Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge:
The Patriot Victory

When Col. Alexander Lillington arrived at Moores Creek Bridge on February 25, 1776, he quickly saw the position's defensive advantages for the patriot army. The creek, a dark sluggish stream about 35' wide, wound through swampy terrain and could only be crossed in the vicinity of this bridge. To dominate the crossing, Lillington built a low earthwork on a slight rise overlooking the bridge and its approach from the east. Joining Lillington the next day, Col. Richard Caswell sent his men across the bridge to build earthworks there. By the evening of February 26th, the patriots straddled the bridge. Lillington's 150 men waited on the east side of the creek, and Caswell's 850 men camped on the west. Donald MacDonald's loyalists, 1,600 strong but with arms for less than half that many, camped six miles away.

MacDonald had lost the race to the Moores Creek Bridge and had to decide whether to avoid battle or to cut through their opponents. At a council of war, agreement was reached to attack the enemy. An element in the decision was a scout's report that Caswell's position lay on their side of the river and was thus vulnerable.

At 1 a.m. on the 27th, the loyalists set out to attack, with 75 Highland broadswordsmen under Capt. John Campbell in the lead. MacDonald had fallen ill, and Donald McLeod was in command. The going was slow, for the route lay through thickets and swampy ground. During the previous night, Caswell and his men had abandoned their camp and withdrawn across the creek to the eastern bank. Once on the other side of the bridge, Caswell's men removed the planks and greased the girders. Posting artillery to cover the bridge, they waited in darkness for the advancing Scots.

An hour before dawn the loyalists came upon Caswell's deserted camp and found the fires burning low. Moving on to nearby woods, McLeod regrouped his men and passed the rallying cry–"King George and Broad Swords"–along the line. There they waited for daybreak. Suddenly gunfire sounded near the bridge. Though it was not yet light, McLeod couldn't wait any longer. Three cheers rang out–the signal for the attack–and the loyalists rushed the partly demolished bridge with broadswords out and bagpipes skirling. Picking their way over the bridge and onto the opposite bank, they got within 30 paces of the patriot earthworks before they were met by a fire of muskets and artillery. Nearly all the advance party were cut down, and the whole force soon retreated. It was over in a few minutes. Pursuit turned the repulse into a rout. The loyalists lost some 30 killed and 40 wounded. Only one patriot died.

Within weeks the patriots had captured "all suspected person" and disarmed "all Highlanders and ex-Regulators that were ... in the late battle." The spoils included 1,500 rifles, 350 "guns and shot-bags," 150 swords and dirks, and £15,000 sterling. Some 850 "common Soldiers" and most of the loyalists were captured. The leaders were imprisoned or banished from the colony. The soldiers were paroled to their homes.

Though the battle was a small one, the implications were large. The victory demonstrated the surprising patriot strength in the countryside, discouraged the growth of loyalist sentiment in the Carolinas, and spurred revolutionary feeling throughout the colonies. The British seaborne force, which finally arrived in May, moved on to Sullivan's Island off Charleston, South Carolina. In late June, patriot militia repulsed Sir Peter Parker's land and naval attack, ending the British hopes of squashing rebellion in the South for two years. "Had the South been conquered in the first half of 1776," historian Edward Channing concluded, "it is entirely conceivable that rebellion would never have turned into revolution ... At Moore's Creek and Sullivan's Island the Carolinas turned aside the one combination of circumstances that might have made British conquest possible."

(Source:  State Library of North Carolina)