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American Revolution: Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

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Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge was fought February 27, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Patriots

  • Colonel Richard Caswell
  • Colonel Alexander Lillington
  • 1,050 men

    Loyalists

  • Brigadier General Donald MacDonald
  • Lieutenant Colonel Donald McLeod
  • 700-800

  • Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - Background:

    With the outbreak of the American Revolution after the Battles of Lexington & Concord, efforts began in earnest to recruit Loyalist troops in the South. In North Carolina, Governor Josiah Martin hoped to form forces from Scottish immigrants and a disaffected group of settlers known as the Regulators. To aid in recruitment, Brigadier General Donald MacDonald and Lieutenant Colonel Donald McLeod were sent south by General Thomas Gage. Veterans of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the two officers arrived at New Bern, NC and moved inland to begin their efforts. Their actions were watched by North Carolina's Committee of Public Safety.

    Assisted by Lieutenant Colonel Allan Maclean, it was reported to Martin that it may be possible to raise around 6,000 men. In early 1776, Martin learned that General Sir William Howe intended to dispatch an invasion force south to Charleston later in the year under the command of Major General Henry Clinton. Expecting Clinton to arrive off Cape Fear in mid-February, Martin sent messengers to the recruiters instructing them to bring the new raised men to the coast no later than the 15th. Mustering at Cross Creek (Fayetteville), there was dissention among the ranks regarding when to depart. While the Regulators favored marching immediately, the Scots preferred to wait until the British had arrived. Delaying their departure until February 18, MacDonald and McLeod saw many of their men desert and when they broke camp only 1,400-1,600 remained in the ranks. By the time of the battle, only around 700 to 800 remained.

    Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - Patriot Response:

    Aware of the Loyalist gathering at Cross Creek, the North Carolina Provincial Congress directed Patriot forces to prevent MacDonald from reaching the coast. To accomplish this, Colonel James Moore, commanding the 1st North Carolina Regiment, established a camp at Rockfish Creek, approximately seven miles from Cross Creek, on February 15. He was aided by militia formations led by Colonels Richard Caswell and Alexander Lillington. Over the next several days, MacDonald and Moore exchanged missives in which each called upon the other to surrender. With Moore blocking his path to the coast, MacDonald moved his column across the Cape Fear and South Rivers with the goal of reaching the Black River at Corbett's Ferry. Alerted to the Loyalist movements, Moore dispatched Caswell's men to the ferry.

    Arriving first, Caswell set up defensive position to prevent the Loyalists from crossing. Concerned that MacDonald may bypass Caswell, Moore sent Lillington and Colonel John Ashe with a force to Moore's Creek Bridge. Arriving at Corbett's Ferry, MacDonald prepared to force a crossing but was convinced to avoid action when informed that the Black River could be crossed upstream at Moore's Creek. Departing on February 26, MacDonald left a force to demonstrate against Caswell. Quickly realizing the Loyalist main body had moved on, Caswell raced his command upstream and united with Lillington only hours before the Loyalists approached. Establishing a defensive position on the west bank, with the bridge at their back, Caswell received a messenger from MacDonald later in the day who demanded his surrender.

    Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - Blood on the Bridge:

    Refusing, Caswell sent the messenger away. That night, recognizing the weakness of the Patriot position, he pulled his men back across the river and formed a new line on the east bank. In addition, his men removed the bridge's planks and greased the remaining timbers. Assessing the situation, MacDonald initially advised caution, but was convinced to attack by his younger officers. Suffering from ill health, he turned command of the assault over to McLeod. Approaching the bridge, the Loyalists established a line in nearby trees just before dawn. Shortly thereafter they were spotted by a Patriot sentry who alerted Caswell to their presence. Moving forward, Loyalist forces under Captain Alexander Mclean advanced. Nearing the creek, Mclean identified himself as a friend of King George III and after receiving no answer had men open fire.

    As the two sides exchanged fire across the creek, McLeod and Captain John Campbell advanced across the bridge timbers with eighty picked men each armed with a broadsword. With bagpipes playing, they charged forward towards the Patriot lines. Holding their fire until the enemy had crossed, the Patriot militia opened fire with muskets and two small cannon. Firing at close range, they cut down the Loyalists, quickly killing McLeod and Campbell. Their attack smashed, the surviving Loyalists fled back across the creek. Reaching the far side, their rout led the remaining Loyalist troops to flee. With the enemy on the run, Caswell ordered the bridge re-planked and sent a company upstream to attack the retreating in enemy in the flank.

    Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - Aftermath:

    In the fighting on February 27, the Loyalists suffered between 30 and 50 killed and wounded, while the Patriots incurred only 1 killed and 1 wounded. Over the following days, Patriot forces succeeded in capturing around 850 fleeing Loyalists. While most were paroled, the senior officers were sent north to Philadelphia as prisoners. Though a relatively minor action in terms of numbers engaged and losses incurred, the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge had a lasting impact on the population of North Carolina. Later in the war, when Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis was campaigning in the colony, the remaining Loyalist population, remembering their earlier defeat, refused to turn out in large numbers or openly support his advance. This remained the case even after Cornwallis won a bloody victory at the Battle of Guilford Court House in March 1781. As for Clinton's 1776 expedition against Charleston, it was defeated on June 28 at the Battle of Sullivan's Island.

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