At the outset of the American Revolution, nearly a century before the Civil War, North Carolina was riven with strife between independence-minded Patriots and Loyalists to the British Crown. Rebellious local legislators and their militia companies ultimately took up arms against the latter, led by beleaguered Royal Governor Josiah Martin.
In June 1775, after Patriots discovered the governor’s plot to instigate a slave rebellion, Martin fled to dilapidated Fort Johnson on Cape Fear, seeking refuge on a Royal Navy ship when Patriots burned the fort. Martin assured British officials he could restore royal authority by arming recent emigrants from the Scottish Highlands. Meanwhile, the British planned to send a fleet to the Carolinas with some 2,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton. In January 1776 several hundred Highlander settlers from the Carolinas mustered at Cross Creek (present-day Fayetteville), where Scots veterans Brig. Gen. Donald MacDonald and Lt. Col. Donald McLeod were recruiting for the British army. Martin decided to unite the interior Highlanders and prewar rebels known as Regulators with those slated to arrive on the coast.
Patriot reaction was swift. The Continental Congress put Colonel James Moore in command of the 1st North Carolina Regiment, tasked with the defense of Cape Fear. Moore promptly banded together with militia units from Wilmington under Alexander Lillington and New Bern under Richard Caswell, supported by men from neighboring counties.
In mid-February MacDonald led 1,600 Loyalists toward Wilmington. Learning that Moore, with about 1,000 well-armed Patriots, fortified the bridge over Rockfish Creek, he decided to take an alternate route to the coast. In anticipation of his opponent’s move Moore blocked all key river crossings. Word of the Patriot response prompted scores of Loyalists to desert. As MacDonald and his 1,000 remaining men approached Corbett’s Ferry on the Black River on February 23, they found Caswell’s militia waiting. Learning of a crossing upstream, MacDonald kept his men on the march. Caswell learned of the move and fast-marched his 800 men to join Lillington’s 150 militiamen at the bridge on Widow Moore’s Creek, a waterway about 50 feet wide and 5 feet deep that flowed into the Black River 20 miles north of Wilmington.
Arriving at the span, the elderly MacDonald unsuccessfully urged Caswell to surrender. The colonel didn’t favor attack, as his Highlanders, who largely lacked firearms, faced a frontal bridgehead assault, but his more aggressive officers prevailed. The next day, February 27, with bagpipes playing, McLeod and Captain John Campbell led the dawn attack.
In preparation Patriots had removed sections of bridge planking and greased the girders. Heedless, McLeod and Campbell led the Highlanders across the slippery span into a whistling storm of musket and small cannon fire. Both officers and some 30 Highlanders fell dead, either struck before they could cross or shot from the bridge into the water. Aghast, their fellows broke and ran. Patriot casualties were light—two wounded, John Grady of Duplin County mortally.
Captured in the aftermath, the sickly MacDonald tendered his sword to Moore, who gallantly returned it. The Patriots also rounded up most of his men, nearly 850 of whom were promptly paroled, though MacDonald and some 30 of his officers were sent to Philadelphia as prisoners.
Meanwhile, Martin, from his floating headquarters, continued to press for the forceful return of royal authority. Moore, however, moved his regulars into Wilmington, and by the time the British fleet arrived in mid-March, there was no effective Loyalist base in North Carolina. General Clinton instead targeted Charleston, S.C., where he too suffered a humiliating defeat. The subsequent decline of British authority in the Carolinas eased fears of a slave uprising, as many Loyalists sought refuge in British-occupied New York.
Though small in scale, the clash on Widow Moore’s Creek prompted North Carolina’s colonial delegates to be the first to call for independence, on April 12, 1776. Patriots throughout the colonies also celebrated it as one of first victories won by American forces, three weeks before George Washington drove the British from Boston. The visitor center at Moores Creek National Battlefield [nps.gov/mocr] relates the story of the fight, while the onsite Patriot Monument marks the grave of John Grady, the sole Patriot slain in the battle. The disposition of the Loyalist dead is unknown.
First published in Military History Magazine’s March 2017 issue.