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On February 27, 1776, a great blow for freedom was struck at Moores Creek Bridge in North Carolina, when a group of patriots defeated a loyalist army in one of the opening engagements of the American Revolution.

From a military standpoint, the battle was minor, but its implications were far-reaching. Not only in North Carolina, but also in her sister colonies, the spirit of the loyalists was dealt a staggering blow. A rendezvous between loyalist and British regulars was prevented, thus ending a threat of a Carolina conquest in 1776. Since the royal Governor could not be restored to power, North Carolinians were encouraged to establish their own government, and in the Continental Congress the North Carolina delegation joined other delegations in voting for independence.

In the early 1770's, North Carolina sentiment on the subject of independence was fairly evenly divided. Back country settlers in 1771 openly defied royal authority, but they were successfully quelled by Governor William Tryon at the Battle of Alamance. By 1775, North Carolinians had generally split into two factions: patriots, who were willing to fight England for independence; and loyalists, who were either strongly in favor of British rule or those who did not feel that war was a way to redress grievances.

News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, gave encouragement to the North Carolina patriots. When Governor Josiah Martin learned of patriot military preparations he fled the palace at New Bern and by July was on board a British warship off the North Carolina shore.

From his exile, Governor Martin organized a plan to recapture the colony. He hoped to raise a loyalist army of 10,000, many of which would be back-country Highland Scots. The army would then march to the coast and join a British expeditionary force led by Lord Cornwallis, Sir Henry Clinton and Sir Peter Parker. Together they would be able to re-establish royal authority in the Carolinas.

Governor Martin appointed Donald MacDonald, a brigadier general, and Donald McLeod, a lieutenant colonel, directing them to enlist men. They were empowered to offer land grants and tax exemptions as an inducement to joining the royal cause. A force of some 1,600, nearly half of them Highlands, were gathered at Cross Creek (Fayetteville) by February 15, 1776.

Meanwhile, the patriots had not been idle. With Governor Martin out of the colony they established a provisional government and began mobilizing their forces. When they learned of the loyalist gathering they prepared to prevent the rendezvous. Colonel James Moore was the patriot's senior officer.

On February 20, MacDonald began his march toward the coast; however, he found his way barred by Moore at Rockfish Creek. Instead of bringing on a fight the loyalists turned eastward and crossed the Cape Fear River. With Moore outmaneuvered, another patriot leader, Colonel Richard Caswell with 800 men rushed to take possession of the bridge on Widow Moores' Creek, a crossing the loyalists must make in order to reach Wilmington. Moore sent 200 men with Colonel Alexander Lillington to reinforce Caswell and with his own force followed the enemy in hope of attacking his rear.

Lillington arrived at Moores Creek Bridge on the 25th and erected an earthwork on a slight rise overlooking the bridge and its approaches. The creek at this point is a dark, sluggish stream about 50 feet wide and 5 feet deep. A simple wooden bridge provided passage across the creek, but much of the terrain adjacent to the crossing was swampy.

With Caswell's arrival on the 25th the patriot strength climbed to 1,000 men. Instead of joining Lillington, Caswell crossed the creek to the western bank and prepared a position there.

When the loyalists neared the creek and learned of the presence of the patriots, they had to decide whether to march in another direction or to fight. After a lengthy debate, the younger leaders prevailed and the decision was to fight. MacDonald was ill, so McLeod commanded the attack. Captain John Campbell with 75 picked broadswordsmen was to lead the charge into Caswell's camp. However, a reconnaissance warned Caswell of his vulnerable position so he withdrew across the creek to the position of Lillington's earthwork. Artillery was posted and, as an extra precaution, the bridge planking was removed and the girders smeared with grease.

An hour before dawn on February 27, the loyalists struck Caswell's deserted camp and found only low-burning campfires. McLeod quickly regrouped his men and when musket fire was heard near the bridge, they charged with the rallying cry, "King George and Broad Swords." Though it was not daylight, they rushed the partly-demolished bridge with claymores drawn and bagpipes skirling. As the advance party struggled across the bridge, they were met with a hail of musketry and artillery fire. Nearly all of the attackers were cut down, many falling into the water. The patriots counter-attacked with vigor, producing a loyalist rout. The battle lasted only three minutes, with the patriots losing but one man.

Campaign. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Battle. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

In the days following, the patriots took prisoner most of the loyalist force; the others escaped and returned to their homes.

At Moores Creek, the shouts of fighting men, the sounds of the bagpipes, the smell of gunpowder, and even the bridge are gone. Remaining is only the site itself with its murky stream and swampy banks. The patriots earthworks have been located and outlined, a portion of the old trace is still evident, and a pleasant environment that must be similar to its 1776 appearance surrounds the area. Six stone commemorative monuments tell of the deeds of individuals and organizations during the battle. In more recent years, the National Park Service has added a visitor center and several field interpretive devices to provide for a better understanding of the Moores Creek story.

Looking westward from the Patriot breastworks toward the historical trace and Moores Creek.

Site of the historical bridge over Moores Creek. The view is toward the east bank.


Even though Moores Creek is a small area, its topography can be divided into four separate categories. The swamp and bog areas apparently contain native vegetation and with proper management will simulate a 1776 appearance.

Swamp—located adjacent to the creek at an elevation of 3- to 4-feet above sea level. Cypress, willow, and water ash decorated with Spanish moss are the dominant trees.

Bog—This area varies from wet to damp and generally lies at 4- to 8-feet elevation. Besides the Venus flytrap and pitcherplant, the bog area supports gum, bay and ash trees, plus a variety of shrubs.

Savannah—Largely created from a drained swamp, it contains mostly grasses that are kept mowed.

Sandhill—Ranging in elevation from 5 to 30 feet, its vegetation includes loblolly pine, oak, hickory, and various shrubs. Unusual plants include bear grass and prickly pear cactus.

Larger mammals such as deer, bear, wildcats and fox are seen on rare occasions. The grey squirrel is an active park resident while raccoon and opossum are frequent visitors. The bottomlands support an active insect population, drawing a considerable number of birds. It is not uncommon to see as many as five different species of woodpeckers in one small area in a few minutes time. Small birds such as wrens and warblers are plentiful, while crows and jays remain the most noticeable. Hawks and vultures are seen and owls are frequently heard. The creek contains bass, brim, perch, catfish and garfish, in addition to attracting ducks and herons. Other than the harmless species of reptiles, the poisonous rattlesnake, copperhead and cottonmouth are seen occasionally. The black widow spider becomes a hazard in building storage spaces.

Looking west from the visitor center, across a savannah toward the battleground.

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Last Updated: 07-May-2007