On February 27, 1776 the Patriots and Loyalists met in Pender County at the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge. 1 The victory by the Patriots spurred North Carolina to assert its independence. Historian Connor, in his chapter entitled “Independence ” began with this quote: “Moore’s Creek was the Rubicon over which North Carolina passed to independence and constitutional self-government.” 2 By Rubicon it can be assumed that Connor meant that North Carolina had started, as defined by Webster, “on a course of action from which there was no turning back.” This definition of Rubicon refers to a small river which Caesar passed over in 49 BC from Cisalpine Gaul on the northern side to Italy laying on the South to begin his battle with Pompey.
The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge was certainly not the first event on the way to independence for the North Carolina colony. Many incidents forming the background and the basis for the move to independence appear in the “Chronology of the American Revolution” in this Web site, including opposition to the Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament which led to events in North Carolina described in the articles entitled “Birth of a Revolutionary”, “Harnett Confronts Governor Tryon” and “Harnett Helps Disgrace Governor Martin”. The battle, however, may very well have been “the point of no return.”
The following account of events that led up to the battle and of the battle have been described by Historian Josh Howard as follows:
From February 15 to 21, 1776, the days leading up to the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, Whig forces under Commander Colonel James Moore camped on Rockfish Creek. At that site they were eight miles south of Cross Creek (present-day Fayetteville) where Royal Governor Josiah Martin’s representative, Alexander McLean and British officer General Donald MacDonald and Captain Donald McLeod were assembling a Loyalist militia. Their goal was to march the Loyalists to Wilmington and there defeat the Patriots, returning North Carolina to British rule. By fortifying the encampment at Rockfish Creek with over 1,000 men and five artillery pieces, Moore blocked the Loyalists’ most direct route to the coast.
To get around Moore’s blockade, Loyalists were forced to cross the Cape Fear River at Campbelton and use Negro Head Point Road, a route that crossed Moore’s Creek. When Col. Moore learned of the Loyalists’ chosen route, he sent message to Colonel Richard Caswell to block their route at Corbett’s ferry over the Black River, to Colonel Alexander Martin and Colonel James Thackston to take possession of Cross Creek to prevent their retreat and to Colonel Alexander Lillington to fortify Moores Creek Bridge. Moore led his men to Elizabeth Town in hopes of meeting the Loyalists on their way to Corbett’s Ferry. Aware of the location of Moore’s and Caswell’s forces, the Loyalists constructed a bridge four miles above the ferry and continued on towards Moore’s Creek. There they were met by artillery and rifles from Caswell’s and Lillington’ forces. By the time Col. Moore and his men arrive at Moores Creek Bridge the battle was over. The Patriots had defeated the Loyalists, killing or wounding at least fifty men. Moore and his men pursued the remaining Loyalists and captured 850 soldiers. With the victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge, North Carolina was saved from being overrun by the British. 3
The impact of this victory by the Patriots and the impact on the citizenry were described historian Connor as follows:
Thus in letters, in conversations by the fireside and at the cross-roads, in newspapers, and in public assemblies, the Whig leaders worked steadily to mould public sentiment in favor of a Declaration of Independence. But the crowning arguments that converted thousands to this view were the guns of Caswell and Lillington at Moore’s Creek Bridge in the early morning hours of February 27, and the black hulks of Sir Henry Clinton’s men-of-war as they rode at anchor below Brunswick. (Connor, p. 141)
When there were no Loyalist troops to meet Sir Henry Clinton when he arrived in May , he sailed to Charleston instead. 4 It is obvious that if the highlanders had met with and joined Clinton’s forces, North Carolina would have been under siege at the time of the Fourth Provincial Congress. This may have delayed the surge in favor of Independence.
The surge of public opinion in favor of Independence led the Fourth Provincial Congress meeting at Halifax to name a committee to draft a document listing grievances against the King. Serving on the committee were Cornelius Harnett, Allen Jones, Thomas Burke, Abner Nash, John Kinchen, Thomas Person and Thomas Jones. The committee report was drafted and presented to the Provincial Congress by Cornelius Harnett. This report became known as the Halifax Resolves, the first document by any of the colonies directing its delegates to the Continental Congress to vote with other colonies for Independence and to form a constitution. (Connor pp. 142-143)
During the time the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge occurred, Cornelius Harnett was President of the Provincial Council, the highest elected official in North Carolina when the Provincial Congress was not in Session. He served as President from October 18, 1775 until June 5, 1776 when he was elected to the successor position of President of the Council of Safety. With British Governor Martin in retreat, and in safety aboard the British ship Vizier, Harnett in effect was the Chief Executive officer of North Carolina. (Connor)
According to Historian Connor, Harnett’s leadership was essential in defeating the planned invasion by Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton in North Carolina. Governor Martin, hiding in safety about the British ship Cruizer, had arranged for the McDonald troops to meet Clinton and Cornwallis at the coast. Connor, in his essay on Cornelius Harnett, put it this way toward the end of his chapter on the Provincial Council:
The victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge was the crowning achievement of the Provincial Council. But for the sleepless vigilance and resourceful energy of President Harnett and his colleagues in organizing, arming and equipping the troops, McDonald’s march down the Cape Fear would have been but a holiday excursion. As it was, Governor Martin again measured strength with the people, and again was beaten. Clinton and Cornwallis came with their powerful armaments, but finding no loyalist force to welcome them at Cape Fear, they sailed away to beat in vain at the doors of Charleston. The victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge saved North Carolina from conquest, and in all probability postponed the conquest of Georgia and South Carolina for three more years. (Connor, p 118).
1. Historians Josh Howard and R. D. W. Connor differ on whether to put an “apostrophe-s” after the name of Moore, to indicate that widow Moore was owner of the bridge. Howard spells it as Moores Creek Bridge when referring to the battle and Connor spells it as Moore’s Creek Bridge. Howard, however, used the “apostrophe-s” when referring to Moore’s Creek and to Colonel Moore’s forces. The National Park Service prefers “Battle of Moores Creek Bridge and is the source of the picture at the beginning of this article. In this article we left the spelling as rendered by the respective historians. A sponsor of this Web cite, Glenn Hood, laments over the lack of an apostrophe in high places, stating that even his home address is listed as “Buies Creek” by the Postal Service. [Google “Battle of Moores Creek Bridge” and you will have access to numerous on-line articles about the battle. Google will insert the apostrophe in references proposed but most cites (28 of the first 30) come up without an apostrophe.]
2. Connor, R. D. W., CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY (hereafter Connor), Raleigh, N. C., Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. Print & Web, p. 121. [For directions on accessing the Web version, see Resources/books/Connor].
3. NCPedia, Howard, Josh, Research Branch, NC Office of Archives and History, 2009, “Battle of Moores Creek Bridge,” http://ncpedia.org/history/usrevolution/moores-creek-bridge.
4. Davis Virtual Market, “Fighting in the South”, http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/vme/vo/7.html.