Pulled From the Stacks: The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

Written by: Kiera E. Nolan, DAR Library Reference Librarian
February 26, 2016

When people think of the beginning of the Revolutionary War, most people think of the Northern colonies, mainly of the events in and around Boston, or of Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. Rarely, if ever, do peoples’ minds go below the Mason-Dixon Line to the Southern colonies. Although the North gets most of the press, the South was in it from the beginning as well. Two-hundred and forty years ago this month, a small but decisive battle was fought in North Carolina. This battle would strike so much fear into the minds of the British generals they would endeavor to remain out of North Carolina until 1780.

The roots of this battle, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, were planted a long while before it began. By 1775, North Carolina had, by proportion, more loyalists in its population than any other colony. It was also seen by the British as one of the poorest and weakest colonies. So, when Governor Josiah Martin first asked the crown for permission to raise a Loyalist militia he was turned down. Ignoring this rejection Governor Martin still persisted in rallying Loyalists together. He focused a lot of his energies on Scottish Highlanders, who had come to America recently and had settled on lands given to them by Governor Martin in inland North Carolina. Governor Martin focused on them, because he knew they would be loyal to the loyalist cause, and he thought they would be very tough and battle ready fighters.

In June of 1775, Governor Martin fled from the Governor’s Mansion to Fort Johnston, on Cape Fear. By July 18, 1775, the Governor was aboard a British sloop as he watched Fort Johnston burn to the ground by the Patriots. The Governor, along with the British, thought the Patriots would all lie along the North Carolina coast, while inland would be firm loyalist territory. When Lord Dartmouth exited as Secretary of State to America and Lord George Germain rose to that position, Governor Martin’s pleas for help were finally answered. Governor Martin received word in early January 1776 that nine British warships with 2,000 British regulars would be to North Carolina by mid-February. The Governor and the Loyalists he had rallied began to plan to raise more men to join the British upon their arrival.

A meeting between the Loyalist commanders and the leaders of the Scottish Highlanders took place at Cross Creek, near Wilmington, North Carolina, on February 5, 1776. It was decided that since the Loyalists would be able to raise more men then the Scots, that the hesitant Scots would go along with the Loyalist plan of marching to the coast without waiting for the British Troops. The Scots worried about marching to the coast without any proper military support.

A few days after this small council, the Provincial Congress of North Carolina heard of the meeting. The Congress had already raised the First North Carolina Regiment for the Continental Army in late 1775. These men, numbering 650, were led by Colonel James Moore. The militias of Wilmington, about 150 men, and New Bern, about 800 men, were both called up to support Col. Moore in defeating the Loyalists. By February 15, 1776 both sides were mustered and ready to march.  The Patriots set out that day, while the Loyalists waited until February 18.

In the three days between mustering at Cross Creek and marching, the Loyalists lost approximately 2,000 men due to desertion. They had managed to muster 3,600 men, but began their march with 1,600 men, only 500 equipped to be battle ready. Most of those men were the Scots. The 2,000 men had deserted due to the fear of marching to the coast without any other military support, a worry the Scots had initially voiced, but they marched on anyway.

On February 15, Col. Moore set up camp at Rockfish Creek, 7 miles from the Loyalist camp. He then ordered Richard Caswell, the leader of the New Bern militia, to march straight for the Loyalists. Due to intel about the Patriots’ location, Donald MacDonald, a veteran of Bunker Hill and leader of the loyalist forces, re-routed his initial plan. Col. Moore was blocking his preferred way to the coast, and in the hopes of avoiding a battle, he chose to take a route that would lead right over Moore’s Creek Bridge.

The Loyalists arrived at Moore’s Creek Bridge on the evening of February 26. The Patriots had already arrived and built rudimentary defenses on the other side of the creek. Seeing that the Patriots’ defenses and position were weak, MacDonald decided to attack them at dawn the next day. During the night, the Patriots moved their position and took all the planks off the bridge, with the exception of the support beams, which they greased with soap and tallow. This would make it near impossible for the Loyalists to cross the bridge.

Not knowing this, MacDonald went ahead with his plans, only to be quickly defeated. Once the Loyalists realized their only way over the creek was through trying to find their balance on greased bridge support beams and they were situated out in the open for the hidden Patriots to shoot, they started to flee. The Patriots of North Carolina were elated by their quick victory.

In all, an estimated 70 Loyalists were wounded or killed in the short battle. Only 1 Patriot was wounded and 1 Patriot died. Once Col. Moore caught up with the New Bern militia later that day, he quickly arranged for the regiment and militia to chase the Loyalists down. Over the next three days, 850 Loyalists were captured. This short and decisive victory terrified the British. It would be four more years before a major British campaign would take place in the colony of North Carolina.

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