Timeline of The Moores Creek Bridge Campaign

Cannon in early morning fog on Moores Creek Bridge Battlefield
Mother Covington

NPS Photo

The Moores Creek Campaign is one of the most crucial campaigns of the American Revolution that will ultimately lead to the first decisive victory of the war for the Patriots. When the British fail to break out of Boston in the summer of 1775, in order to hopefully arm the Loyalists in New England, the war shifted south for the first time. Years of social upheaval in the colony of North Carolina left the population deeply divided, making it a prime target for the British Crown to recruit Loyalists in order to subdue the Patriots.

British authorities looked to gain favor from a disenfranchised group of people known as regulators, and the Highland Scots who had settled in North Carolina. The plan was to send a large force of British Regulars totaling 7,000 soldiers, along with an additional 10,000 guns to the colony in order to arm those people still loyal to the Crown. The events that follow discuss the key dates and events that lead up to the battle of Moores Creek Bridge fought February 27, 1776.
North Carolina’s last Royal Governor Josiah Martin calls on the colony’s loyal subjects in order to subdue the “horrid and unnatural Rebellion.” They are to unite under the British flag and prepare for war. Josiah Martin issues this order while in exile, on board a British naval vessel in the mouth of the Cape Fear River near present day South Port, North Carolina.
Royal Governor Josiah Martin opens commination with Patriot leaders in North Carolina to sue for peace without any bloodshed.
A month of negotiations lead nowhere as both sides prepare for war. The newly formed Patriot government of North Carolina orders all men of fighting age to take an oath to the Patriot Cause. Those men refusing to do so would have their guns taken from them and be placed in jail.

Minute Men, Militia, and Continentals prepare to face Loyalists now gathering in Cross Creek (present day Fayetteville), North Carolina. On February 11, 1776 Colonel Richard Caswell is ordered to move out with his battalion of Minute Men from New Bern, North Carolina in order to reinforce the 1st North Carolina Continentals, and the Wilmington Minute Men, now headed to Cross Creek from Wilmington.

Patriot militias are instructed to move into major cities and ports for the protection of the colony.
Loyalists forces begin to assemble in Cross Creek and implement a similar oath that the Patriots issued, all fighting aged men are forced to take an oath of allegiance.

Nearly 2,800 Highlanders gather in Cross Creek, another 1,500 Highlanders decide to return home and wait for the British army to arrive.

Initially large numbers of Regulators turnout to assemble at Cross Creek. Upon learning that the British Army and Royal Governor Josiah Martin are not in the town, many return home, leaving fewer than 200 Regulators that ever make it to Cross Creek.
 
Men in formation facing away with trees in background
Minute Men

NPS Photo

General Donald MacDonald leads 1,600 Loyalists out of Cross Creek leaving 1,400 behind to defend the town. MacDonald’s force camps in an old field 2 miles east of town on February 18, 1776. That night the Loyalists learn that a Patriot force under the command of Colonel James Moore, consisting of the 1st North Carolina and the Wilmington District Minute Men now blocked their path to the coast.
General Donald MacDonald observes his enemy on February 18 from the west bank of a large creek that divided the two forces. Colonel Moore had about 1,100 Patriot soldiers under his command. MacDonald had roughly 1,600 soldiers, but Moore had an advantage over the Loyalists. Moore placed five cannons on the field. MacDonald had none.

With his campfires still burning on the evening of the 18th, MacDonald broke camp in the middle of the night and moved northeast towards the Black River Bridge. MacDonald, during the early morning hours of February 19, was able to slip past the unsuspecting Patriots under Colonel Moore.

Loyalists scouts informed General MacDonald that a small Patriot force of about 800 men was closing in from the east. MacDonald ordered his men to head for a small ferry crossing along the Black River.

Upon realizing the Loyalists were now ahead of his force, Colonel Moore sent word to Caswell by courier, to take the same ferry crossing before the Loyalists could get there. He also informed Caswell that he was sending 200 reinforcements down the Cape Fear River.
The race for the ferry crossing was on. Both armies pushed forward with all the speed they could muster. Late on the afternoon of the 24th, the Loyalists were within four miles of the ferry crossing, but soon learned from scouts that the Patriots made it to the crossing the night before and burned the ferry.

Upon arriving at the ferry crossing, Patriot Commander Colonel Richard Caswell ordered that all boats in the area be burned or sunk to prevent the Loyalists from using them. Once the Loyalists arrived in the area on the 24th, they began looking for ways to cross the river other than the ferry crossing. That afternoon, a boat was found by the Loyalists, and they began to cross the Black River the next morning on the 25th, five miles above the Patriot position.

