Episode 016

Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge

While the American forces in Canada were preparing for and executing their retreat, tensions between Patriots and Loyalists flared once again in North Carolina.

Quebec took a toil on the Army. The march there had been hard and grueling, Captain Daniel Morgan along with many other troops were captured, Richard Montgomery had been killed leading his men on a charge and Benedict Arnold had been wounded, although not mortally. In the coming months and years it would also be hard on the Canadian citizens that had helped the Americans, as the British would set out punish them with forced labor to help repair infrastructure damage during the American retreat.

The American forces had gathered in their camp near Quebec and were tending to their wounded. On May 1, 1776 General John Thomas, who had been in command of the Siege of Boston and who now had been given Richard Montgomery’s command of the forces in the North, arrived.

Thomas found forces numbering less than 1,000 men (which meant the forces inside the walled city of Quebec outnumbering him). Of the 1,000 men that he found 300 of them were overdue for their discharge in enlistment. And smallpox was raging through all of the men. He immediately sent the sick men to Three Rivers, to expedite their return home. With the healthy men he began a withdrawal back towards American soil. While on the Richelieu River outside of Chambly, General Thomas died from smallpox on June 2, 1776. By June 18 the Continental forces had returned home and officially abandoned Canada.

While the American forces in Canada were preparing for and executing their retreat, tensions between Patriots and Loyalists flared once again in North Carolina. We know that the battle for Quebec in our last episode took place on Jan 1, 1776 and two days later on Jan. 3, we have North Carolina’s royal governor Josiah Martin learning that General Henry Clinton is marching towards him with 2,000 troops to help squash the rebellion in the southern colonies, specifically in the coastal area of North Carolina.

To fully understand why Clinton was coming towards NC we need to go back a year to early 1775. North Carolina’s royal governor, Josiah Martin had a vision to recruit enough troops in the area to put down any type of Patriot activity in his colony. He hoped that he could recruit Scots settlers in the interior of the state, and disaffected Loyalists in the coastal regions to build a large Loyalist force. He had actually asked London to recruit 1,000 troops in the King’s name, but they had rejected his claim. He continued nonetheless to rally Loyalist support.

London did not reject the claim of a local Scotsman named Allan Maclean. He was able to successfully lobby King George III for permission to recruit Loyalist scots throughout all of North America. In April, he received royal permission to raise a regiment known as the Royal Highland Emigrants by recruiting retired Scottish soldiers living in North America. One battalion was to be recruited from New York, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. The second battalion was to be raised in North Carolina and the other southern provinces. (Many retired Scotsmen had been given land in the southern areas of North America). In June of 1775 Maclean received commissions for two officers from General Thomas Gage.

He sent Donald MacLeod and Donald MacDonald, who were veterans of the Battle of Bunker Hill south to lead the recruitment drive there. When these men arrived in New Bern, they did arouse suspicion of the local New Bern committee of safety, but they were not arrested and allowed to recruit Loyalist forces.

Now we’re back up to January of 1776. Josiah Martin has heard that Henry Clinton is bringing 2,000 troops to the southern colonies, arriving by mid-February to crush local Patriot forces. So Martin sends word to MacLeod and MacDonald and tells them that he expects them to deliver recruits to the coast by Feb 15. Martin then dispatches Alex McLean (different than Allan Maclean) to Cross Creek, which is modern day Fayetteville to coordinate recruitment activities in that area. McLean optimis tically reported to Martin that he would raise and equip around 6,000 men. Martin, expecting an easy NC Loyalist victory, is then reported to have responded:

“This is the moment when this country may be delivered from anarchy.”

The Loyalist forces gathered together near Cross Creek on February 5 and disagreed how to proceed. Some of them wanted to wait until the British troops actually arrived before mustering their men, others wanted to muster and move immediately. Mustering immediately won, with a promise to muster over 5,000 men. Ten days later on February 15, 3,500 men had gathered but the numbers dwindled rapidly over the next few days. Many men had expected to be met and escorted by British troops and they didn’t really feel like fighting their way to the cost without them. When they began their march on the 18th, under the command of Brigadier General Donald MacDonald there were 1,400 to 1,600 men still present. Over the coming days during the march towards the coast this number was further reduced due to desertion.

Somewhere between February 7 and February 10 of 1776 word of the Cross Creek meeting reached members of the North Carolina Provincial Congress. This congress in the fall of 1775 had raised the 1st North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army and given command of that unit to Colonel James Moore. In the Wilmington and New Bern areas, there were also active militia organizations led by Alexander Lillington and Richard Caswell. Ironically on the same day that the British troops mobilized, February 15th, so did the Continental forces.

James Moore led 650 Continentals out of Wilmington with the objective of preventing the Loyalists from reaching the coast. They camped on the southern shore of Rockfish Creek on February 15, about 7 miles from the Loyalist camp. General MacDonald learned of their arrival, and sent Moore a copy of a proclamation issued by Governor Martin and a letter calling on the rebels to lay down their arms. Moore responded with his own call that the Loyalists lay down their arms and support the cause of Congress. In the meantime, Caswell was busy leading 800 New Bern militiamen toward the area.

MacDonald’s preferred route to the coast was blocked by Moore and his troops. He chose an alternative route that would eventually bring his force to the Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge, about 18 miles (29 km) from Wilmington. On February 20 he crossed the Cape Fear River at Cross Creek and destroyed the boats in order to deny Moore their use. His forces then crossed the South River, heading for Corbett’s Ferry, a crossing of the Black River. On orders from Moore, Caswell reached the ferry first, and set up a blockade there. Moore, as a precaution against Caswell being defeated or circumvented, detached Lillington with 150 Wilmington militia and 100 men under Colonel John Ashe from the New Hanover Volunteer Company of Rangers to take up a position at the Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge. These men, moving by forced marches, traveled down the southern bank of the Cape Fear River to Elizabethtown, where they crossed to the north bank. From there they marched down to the confluence of the Black River and Moore’s Creek, and began entrenching on the east bank of the creek. Moore detached other militia companies to occupy Cross Creek, and followed Lillington and Ashe with the slower Continentals. They followed the same route, but did not arrive until after the battle.

