Did the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge help keep the British away from the southern colonies during the first half of the war?
Months before its colonies officially adopted their Declaration of Independence, the British army was reaching a critical juncture in its war strategy: with the colonies in rebellion, where should they focus their attentions? The war was picking up steam and the British were looking for a stronghold in the colonies that would gain them resources such as men and supplies. They turned their eyes south.
The general impression of the southern colonies was that they were poorer and weaker than their sister colonies in the north. They also had been receiving word of heavy Loyalist sympathies in both the backcountry of South Carolina and the coastal areas of North Carolina, where large populations of German and Scottish immigrants had settled. Indeed, by the fall of 1775, Loyalist recruitment seemed to be quite successful. One evidence of this was at the First Battle of Ninety Six in November 1775, when nearly 2,000 Loyalists met a paltry force of not quite 600 patriots. Though this first Revolutionary War battle south of New England ended in a truce, British confidence was high.
The Royal Governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, had fled the colonies by September 1775, leaving the colony mostly in the hands of the Patriots. That made the ultimate goal at this point in the southern colonies to capture the wealthy and strategic port of Charleston, South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, convinced British commanders to target key points along their route through his colony as they advanced on their mission. And as 1775 turned into 1776, plans were set in motion.
On January 10, Martin issued a proclamation calling on all subjects loyal to the Crown to take up arms against the rebellion in the colony. Authority was given to Loyalist leaders throughout the colony to recruit militia and gather all necessary provisions to muster in Brunswick, NC.
By mid-February, a contingent of several thousand loyalists was gathered at Cross Creek, NC, preparing to march towards their goal. Among those recruited were the famed Scotch Highlanders. Though not all joined the Loyalist cause, the Highlanders’ reputations as fierce warriors preceded the impending war in the colonies. This reputation may have stemmed from the Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s as well as British assumptions at the time that the HIghlands were a lawless land due their clan-based culture.
Loyalists weren’t the only militias stirring along the Carolina coast. Patriot militias had begun forming at the first news of Loyalists gathering as early as August 1775. In fact, some of those militias formed in Wilmington, NC became the foundation of the 1st North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army and in February 1776, they were led by Colonel James Moore. At that time, they were joined by additional militiamen from the surrounding area, led by Alexander Lillington and Richard Caswell. Their goal was two-fold: protect Wilmington and prevent the Loyalist forces from reaching the coast.
By February 20, 1776, a clash between the British and Patriot forces was inevitable. British commander Donald MacDonald began to move his 1,600 men from Cross Creek towards his rendezvous point at Brunswick, only to find his way impeded along the Black River by Caswell’s blockade. On February 25, MacDonald had managed to get across the river and Caswell moved his 1,000 Patriots back to Moores Creek Bridge. There they set up defensive earthworks, prepped their two artillery pieces, and prepared for battle.
At 1:00 am on February 27, 1776, MacDonald’s second-in-command, Donald McLeod, led the British troops on their march towards the Patriot position. Arriving at an abandoned camp on the west side of the bridge around 5:00 am, a brief exchange of fire alerted the Loyalists to the Patriot sentries guarding the bridge, and ultimately, the Patriot forces lying in wait.
McLeod with 50 men attempted to cross the bridge and attack the Patriot defensive position, but the attempt was futile and disastrous. Heavy musket fire coupled with a barrage of two artillery units killed 30 almost immediately, including McLeod. The remaining Loyalists quickly retreated and the battle was over almost as quickly as it had begun.
So how important were these three approximate minutes of battle? This Patriot victory struck a huge blow to Loyalist recruitment in North Carolina – so much so that two months later, North Carolina’s delegates to Continental Congress were the first to vote for independence. And it created a rippling effect throughout the southern colonies, as one by one the royal governors were displaced and revolution took hold.
No longer could the British see the Carolinas as easy targets. They abandoned this initial southern strategy to focus their resources on the war in the northern colonies. For the next three years, significant battles and events that we learn about today took place, thanks in part to the dominating Patriot showing at the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, I strongly encourage you to visit Moores Creek National Battlefield’s website as well as their very active Facebook page. Both offer a wealth of information and additional resources for folks to explore.