The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge — America's First Victory of the Revolutionary War

February 27, 1776

The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge was fought between the United Colonies and Great Britain on February 27, 1776, near Wilmington, North Carolina, during the American Revolution. It was the first battle of the war that took place in North Carolina and also the first battlefield victory for American forces in the war.

Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Loyalists at the Bridge

Loyalists preparing to cross Moore’s Creek Bridge. Image Source: National Park Service.

Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge Summary

The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought between the United Colonies and Great Britain on February 27, 1776, near Wilmington, North Carolina, during the American Revolution. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, British forces were trapped in Boston and decided to try to take control of the Southern Colonies. Troops sailed from Boston and England and intended to join a Loyalist army in North Carolina, under the command of General Donald MacDonald. However, MacDonald was engaged by American forces, led by General Richard Caswell and Colonel Alexander Lillington, at Moore’s Creek Bridge. The Americans had the advantage of entrenchments with artillery, and the Loyalists, with fewer than half of their men armed, were no match. The battle was brief and the Loyalists suffered heavy casualties — nearly everyone in their advance party was killed or captured. Following the victory, North Carolina was in control of the Patriots and instructed its delegates to the Second Continental Congress to support independence. In May, a British armada arrived off Cape Fear but was forced to sail south to Charleston due to the lack of support from Loyalists.

Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge Quick Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge started on February 27, 1776.
  • Date Ended: It ended on February 27, 1776.
  • Location: The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought near Wilmington, North Carolina in present-day southwestern Pender County.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolution.
  • Campaign: The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was part of the Southern Campaign.
  • Fun Fact: The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge is called the “Lexington and Concord of North Carolina” because it was the first battle of the war in North Carolina.

What happened at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge?

In early 1776, British General William Howe ordered General Henry Clinton to sail south to rendezvous with Commodore Peter Parker and General Charles Cornwallis. Parker had sailed from Cork, Ireland with Cornwallis, and seven regiments of the British army. They planned to meet off the Cape Fear River in the Province of North Carolina where they expected to be joined by a large army of Loyalists that was to be raised by Governor Josiah Martin.

Loyalists on the March

Around February 21, 1776, Brigadier General Donald MacDonald and 1,600 Loyalists left the Cross Creek area, roughly 100 miles from the coast. Their march was blocked at Rockfish Creek by Moore, so they marched east, toward the Cape Fear River. In order to continue to the coast, he would have to cross Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge. Meanwhile, Moore and Lillington fell back and followed MacDonald’s march. Caswell moved in front of MacDonald to Moore’s Creek Bridge.

February 26 — Moore’s Creek Bridge

Five days later, McDonald found out there were 1,000 militiamen with cannons waiting for him at Moore’s Creek Cridge, which was only six miles from his position. 

MacDonald sent a messenger, James Hepburn, to the American camp, under a flag of truce, and asked for them to surrender and declare their loyalty to the King. The Americans refused MacDonald’s request. Hepburn returned to MacDonald with information about the location of the American camp and its defenses. However, he only had partial information. He told MacDonald about the camp on the east bank and was unaware of the camp on the west bank.

MacDonald held a council of war with his officers. Although MacDonald wanted to be cautious, the younger officers wanted to be aggressive, and they decided to attack on the morning of the 27th. MacDonald was sick, so Lieutenant Colonel Donald McLeod took active command

February 27 — Moore’s Creek Bridge Battle

At 1:00 a.m., the 1,600 Loyalists moved out, however, only 500 of them had firearms and the rest were armed with Highland Broadswords. It took until 4:30 a.m. for them to arrive at the American camp on the east bank. One group moved into the camp and found it was abandoned  — the Americans had withdrawn to the other side of the bridge.

Meanwhile, another group, the advance party, discovered half of the planks on the ridge had been removed and the two stringers had been greased, making passage difficult. However, McLeod was determined to attack, so he assembled a contingent of 50-80 men and prepared to cross the bridge. They fired on the American guards at the bridge, who took cover.

McCleod and Captain John Campbell led the Loyalists across the dismantled bridge, swords in hand. Preparing to attack the Americans, he drew his sword and shouted, “King George and Broadswords!”

The militia held their fire until McCleod, Campbell, and the others were within 30 yards. At that point, the militia opened fire with their two swivel cannons and muskets. McCleod and around 30 were instantly killed. The others quickly retreated back across the creek. The Loyalists watching from the other side of the creek turned and fled.

Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Patriots Open Fire
Patriots fire on the Loyalists. Image Source: National Park Service.

The Aftermath of the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge

The militia put the planks back on the bridge and pursued the Loyalists, capturing around 850, including General MacDonald. The American victory put an end to organized Loyalist activity in the area for several years. Less than two months later, on April 12, 1776, North Carolina became the first state to call for independence when it issued the Halifax Resolves. The Provincial Congress instructed the North Carolina representatives to the Second Continental Congress to support independence.

