Namesake of the town of Lillington (the county seat of Harnett County), John Alexander Lillington served as a colonel during the American Revolution and earned fame as a military hero.
Born during the mid-1720s (his exact birthdate is unknown), Lillington was a native of what was then called the Beaufort Precinct. Orphaned at a young age, Alexander Lillington was reared by his uncle, Edward Moseley.
Before his military career, Lillington was a politician. In 1775, he served on the New Hanover Committee of Safety. That year, he also served as a delegate to the Third Provincial Congress. The Third Provincial Congress appointed six men to be leaders among six newly created districts. Lillington was among them and was appointed over the Wilmington District. Although a well-respected planter, with a magnificent home called Lillington Hall in Pender County and a budding political career in New Bern, Lillington earned his fame not in the political halls but on the battlefield.His military fame began at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge (1776). After hearing the news that Loyalists were marching toward Wilmington, Lillington and his militiamen were placed on alert. They met the Tories at Moore’s Creek. There, Lillington secured a position that later enabled the Patriot forces to take the bridge and defeat the British loyalists. (When the continentals arrived, their commander, Richard Caswell, outranked and assumed command from Lillington.) Credit for the Patriot victory is typically given to Caswell, but many have given credit to Lillington. As one Revolutionary rhyme went:
“Moore’s Creek field, the bloody story,
Where Lillington fought for Caswell’s glory.”
Although the question of commandship at Moore’s Creek, for many, was never really answered beyond doubt, Lillington gained respect across the American colonies. With exaggeration, some speculated that Lillington (and Caswell) could outfox any British general, including Robert Howe, George Clinton, and John Burgoyne. What is certain is that the Fourth Provincial Congress appointed Lillington as colonel of the 6th North Carolina Continental. He resigned a year later on the last day of 1776 and later served as a delegate in the Assembly in 1777. In 1779, he accepted an appointment as a militia brigadier general for the Wilmington District. In this position, he assisted the Patriot defense of Charleston and dealt with pesky North Carolina loyalists for the duration of the war.
After the war, he returned to Lillington Hall (the British had occupied his home for much of the war). He died in April 1786 and is buried near his home.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography Vol. 4 (Chapel Hill, 1991) and Hugh F. Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill, reprint, 2005).