Much of the cargo on board these vessels was destroyed, including some 3,000 barrels of salt. This was especially disastrous, for in those days before electric refrigeration, salt was one of the main items used in the preservation of meat.
Several of the leading citizens of New Bern had fled at the approach of the British. Dr. Alexander Gaston tried to make his escape by rowing across Trent River. A British officer coldly shot him down before the eyes of Gaston's horrified wife.
On Tuesday, August 21st, after only two days in town, Craig left New Bern and marched towards Kinston. Along the road there was a brief skirmish with the militia of Colonel James Gorham, but they were soon driven off. The British camped on the spot and burned four houses in the neighborhood, including the home of General Bryan.
Craig's plan to march farther into the interior of the State was interrupted by word that the Continental troops of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne had entered North Carolina on their way to join General Greene. The British hurriedly turned south p67 towards Wilmington. From Craig's point of view, it had been a most successful raid. He was satisfied that the rebels had received their just punishment for their refusal to come in and take the oath of allegiance. He had been able to inflict this punishment at a cost of only thirty men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
The Tories did not share Craig's sense of success. Just as soon as the British had marched too far to offer them protection, the Whigs came out of hiding and began to gather in an effort to crush the loyalists.
There was a full-scale battle at Elizabeth Town where the Tory colonel, John Slingsby, had been holding a number of Whig prisoners. About 150 men from Bladen County cautiously approached the town. Under cover of darkness they forded the river. Just before dawn they launched their attack. The sudden assault threw the Tories into a panic. Large numbers of them, rushing headlong through the dim light, fell into a deep ravine. So many either leaped or stumbled into this ditch that it has since become known as "Tories' Hole." The Whigs quickly collected all the arms and stores in town and retired to the other side of the river. Only one of their men had been wounded. Nineteen Tories were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Slingsby was among these, and later died of his wounds.
The Tories retaliated quickly. Colonel David Fanning, one of the most ruthless and daring of all the Tory leaders, hastened to the aid of the force at Elizabeth Town. He arrived too late. He did receive word that the men of Colonel Thomas Wade were encamped on Drowning Creek. Marching towards these Whigs, he was joined along the way by the Tories of Colonel Hector McNeil. Together, they surprised Wade in a narrow section of Raft Swamp. They charged Wade's position just before noon. The rebels fired, aiming at the charging horses. Eighteen dropped at the first volley. The Tories dismounted and advanced on foot, firing as they came. When they were within twenty-five yards of Wade's troops, the Whigs broke and ran. Fanning's men quickly remounted and took up the pursuit. Fifty-four prisoners were taken. Twenty-three Whigs lay dead on the battlefield. The Tories captured a total of 250 horses. This victory in Raft Swamp more than compensated for the Tory rout at Elizabeth Town.
This demonstration of strength by the Tories was one of the reasons why General Griffith Rutherford led his troops into the p68 area. The general had been captured at the Battle of Camden and had spent much of the intervening time as a prisoner-of‑war in Florida. When he was exchanged he again took the field against the enemy. He issued a call for volunteers and, after two weeks of training and organizing the men, moved toward Wilmington on October 1st.
In the neighborhood of that town, he deployed his troops over a general area and slowly began to close in upon the town. Several attacks by the Tories were brushed off. Like a great hand slowly squeezing an orange, he kept moving his men nearer and nearer to Wilmington.
Then suddenly, the picture completely changed. On November 17, 1781, Light Horse Harry Lee stopped by Rutherford's camp. He was returning from Virginia on his way to rejoin General Greene in South Carolina. Lee bore news — earthshaking news! He gleefully reported that on October 19, 1781, at Yorktown in Virginia, Lord Cornwallis had surrendered to General Washington. Rutherford's camp went wild. Shouts, war whoops, and cheers rang through the forests. Valuable gunpowder was wasted as muskets were fired again and again in wild celebration.
Lord Cornwallis surrenders his troops to General George Washington, October 19, 1781, at Yorktown.
There was no time for a long celebration. Good news followed fast on the heels of good news. Reports came that Craig was evacuating Wilmington. Rutherford immediately moved his troops closer to the town. On November 18, 1781, the North Carolinians marched jauntily into Wilmington. Still in sight were the troopships transporting Craig's soldiers. The last British redcoat had left North Carolina soil. Now there were only the Tories.
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