Later that day, General Donald MacDonald sent his bagpipes and drums towards the ferry crossing. With bagpipes whaling and drums pounding, the Patriots thought the main Loyalist force was headed straight for the ferry crossing. Meanwhile, the main Loyalist force that had already crossed the river, were preparing to strike the unsuspecting Patriots.

At the last moment, Patriot Commander Richard Caswell realized he was about to be attacked and ordered his men to retreat to Moores Creek Bridge.
Caswell arrives at Moores Creek to find a detachment of the Wilmington District Minute Men under the command of Colonel Alexander Lillington. Caswell and Lillington have their men build earthworks on the east bank of Moores Creek to defend the crucial bridge crossing.

Both Caswell and Lillington set up camp on the west bank of Moores Creek. Many historians believe this was done to confuse the Loyalists and prevent them from seeing the earthworks on the east bank.
 
Highland Loyalists with blue hat blue jacket trees behind
Royal Highland Emigrant

NPS Photo

The Loyalists camp about six miles away on that evening. That afternoon they send a courier to deliver a letter, an ultimatum, for the surrender of Patriot forces under Richard Caswell and Alexander Lillington. Caswell sends the Loyalists courier back with an adamant refusal, but not before the courier completed his true mission.

The Loyalists courier was to note the location and strength of the Patriot forces. The courier reported back to the Loyalists that the Patriots had 1,000 men and were camped on the west bank of Moores Creek, with their backs to the water.

Later that night, a council of war is held in the Loyalists camp, with information obtained by the Loyalists courier earlier that afternoon. An attack for the next morning is planned.
The Loyalists begin a six-mile march though the cold dark swamps of the Eastern North Carolina backcountry. Their plan is to surround the Patriot Camp on the west bank of Moores Creek in order to cut off the bridge and force the Patriots to surrender.
The Loyalist approach the quiet Patriot encampment. One group of Loyalists armed with Highland Broadswords, a traditional weapon of the Highland Scots, moved around the encampment to the Moores Creek Bridge.

Once inside the Patriot encampment, the Loyalists realize the camp has been abandoned. Unknown to the Loyalists, the Patriots retreated across Moores Creek earlier in the night, to the earthworks constructed the previous day. Musket fire is heard, and muzzle flashes light up the night in the area near the bridge. The Loyalists in the abandoned Patriot encampment realize their forces at the bridge have found the Patriots.
Loyalist forces had fired on Patriot sentries guarding the bridge. After some discussion, the Loyalists felt the sentries must have been a rearguard and that the main force was retreating from the area. With broadswords drawn, Loyalists began making their way across the partially dismantled Moores Creek Bridge.

Lieutenant Colonel McLeod eventually made his way across the bridge with 50 Loyalists. Feeling that he had enough men to attack the remaining Patriots, McLeod drew his sword and exclaimed, “King George and Broadswords.” The small party of Loyalists charged down a dark and narrow causeway not realizing that the Patriots were lying in wait only 100 yards away.

As the Loyalists approached within 30 yards of the Patriot earthworks, they quickly realized their mistake. Musket and cannon muzzles flashed as a hail of led tore through the oncoming Loyalists. McLeod, along with 30 other Loyalists, were killed instantly.

With McLeod, the Loyalist commander at the bridge, now dead, the attack stalled, and the remaining Loyalists gave up and retreated into the darkness.
The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge was over almost as quickly as it began. Some of the soldiers recalled nearly 60 years later that the battle only lasted “three minutes.” With a Loyalist defeat at Moores Creek Bridge, the British failed to arm those colonists that supported the crown, a consequence that would have a devastating effect on Loyalism in the colony throughout the war.

The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge is considered the first decisive victory of the American Revolution. In the days that followed the battle, the resounding victory echoed though the colonies, and a new hope was born. On April 12, 1776 the Patriot leaders in North Carolina signed the Halifax Resolves, a document that gave the delegates of the colony sent to the Continental Congress the right to vote for Independence. North Carolina would become the first colony to take such action.
Bibliography: Anonymous. Diary [c.a. 1776]. Sir Henry Clinton Papers 14:10. William L. Clements Library. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Robeson, Eric. The American Revolution in Its Political and Military Aspects 1763-1783. London: Batchworth Press, 1955.

Colonial and State records of North Carolina: Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina (unc.edu)

Rankin, Hugh F. The Moores Creek Campaign, 1776. Currie N.C.: Eastern National, 1986.

Last updated: January 14, 2021

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