Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

With political tensions in North Carolina reaching a fevered pitch early in the year of 1775, royal governor Josiah Martin determined to suppress a growing rebellion in the colony, especially in the coastal region. With his request for British regulars denied, Martin’s strategy was to press Highland Scot settlers living along the Cape Fear River into service of the king. Joining them would be former Regulators (a group originally opposed to corrupt colonial administration) and Coastal Loyalists. The combined force’s goal would be to put an end to the Whigs' (Patriots) efforts.

Martin’s effort was part of a larger one driven by Scotsman Allan Maclean who had successfully lobbied King George III for permission to recruit Loyalist Scots throughout North America. After receiving his commissions from General Thomas Gage in June of 1775, Maclean sent Donald MacLeod and Donald MacDonald, two veterans of the June 17 Battle of Bunker Hill, south to lead the recruitment drive there. These recruiters were also aware that Allan MacDonald, husband of the famous Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald was already actively recruiting in North Carolina. Their arrival at New Bern was cause for suspicion by members of North Carolina's Committee of Safety, but they were not arrested.

On January 3, 1776, Martin learned that an expedition of more than 2,000 troops under the command of General Henry Clinton was planned for the southern colonies and that their arrival in Brunswick Town was expected in mid-February. He sent word to the recruiters that he expected them to deliver recruits to the coast by February 15, and dispatched Alexander Maclean to Cross Creek (present-day Fayetteville) to coordinate activities in that area.

"While a number of the Scotch were as good whigs as any in the country, the majority of them, although they had sacrificed much to liberty in their own country [ie, Scotland], supported the claims of Great Britain in America. For this many reasons have been assigned; but the most cogent were such as the following: The older part of them had felt the effects of British power so much in the land of their nativity, particularly at and after the battle of Culloden, that they dreaded to encounter that power again; their nation had for some time previous shared, as they thought, quite liberally in the royal favor for which, with their characteristic generosity and sense of gratitude, they felt themselves under obligations on that account, though personally beyond its reach; and then all their chieftains, or prominent and influential men had taken the oath of allegiance to King George before they crossed the Atlantic.

 

A venerable and excellent old man who had borne a pretty high commission in the British service during the war, remarked in the presence of the writer, some years ago, that he had sworn allegiance to the king of England, when in London, about to take shipping for America; and he felt himself bound by that oath. The obligation of an oath is one which a conscientious people, like the Scotch, especially when left without proper instruction as most of them were at that time, cannot be easily induced to violate…" - Reverend David Caldwell

When General Donald MacDonald raised the Royal Standard in Cross Creek's public square on the 1st of February 1776, many former clansmen joined the regiment, perhaps painfully yet with good reasons. Highlanders in North Carolina well remembered the reprisals after Culloden, and many had taken the King's Oath in order to emigrate to America. The Scots who answered MacDonald's call numbered around 2,000. 

The Scot Loyalists were to meet up with two commands of British regulars near Brunswick Town on the Lower Cape Fear River. Col. James Moore, commander of a Patriot army was able to cut off the Highlanders' planned route forcing them cross the Cape Fear River at Corbett's Ferry.

The following account of events that led up to the battle and of the battle have been described by Historian Josh Howard as follows:

From February 15 to 21, 1776, the days leading up to the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Whig forces under Commander Colonel James Moore camped on Rockfish Creek.  At that site they were eight miles south of Cross Creek (present-day Fayetteville) where Royal Governor Josiah Martin’s representative, Alexander McLean and British officer General Donald MacDonald and Captain Donald McLeod were assembling a Loyalist militia.  Their goal was to march the Loyalists to Wilmington and there defeat the Patriots, returning North Carolina to British rule.  By fortifying the encampment at Rockfish Creek with over 1,000 men and five artillery pieces, Moore blocked the Loyalists’ most direct route to the coast.

To get around Moore’s blockade, Loyalists were forced to cross the Cape Fear River at Campbellton and use Negro Head Point Road, a route that crossed Moore’s Creek.  When Col. Moore learned of the Loyalists’ chosen route, he sent message to Colonel Richard Caswell to block their route at Corbett’s ferry over the Black River, to Colonel Alexander Martin and Colonel James Thackston to take possession of Cross Creek to prevent their retreat and to Colonel Alexander Lillington to fortify Moore's Creek Bridge.  Moore led his men to Elizabeth Town in hopes of meeting the Loyalists on their way to Corbett’s Ferry. 

 

Aware of the location of Moore’s and Caswell’s forces, the Loyalists constructed a bridge four miles above the ferry and continued on towards Moore’s Creek. Having reached Moore's Creek Bridge ahead of MacDonald's men, Caswell's 800 militiamen took position on an elevated knoll on the east bank of the creek. Additional Patriot troops under Col. Alexander Lillington. Caswell and Lillington found that the narrow bridge, located on a sand bar, offered an excellent defensive position.

MacDonald convened a council of war with his officers at his camp about six miles from Caswell on the same side of the creek. The decision was made to attack, but MacDonald fell ill, and command of the Highlanders was given to Lt. Col. Donald McLeod. In the wee hours of February 27 McLeod and his 2,000-man army trudged through the swamps in freezing temperatures. Hours later, the Highlanders caught sight of Caswell's camp, which had been abandoned during the night. At the abandoned camp, McLeod's

troops regrouped and waited for daybreak to pursue the rebel army, which they thought was in retreat. To deceive the enemy, Caswell had left his campfires burning while he moved his force to the east bank. Following the night crossing, the rebels had removed the planks from the bridge, greased the girders, and positioned artillery to cover the road and bridge.

 

The stillness of the swamp was broken at sunrise when 500 Highlander with broadswords in hand, stormed toward the bridge.* Bagpipes played in the background as the attackers shouted, "King George and broadswords!" Nearly 1,000 rebel soldiers were waiting across the bridge. Only a few Highlanders managed to make their way over the slippery remnants of the bridge, and they fell rapidly from the heavy fire coming from the Patriot breastworks. Within three minutes, the battle was over.

 

About 70 Highlanders were killed or wounded. Among the dead was McLeod, a bridegroom of only a few weeks. The officer's body was riddled with 9 bullets and 24 swan shot. About 850 soldiers were taken prisoner, including General MacDonald, who was captured in his tent. The booty claimed by the victorious rebels was substantial: 150 swords, 1,500 rifles, and £15,000. In the battle, the Whigs lost only one man, John Grady, who died four days later.

Soon after the battle, the prisoners were released following an oath to not take up arms against the United States of America again, to which the Highlanders agreed and honored. Many would later fight for the Patriot cause.

After the battle, the  British cancelled plans to land a force at Brunswick Town, effectively ended British authority in the colony.

Within two months of the American victory, on April 12, 1776, North Carolina became the first colony to vote in favor of independence from Britain.

* This was the last Highlander Charge in history.