I'd been to Moores Creek Battlefield many times as a kid, but it’s been over 30 years since I was last there. Last week, when I was in I North Carolina, my brother and I toured the site. I you remember from my post on how much Tarheel blood flows in my veins, I had ancestors fighting on both sides of the Revolutionary War, so the battle has a bit of a family tie. I took the photos last week and this is my “Travel Tip Thursday” post.
Early in the morning of February 27, 1776, in the dark swamps of what is now Pender County, the first serious fight between loyalists and patriots occurred in the South. The battle of Moores Creek Bridge (known then as Widow Moores Creek) would last only a few minutes, but it altered the British plan for dealing with the American revolution. At the time, the war was just beginning to break out. The British governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin suggested raising a army of Highland Scots from the Sandhills of North Carolina to help stabilize the Southern Colonies and give the British a base to quall the revolt. Many of the Highlanders who’d settled there had sworn allegiance to the crown after their defeat by the English in 1745. Others, having been given land by the crown, felt they owned allegiance to the king. Martin had hoped to raise an army of 10,000, but his military commanders were only able to raise an army of approximately 1,600. In late February, the troops lead by Donald McDonald assembled at Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) to begin their march to the port in Wilmington, where they were to be united with British soldiers who were coming in by sea. They found the main road, on the south side of the Cape Fear River, to be blocked at Rock Creek by Patriots led by Col. James Moore. Unwilling to fight, McDonald moved his force northeast, crossing the Cape Fear, and they began to move south, along another road that paralleled the Black River. There were a few skirmishes along the way.
In addition to Moore’s main force, who was moving toward Wilmington, two other units were converging at Moores Creek, some twenty miles from Wilmington. The site was considered an ideal location to stop the Loyalists as the swamp around the creek kept the army on the high ground which allowed for the colonist to create an effective field of fire. Col. Alexander Lillington and his unit of 150 men who’d been with Moore, were first to arrive, digging in on the eastern approach. The next day, Col Richard Caswell arrived with 850 men from New Bern and dug in on the opposite bank. As the Loyalist approached, they sent a messenger to ask those in rebellion to give up their arms. The messenger only saw only Lillington’s men in front of the bridge. Thinking there was only a small contingent of men guarding the bridge, MacDonald’s soldiers prepared to attack in the early morning hours on the 27th. After a six mile hike on a spooky road that ran through a swamp with trees draped with Spanish Moss, they prepared to assault Lillington’s forces in the early hours of the morning. They discovered his camp to be deserted. They continued on ahead, finding the planks removed from the bridge and the girders greased. McLeod, who was leading the attack, led his men carefully across the bridge and gathered them for an attack. At daybreak, with a heavy morning fog, they supposedly charged into the Patriot lines, shouting “King George and Broadswords,“ (I wonder if this is true as most of these Scots would have spoken Gaelic at the time). The Patriot force held their fire until the Loyalists were only 30 paces from their lines and then opened fire with muskets shooting “buck and balls” and two small cannons shooting grapeshot. The battle is said to have only lasted three minutes. Soon, there were over 30 Loyalist dead, more wounded, and the rest in a quick retreat. Over the next week, Patriots captured most of the Loyalists along with their weapons. Many of the leaders and their families (including Flora MacDonald, a Scots heroine) were banished from the colony and moved to Nova Scotia or back to Scotland.
It was a small engagement, but early in the war the battle discouraged the British from trying to conquer the Southern colonies and their forces moved north where most of the fighting would occur for the next several years. The battle also helped the colonists in North Carolina by providing weapons and supplies. Interestingly, most of their Patriot weapons had been given to them by the British during the French and Indian Wars, a lesson that we still haven’t learned from history.
The battlefield is a National Park site. The earthworks have been reconstructed and numerous monuments have been erected, most given by the people of North Carolina in the great monument age (1890-1920). Two of the larger monuments are for Pvt. John Grady, the only death on the Patriot’s side, and a monument for those Scots who were fighting as loyalists. After 120 years, old grudges had died and the state (which after the Civil War entered into a Scottish revival era) no longer harbored ill feelings for the losing side. In addition to the battlefield trail, there is a small museum with a number of period weapons. There is also a short “Tarheel” interpretive trail that talk about the role the longleaf pine played in the development of the “naval stores” industry in this region of the country. Interestingly, all the native longleafs have been cut and although some younger ones are growing, all the mature pines are loblollies.
The battlefield trail takes you along a boardwalk into the swamp around Moores Creek, allowing up close views of a cypress swamp. The water is stained brown from the tannic acid of the cypress trees. These trees also have “knees” that protrude up from the muck. The Spanish moss gives the swamps an eerie feeling and in the summer, there’s a good possibility of encountering snakes and perhaps, if lucky, of seeing an alligator. When I visited the site last week, there was ice in the swamps, something one doesn’t see very often.
As for my travel tip, I'll take the lead from Pseudonymous High School teacher and encourage you today to give to those in Haiti. It won't give you a better trip, but it may make you feel better.