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What are the region’s main Revolutionary War sites?

Ben Steelman

The years have claimed a lot of landmarks since 1776, but a few notable sites remain.

* The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought on the morning of Feb. 27, 1776, between a force of about 1,000 Patriot volunteers and militiamen from Duplin, Brunswick and New Hanover counties, led by Col. Alexander Lillington and Col. Richard Caswell, and a force of about 1,600 Loyalists, including about 700 Scottish Highlander immigrants from the Cross Creek/Campbelltown area (modern-day Fayetteville), led by the elderly Brig. Gen. Donald McDonald and Lt. Col. Donald McLeod, who was probably in active command.

Among the Loyalists was Capt. Allen MacDonald, husband of Flora MacDonald, who had saved Charles Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” after the Battle of Culloden.

The focus of the battle was a narrow wooden bridge over swampy ground on the road to Wilmington. The Patriots, arriving first, dug in behind earthworks about 100 yards from the bridge, with two small cannon at nearly point-blank range. They also removed the boards from the bridge and greased the supports until they were slick.

The Highlanders charged at dawn, with the battle cry “King George and Broad Swords!” but the Patriots had the firepower.

Within five minutes, the engagement was over. About 70 Loyalists were killed or wounded, and a large number of officers, including McLeod, lay dead. The rest quickly gave up the fight and ran. More than 850 were captured within the next few days. Patriots overran the Loyalist camp and seized 1,500 rifles, hundreds of other weapons, wagons and a trove of some 1,500 British pounds sterling the equivalent of roughly $1 million in today’s value.

Patriot casualties were put at one dead (Pvt. John Grady of Duplin County, the first Tar Heel to be killed in the Revolutionary War) and one wounded.

Although small, the battle prevented the Loyalists from connecting with a British force near Wilmington, commanded by Sir. Henry Clinton. Clinton’s force shortly evacuated, leaving the Patriots in uncontested control of the Carolinas for the next four years.

The victory may have encouraged the North Carolina Provincial Congress to pass the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776, authorizing the province’s delegates at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to vote for independence from Britain. This was the first such move by any of the 13 American colonies.

On the basis of his acclaim for the victory, Caswell was elected the first governor of an independent North Carolina. Lillington (whom many believe was unfairly overlooked) later had a town named after him in Harnett County, further up the Cape Fear.

The National Park Service now operates the Moores Creek National Battlefield at the site on 40 Patriots Hall Drive, Currie [Map this], not far off N.C. 210 and U.S. 421 in Pender County. Revolutionary War re-enactors frequently camp on the site, with major events each year on a weekend close to the battle’s anniversary.

* The Battle of Elizabethtown, or “Tory Hole,” was fought on Aug. 28, 1781, on the banks of the Cape Fear River near Elizabethtown. At this stage, the Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina had turned into a civil war between rival Patriot (or Whig) and Loyalist (or Tory) militias. (Which names you used depended on which side you were on.)

In this battle, about 60 Patriot/Whig militiamen, mostly from Duplin County, under Col. Thomas Robeson, ambushed a larger force of Loyalists, perhaps as many as 300, under Col. John Slingsby. Slingsby was mortally wounded in the first shooting, and the Loyalists, losing heart, ran until they were cornered in a deep ravine between the town and the river — the Tory Hole.

Casualties were estimated at 19 Loyalists dead, wounded or captured, and perhaps 4 Patriots wounded. The Patriots, who were ragged and hungry at this point, resupplied themselves, and Loyalist resistance was largely mopped up in Bladen County. Col. Robeson later had a North Carolina county named after him. Today, a state highway historical marker and a city park commemorate the site of the battle.

* The Burgwin-Wright, or “Cornwallis,” House, 224 Market St., Wilmington [Map this], served as British headquarters after Maj. James Craig occupied the town with some 400 soldiers on Jan. 18, 1781. The townhouse of John Burgwin, a prominent merchant and colonial politician, was conveniently built on the foundations of the old town jail, so the British could use it to imprison Patriot leaders, notably Cornelius Harnett.

Some sources claim that Gen. Lord Cornwallis made his headquarters here, during his two-week stay after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and before marching north to Yorktown, Va. Period maps, however, suggest that His Lordship stayed at a larger, more luxurious house (no longer standing) on the riverfront.

Craig (who would later become governor-general of Canada) evacuated Wilmington for Charleston, S.C., in November, after learning of Cornwallis’ defeat. Today, the Burgwin-Wright house is operated as a non-profit house museum by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.

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One Response to “ What are the region’s main Revolutionary War sites?”

  1. On June 24, 2009 at 7:51 am Jack Fryar wrote:

    Wilmington itself is a notable Revolutionary War site, as it was occupied by the British under Maj. James Henry Craig and the 82nd Regiment of Foot for eight months in 1781. Fort Johnston, in Southport, is N.C.’s first fort, dating from 1748, and it figured prominently in Revolutionary War activity on the Cape Fear – especially during the spring of 1776, when a British fleet occupied the mouth of the river, waiting for the arrival of loyalist Highlanders who never showed up after Moores Creek. Brunswick Town was sacked by the British that same year. Also in 1776, Gen. Robert Howe’s home between Southport and Brunswick was looted and the women treated badly by British raiders seeking revenge against the man who would become the highest ranking southern officer in Washington’s army. Near Ogden was Eight Mile House, so called because it was roughly eight miles out of Wilmington along the road that led to New Bern. In 1781 British troops caught a group of patriot militia there and killed them all even though they tried to surrender. On Bald Head Island, the British Fort George was the site of what may have been the first amphibious assault by American soldiers, when Continentals in boats from Wilmington landed on the back side of the island via Buzzard’s Bay and attacked the fort. They did this while more than thirty British warships were anchored just offshore in the river. The Northeast Cape Fear River played a prominent role in the war, as Craig’s reason for occupying Wilmington was to send supplies by boat up the waterway to Cross Creek, where Cornwallis’ advancing army could re-supply itself on the march through the state in 1781. Perhaps the most notable feature that has yet to be recognized by the general public is the site of Heron’s Bridge. One of only two drawbridges in America at the time of the Revolution, Heron’s Bridge is located roughly where I-40 crosses the NE Cape Fear River from New Hanover into Pender County. It stretched for several hundred feet across the river, and had a single lift span roughly in the middle. When the redcoats occupied Wilmington, local patriot militia pulled back to the Pender County side of the bridge, which was on the Great Duplin Road. Eventually command of the patriot forces was assumed by Col. Alexander Lillington, of Moores Creek fame. The patriot position at Heron’s Bridge created a choke point on the river, and stopped Craig from being able to complete his re-supply mission. This would have grave consequences for Lord Cornwallis in the wake of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Three substantial skirmishes were fought at the bridge, but Craig was never able to reduce it so he could complete his mission. For more information about the Lower Cape Fear during the Revolutionary War, try “Redcoats On The River: Southeastern North Carolina In the Revolutionary War” by Robert M. Dunkerly, and “A History Lover’s Guide to Wilmington & The Lower Cape Fear” by Jack E. Fryar, Jr. Both books are available at area bookstores and museums, or online at http://www.dramtreebooks.com

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