The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge (1776)

Written By Jane Shaw Stroup

Some revolutionary battles took place in the colonies before independence was declared on July 4, 1776. Among the famous battles were Lexington and Concord and Bunker’s Hill in Massachusetts. Less well-known and very brief was the February 27, 1776, battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in Pender County, North Carolina, near Wilmington.

A victory for the Patriots, it is important for two reasons:  

  • The battle was between colonists rather than colonists versus British redcoats. Loyalists—primarily North Carolina Highland Scots—fought Patriot rebels. The Patriots’ win permanently discouraged Highland Scots from supporting the British in the future.
  • The Patriot victory also ended the rule of the British governor, Josiah Martin. When the battle occurred, he was already in exile on a British war sloop near Fort Johnson on the Cape Fear River. There he tried to put together an army of Highlanders, former Regulators (earlier rebels), and other loyalists. When the loyalists lost, Martin fled to New York (where the British were still in control), never to return.

Governor Martin had left New Bern, the capital, due to unrest among the colonists and the formation of a provincial congress independent of his control. Late in 1775 he tried to put together a force to challenge the rebellious colonists, who now called themselves Patriots. The British in New York agreed to send soldiers under Lieutenant General Henry Clinton, who was to arrive by ship in Wilmington.

Martin persuaded about 1600 Scots to head from their homes around Cross Creek (now Fayetteville), aiming to meet up with Clinton’s forces in Wilmington, about 90 miles away.  

Meanwhile, the Patriots had put together a force of 1,100 soldiers. They decided to cut the Highlanders off as they proceeded southeast. The Patriots reached Moore’s Creek Bridge (about 18 miles from Wilmington) one or two days before the Highlanders did.

There the Patriots took out much of the bridge floor and covered what remained with tallow and soap to keep the Scots from being able to cross it. On February 27, the Highlanders arrived, discovered that the Patriots were awaiting them, and decided to storm the bridge. They were led by their swordsmen and, according to historian David Davis, yelled “King George and Broadswords.”[1]

Historians say it took only three minutes for the Patriots to come forward, firing, and turn the scene into one of horror, followed by the Patriots’ chase of the Highlanders as they retreated. According to one source, the Americans lost one soldier and one was wounded; the Scots lost 30 men, plus 20 wounded. [2] Their commander, Captain Alex McLeod, died almost immediately. [3]. The battle also counts as “history’s last broadsword charge by Scottish-Highlanders,” writes Davis. [4].

In North Carolina, the revolution had begun.