When MacDonald and his force reached Corbett’s Ferry, they found the crossing blocked by Caswell and his men. MacDonald prepared for battle, but was informed by a local slave that there was a second crossing a few miles up the Black River that they could use. On February 26, he ordered his rearguard to make a demonstration as if they were planning to cross while he led his main body up to this second crossing and headed for the bridge at Moore’s Creek. Caswell, once he realized that MacDonald had given him the slip, hurried his men the 10 miles (16 km) to Moore’s Creek, and beat MacDonald there by only a few hours. MacDonald sent one of his men into the Patriot camp under a flag of truce to demand their surrender, and to examine the defenses. Caswell refused, and the envoy returned with a detailed plan of the Patriot fortifications.

Caswell moves south from Corbett’s ferry to Moore’s Creek. Lillington and Ashe move south-southeast from Cross Creek to Moore’s Creek along the Cape Fear River. Moore follows Lillington and Ashe, but does not reach Moore’s Creek.

Caswell had thrown up some entrenchments on the west side of the bridge, but these were not located to Patriot advantage. Their position required the Patriots to defend a position whose only line of retreat was across the narrow bridge, a distinct disadvantage that MacDonald recognized when he saw the plans. In a council held that night, the Loyalists decided to attack, since the alternative of finding another crossing might give Moore time to reach the area. During the night, Caswell decided to abandon that position and instead take up a position on the far side of the creek. To further complicate the Loyalists’ use of the bridge, the militia took up its planking and greased the support rails.

By the time of their arrival at Moore’s Creek, the Loyalist contingent had shrunk to between 700 and 800 men. About 600 of these were Scots and the remainder were Regulators. Furthermore, the marching had taken its toll on the elderly MacDonald; he fell ill and turned command over to Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacLeod. The Loyalists broke camp at 1 am on February 27 and marched the few miles from their camp to the bridge. Arriving shortly before dawn, they found the defenses on the west side of the bridge unoccupied. MacLeod ordered his men to adopt a defensive line behind nearby trees when a Patriot sentry across the river fired his musket to warn Caswell of the Loyalist arrival. Hearing this, MacLeod immediately ordered the attack.

In the pre-dawn mist, a company of Scots approached the bridge. In response to a call for identification shouted across the creek, Captain Alexander Mclean identified himself as a friend of the King, and responded with his own challenge in Gaelic. Hearing no answer, he ordered his company to open fire, beginning an exchange of gunfire with the Patriot sentries. Colonel MacLeod and Captain John Campbell then led a picked company of swordsmen on a charge across the bridge.

During the night, Caswell and his men had established a semicircular earthworks around the bridge end, and armed them with two small pieces of field artillery. When the Loyalists were within 30 paces of the earthworks, the Patriots opened fire to devastating effect. MacLeod and Campbell both went down in a hail of gunfire; Colonel Moore reported that MacLeod had been struck by upwards of 20 musket balls. Armed only with swords and faced with overwhelming firepower from muskets and artillery, the Loyalists could do little else other than retreat. The surviving elements of Campbell’s company got back over the bridge, and the Loyalist force dissolved and retreated.

Capitalizing on the success, the Patriot forces quickly replaced the bridge planking and gave chase. One enterprising company led by one of Cas well’s lieutenants forded the creek above the bridge, flanking the retreating Loyalists. Colonel Moore arrived on the scene a few hours after the battle. He stated in his report that 30 Loyalists were killed or wounded,

“but as numbers of them must have fallen into the creek, besides more that were carried off, I suppose their loss may be estimated at fifty.”

The Patriot leaders reported one killed and one wounded.

Over the next several days, the Patriot forces mopped up the fleeing Loyalists. In all, about 850 men were arrested. Most of these were released on parole, but the ringleaders were sent to Philadelphia as prisoners. Combined with the capture of the Loyalist camp at Cross Creek, the Patriots confiscated 1,500 muskets, 300 rifles, and Spanish Gold, worth around $400,000 in today’s dollars. Many of the weapons were probably hunting equipment, and may have been taken from people not directly involved in the Loyalist uprising. The action had a galvanizing effect on Patriot recruiting, and the arrests of many Loyalist leaders throughout North Carolina cemented Patriot control of the state. A pro-Patriot newspaper reported after the battle, “This, we think, will effectually put a stop to loyalists in North Carolina”. Despite the hard feelings on both sides, the prisoners were treated with respect. This helped convince many not to take up arms against the Patriots again.

When news of the battle reached London, it received mixed commentary. One news report minimized the defeat since it did not involve any regular army troops, while another noted that an “inferior” Patriot force had defeated the Loyalists. Lord George Germain, the British official responsible for managing the war in London, remained convinced in spite of the resounding defeat that Loyalists were still a substantial force to be tapped.

The expedition that the Loyalists had been planning to meet was significantly delayed, and did not depart Cork, Ireland until mid-February. The convoy was further delayed and split apart by bad weather, so the full force did not arrive off Cape Fear until May. As the fleet gathered, North Carolina’s provincial congress met at Halifax, and in early April passed the Halifax Resolves, authorizing the colony’s delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence from Great Britain.. General Clinton used the force in an attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina. His attempt failed; it represented the end of significant British attempts to control the southern colonies until late 1778.

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