In February, Belle and I traveled down to the coast to spend time with Kodecker. These little visits of ours are becoming a regular thing, and I’m loving it. Each visit produces a new adventure – this time, we made our way out to Moore’s Creek National Battlefield.
I’ve been to the battlefield many times over the years. My daddy lived about a mile away when I was in high school. Even then, I was fascinated by local history. I spent a lot of time wandering the battlefield in my teen years. During those early trips, I learned the Battle of Moore’s Creek was the first significant Patriot victory of the Revolutionary War.
The Battle of Moore’s Creek
Leading Up to the Battle
Like the Civil War, the revolution pitted family against family and neighbor against neighbor. Perhaps no other state exemplifies that inner turmoil better than North Carolina.
North Carolina was a divided colony in 1775. Patriots welcomed independence, while Loyalists opposed the coming war, and a sizable portion of the population desired neutrality. Loyalists were the recently immigrated Scottish Highlanders and those whose wealth directly tied them to the Crown. While Patriots and neutralists could be found in all other walks of life.
Regardless of the loyalist sympathies in the colony, royal authority in North Carolina remained fragile more than a decade after Brunswick Town revolted over the Stamp Acts in 1765. The news of Lexington and Concord further eroded citizens’ loyalty to the Crown.
The revolutionary sentiments simmering in North Carolina emboldened the Patriots to start a campaign designed to overthrow the royal government. Unable to contain the rebellion, Royal Governor Josiah Martin abandoned his estate at Tryon Palace and fled to Fort Johnston.
A month after his arrival, the NC militia forced Martin into exile. Refusing to relinquish control, he took up residence aboard the British warship Cruizer. While living at sea, Martin hatched plans to recapture North Carolina. He convinced his superiors he could restore royal rule – but he severely overestimated his ability to rally citizens to his side. After promising to raise 10,000 Loyalists to join Lord Cornwallis, Martin enlisted a mere 1,600 men.
Meanwhile, the Patriots set up a Provincial Council government. In less than two months, they raised two regiments of the Continental Line, several battalions of minutemen, and militias. When Patriots learned of Loyalists assembling forces at Cross Creek, they were already prepared.
1500 Loyalists led by General Donald McDonald planned to follow the Cape Fear River to the coast, where they would meet British troops. The force of Scottish Highlanders carried broadswords and enough arms for only half of their men.
The ill-equipped Loyalists found their way blocked by Colonel James Moore‘s forces at Rockfish Creek. To avoid the blockade, the Loyalists crossed the river at Campbelton and traveled down Negro Head Point Road towards Wilmington.
Colonel Moore sent dispatches to his fellow patriot leaders, alerting them of the Loyalists’ movements. The Patriots set up blockades along Negro Head Point Road to prevent the Loyalists from retreating back to Cross Creek – or making it to their rendezvous point with the British.
Colonel Alexander Lillington arrived at Moore’s Creek on February 25. He noted that the creek wound through the swamp, and Widow Moore’s Bridge was the only place to cross it. Lillington’s men built a low earthwork overlooking the bridge. Colonel Richard Caswell arrived the next day, and his men built earthen mounds on the other side of the creek.
On February 26, MacDonald’s men camped a mere six miles away. Wanting to avoid a battle, he sent a letter asking the Patriots to lay down their arms and swear allegiance to the Crown. The Patriots refused.
At the same time, a loyalist scout who was unaware of Lillington’s troops on the far side of the creek reported the Patriots were exposed. The Loyalists decided to attack. After midnight, Major Donald McLeod led the Loyalists through the swamp to Caswell’s camp.
But during the night, Caswell ordered his men to abandon the site. They withdrew, removing bridge planks and greasing beams as they fled. The Patriots waited for the Loyalists on the far side of the creek. Finding the camp deserted, the outwitted Loyalists hid in the woods.
In the early morning light of February 27, 1776, the Loyalists charged across the bridge crying: “King George and Broadswords!” The North Carolina Patriots waited with cannons and muskets on the other side. When the Loyalists reached the earthworks, they were met with artillery fire. The advancing troops were cut down in minutes.
The Loyalists surrendered and retreated in the chaos. 30 Loyalists died, and 40 were wounded in the skirmish. Their losses were substantial compared to the Patriots, who lost a single man. Loyalist leaders were imprisoned or banished; many returned home to Scotland. The loyalist soldiers fared better than their commanders, most receiving paroles in their homes.
In the days following the battle, Patriots seized wagons, weapons, and sterling silver – valued at more than a million dollars today.
The small battle was a crucial turning point in North Carolina’s history. It not only ended royal authority in the colony and discouraged loyalist sentiments in the Carolinas, but it stalled a British invasion of the South. Witnessing the patriot victory roused revolutionary sentiments in the other colonies too.
Emboldened by the win, North Carolina instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. Making us the first American colony to do so.
The park preserves Moore’s Creek battlefield. In 1856, traces of the original bridge and earthworks could still be seen. The earthen mounds were rehabilitated in the late 1930s. Though the earthworks line up with those constructed by Colonel Lillington’s patriot troops, their true height is unknown.
Unfortunately, the only original remains from the battle is a stretch of the old Negro Head Point Road.
Visiting The Historic Site
Moore’s Creek National Battlefield encompasses more than 80 acres of varied landscapes. It features a visitor’s center, earthen works, memorials, and Widow Moore’s Bridge. Several activities are available, including hiking, birding, fishing, and picnicking. Dogs are welcome, but they must be leashed.
Located at 40 Patriots Hall Drive in Currie, the historic site is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. The visitor’s center is closed on all federal holidays. Admission is free.