The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge

by J. M. Pressley
First published: October 18, 2007

The battle at Moores Creek in 1776 may seem like a local skirmish. To the British, however, it signified the end of royal authority in the Carolinas.

Background

By the summer of 1775, the American colonies were in open rebellion against Great Britain. The news from Lexington had polarized the southern colonies, and tensions between loyalist and patriot in North Carolina rose as revolutionary fervor led to royal governor Josiah Martin's retreat from the capital of New Bern. Seething, Martin attempted to exploit the large population of Scottish Highlanders opposed to colonial independence.

The erstwhile governor vowed to raise a Tory army 10,000 strong. This would join the southern British forces under Lord Cornwallis to snuff out the rebellion and put the Carolinas firmly back under royal authority. To that end, Martin directed General Donald MacDonald and Lt. Colonel Donald McLeod to recruit loyalist supporters among the Highlanders. Any man willing to fight for the Crown was promised 200 acres of land and ample tax exemptions.

Though the terms were generous, they hardly attracted the 10,000 men that Martin envisioned. When General MacDonald marshaled his forces at Cross Creek (near present-day Fayetteville) in February of 1776, he commanded a force of 1,600 men—with only 500 firearms among them. The plan was to rendezvous with forces under General Henry Clinton near Wilmington. The route would take them along the southwest bank of the Cape Fear River through North Carolina's backwoods wetlands. The problem was that the local patriot militia knew all about it.

The militia promptly began preparing defenses around Wilmington; in New Bern, minutemen assembled under the command of Colonel Richard Caswell and were ordered to support the defenses around Cape Fear. A force under Colonel James Moore deflected MacDonald's loyalists at Rockfish Creek, and Caswell's men marched to meet them at the bridge spanning Moores Creek, which the Highlanders needed to cross en route to Wilmington. A detachment of men under Colonel Alexander Lillington were sent to hold the bridge and reinforce Colonel Caswell's troops.

The creek, a 35-foot span of slow-moving water, and the swampy terrain made a strong defensive position for the patriot troops. They hastily threw up earthworks that overlooked the bridge; Caswell reached the bridge the next day on February 26 and camped with 850 men on the western bank, constructing more defensive earthworks there. As the sun set, the patriots held both sides of the creek and awaited MacDonald's approach.

The Battle at the Bridge

Meanwhile, six miles to the west, the Highlanders met to determine what steps to take next. Scouts had reported the American militia presence at the bridge; it appeared that the entire force held a vulnerable position with their back to the water, which would have been a grave tactical error. MacDonald was feeling ill and advised caution, but McLeod swayed a consensus in support of a direct assault. At 1:00 on the morning of February 27, the march to the bridge began. McLeod and Captain John Campbell led a vanguard force of 75 Highlanders armed with broadswords in advance of the regiment.

They arrived before dawn to a surprise. Caswell had retreated across the creek to rejoin Lillington and his men, leaving abandoned encampments in their wake. Furthermore, the colonials had removed the foot planks from the bridge and greased the remaining frame rails. The bridge was a kill zone, covered by musket crossfire and two cannon. McLeod confidently passed on the rallying cry and prepared for daybreak. Some time before dawn, however, gunfire near the bridge prompted McLeod to order the attack. Three cheers of "King George and broadswords!" rang out in the darkness, and McLeod and Campbell led their swordsmen across the dismantled bridge. Neither man would live long enough to regret the decision.

The militia held their fire until the Highlanders were within thirty yards. The first point-blank volley of muskets and artillery instantly killed both McLeod and Campbell; within ten minutes, the vanguard was demolished and the Tories were in a chaotic retreat. The patriots had two casualties, one of whom died later, while the loyalists lost some 30 dead and 40 wounded in the action. Approximately 850 more Tories were captured, including General MacDonald, following the battle. In addition, colonials seized money and supplies exceeding $1 million in modern currency.

Impact

On the surface, Moores Creek was little more than a local skirmish. The ripple effect it had in the Carolinas was much greater. The victory emboldened local patriots even as it disheartened Tory loyalists. The British strategy had been contingent upon Martin's promised troops; instead, it first delayed the southern campaign and then forced Clinton into an unsuccessful assault of Charleston that set the British military back by two years in the region. Moore's Creek also gave North Carolina's colonial assembly impetus to become the first colony to declare independence from the Crown in April of 1776. Ultimately, Moores Creek proved to be a victory with much larger repercussions for the southern colonies in the early stages of rebellion.

Sources:

Ashe, Samuel A. History of North Carolina. Greensboro, NC: C.L. Van Noppen, 1908; National Park Service; North Carolina History Project.