Significance of the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge

The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge is important to United States history and was the first significant victory for American forces in the American Revolutionary War and kept the British from invading North Carolina. In the aftermath of the battle, North Carolina was controlled by the Patriots, who supported declaring independence from Great Britain. The victory forced the British to alter their plans for the Southern Campaign, which led to their defeat at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776. The British did not return to the South until December 1778 when they captured Savannah, Georgia.

Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Loyalist Retreat
Loyalists retreat over the bridge.

What led to the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge?

In June 1775, Josiah Martin, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, lost control of the colony and fled to Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River. In January 1776, he was informed that a British armada was on its way to retake control of North Carolina.

The armada was led by General Henry Clinton, General Charles Cornwallis, and Commodore Peter Parker and intended to land on the Lower Cape Fear River near Brunswick Town. Clinton was sailing south from Boston, while Parker and Cornwallis were sailing from England. Martin was instructed to raise an army of Loyalists to help Clinton and Cornwallis.

Martin hoped to raise an army of 10,000 men, two-thirds of them being Scots. This army would march to the coast and join the British land force, which numbered about 7,000 men.

On January 10, 1776, Martin issued a proclamation and called for Loyalists to help put down “a most daring, horrid, and unnatural Rebellion.” For those who pledged service to the Crown, he offered 200 acres of land, cancellation of land fees, tax exemption for 20 years, and reimbursement for supplies they used. The generous terms brought in recruits, though not nearly as many as Martin had hoped for. 

The next day, Martin started communicating with Patriot leaders in North Carolina, and tried to negotiate peace, but failed. The North Carolina Provincial Government issued orders for all men of fighting age to take an oath, pledging support to the Patriot Cause. If any man refused, his weapons would be confiscated and he would be imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Loyalists responded to Martin’s proclamation and gathered in the Cross Creek area. However, instead of 10,000 recruits, there were 2,800 men, primarily Scottish Highlanders. Under the command of General Donald MacDonald, they planned to advance along the southwest side of the Cape Fear River to the coast, near Wilmington, where they would join with the British troops that were sailing to North Carolina. From there, they would work together to retake the colony.

When Patriot leaders found out the Loyalists were assembling at Cross Creek, the minutemen and militia were called up to join with the 1st North Carolina Continentals. Colonel James Moore, Colonel Richard Caswell, Colonel Alexander Lillington, and their men were deployed with instructions to block the Loyalists’ path to the sea. 

Moore was in command and devised the strategy to keep MacDonald from joining with Clinton and Cornwallis. Moore intended to block MacDonald’s path and force him to alter his route to Wilmington, while Caswell would approach from New Bern and block the crossing over the Black River.

On February 11, Caswell and his men were sent to New Bern, north of Wilmington, where they joined the North Carolina Continentals and the Wilmington Minute Men, who were marching toward Cross Creek.

From February 12 to 16, the Highlanders assembled and agreed to their own oath and pledged support to the King. On the 18th, the Loyalists spotted American forces, led by Moore, near them. Moore placed cannons in position to fire on MacDonald and his men.

That night, MacDonald and his men quietly left their camp and marched northeast toward the Black River Bridge. By the next morning, all of his men had escaped past Moore’s cannons. Soon after, scouts informed MacDonald that Caswell and his men were approaching from the east. MacDonald ordered his men to head for Corbett’s Ferry.

Moore, realizing MacDonald was headed to the ferry crossing, sent a message to Caswell, ordering him to take command of the crossing ahead of MacDonald. Moore also sent reinforcements to help Caswell.

Both the Loyalists and Patriots raced to Corbett’s Ferry, and Caswell arrived on the night of February 23 and burned the ferry. Caswell also had his men destroy any boats they could find.

MacDonald and his Loyalists were four miles away from the ferry on the 24th when scouts informed him it had been destroyed. The Loyalists were able to find a boat that had eluded the Patriots and used it to cross the Black River on the morning of the 25th. MacDonald was close to the Americans, just five miles upriver from where Caswell and his men were positioned near Corbett’s Ferry.

At that point, MacDonald decided to attack Caswell. He sent a contingent toward the ferry with the bagpipes and drums out in front. It was meant to trick Caswell into thinking the main force was headed toward the ferry when, in fact, MacDonald had led the main force and was moving into position to attack Caswell. However, Caswell realized what was happening and ordered his men to fall back to Moore’s Creek Bridge.

Moore had already ordered Colonel Lillington and the Wilmington Minute Men to block the bridge. Caswell and 800-850 men joined Lillington. Together, they built earthworks on the east bank of the creek and set up two swivel cannons, known as “Old Mother Covington” and “her daughter.”

Accounts vary, but it appears they set up camps on both banks of the creek. On the west side, the smaller camp may have been nothing more than a decoy to trick MacDonald into thinking the American force was smaller than it really was.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge — America's First Victory of the Revolutionary War
  • Date February 27, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, James Moore, Donald MacDonald, Richard Caswell, Alexander Lillington, Josiah Martin, Thomas Gage, Henry Clinton, Charles Cornwallis, Peter Parker
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 5, 2024