Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Swords to a gunfight: relive a tragic military mismatch at Moores Creek

It was broadswords against flintlocks in a bloody battle that helped shake the British's grip on North Carolina.

The Battle of Moores Creek pitted 1,000 well-prepared and well-armed patriots against a smaller force of Scottish loyalists, armed with swords. (Port City Daily photo | COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)
The Battle of Moores Creek pitted 1,000 well-prepared and well-armed patriots against a smaller force of Scottish loyalists, armed with swords. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

CURRIE – Every year, the National Park Service re-enacts the Battle of Moores Creek. The battle pitched 1,000 North Carolina patriots, armed with cannons and muskets, against a smaller force of Scottish loyalists, armed mostly with Claymores, traditional Scottish swords.

There are several accounts of the battle, including David Lee Russell’s “The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies” and Charles E. Hatch’s “The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge.” John L. Smith Jr. has also penned a lively version of the battle for “Journal of the American Revolution.”

The National Park Service relies on these sources – and other contemporaneous accounts – for their annual reenactment.

‘King George and Broadswords’

Initially, the British military campaign in North Carolina looked strong. Early in 1776, the British sent 53 ships with about 2,000 British troops under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton. They planned to sail up the Cape Fear River and rendezvous with Scottish loyalists in the area; the governor of North Carolina had promised the British upward of 5,000 Scottish troops.

These were the so-called Highlanders of the Upcountry who, ironically, had been displaced from their native Scotland by English forces, but who had become loyal to the crown after settling in North Carolina.

The British sent two veteran soldiers, both Gaelic-speaking Scots, to organize the force. When they reached North Carolina, Major Donald MacDonald and Captain Donald McLeod found the Scots disorganized and in far smaller numbers than promised. Only about 1,600 Scottish troops were available to fight – and only about a third of them had firearms, the rest were armed with swords. MacDonald became ill, but McLeod assumed command and soldiered on.

Last Charge of the Highlanders

Patriot forces were waiting for the Scottish loyalists, with 1,000 armed men and two cannons. (Port City Daily photo | COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)
Patriot forces were waiting for the Scottish loyalists, with 1,000 armed men and two cannons. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

The patriot forces were able to intercept the Scots before they met the British forces amassed on the Cape Fear Coast; they set a trap for the Scottish forces at Moores Creek, which was at the time running about six feet deep – a difficult crossing that would force soldiers onto a single bridge.

On the far side, the patriots dug in behind earthworks and waited with two heavy artillery pieces known as “Old Mother Covington and her daughter.”

The night before the Scots reached the creek, patriot forces sabotaged the bridge – removing planks and greasing the structure with soap and bear fat. On the far side, the patriots dug in behind earthworks and waited, along with two heavy artillery pieces known as “Old Mother Covington and her daughter,” trained on the near-side landing of the bridge.

When the Scots made it to Moores Creek, desertion had halved their strength: about 700 Scottish soldiers walked into a trap set by over 1,000 well-prepared and well-armed patriots. Reportedly, the night before the battle, the troops played “King George and Broadswords” on bagpipes, a celebration of a weapon that was about to prove disastrously antiquated on the battlefield.

Shortly before sunrise on Feb. 27, 1776, the Scottish loyalists attempted to cross Moores Creek. The patriot scout fired a warning shot. The Scots, surprised, attempted to charge, swords drawn.

The patriots opened fire.

The battle reportedly lasted three minutes. Captain McLeod never made it over the bridge, having been shot two dozen times. Between 30 and 50 loyalist troops were killed, hundreds more were captured. The patriots suffered only two casualties.

Revisiting the past

The National Park Service will memorialize the 242nd anniversary of the Battle of Moores Creek on Saturday, Feb. 24, and Sunday, Feb. 25. During park hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the park will hold a series of events and demonstrations, including:

  • Patriot and loyalist militia encampments with cooking, dummy musket drills for the public, weapon displays, and storytelling.
  • Musket and cannon demonstrations.
  • Artisan craft and trade exhibits and demonstrations
  • Wreath laying ceremony and procession
  • Interpretive demonstration of the battle, including narration and flag ceremony in honor of those who lost their lives in the battle.
  • Information tables from local organizations on how to get involved in preserving this and other local history.
  • Food for sale by Atkinson Volunteer Fire Department

You can find more information at the Moores Creek event page or by calling the Moores Creek National Battlefield at 910-283-5591.

Moores Creek National Battlefield is located at 40 Patriots Hall Drive, Currie, about 20 minutes north of Wilmington, off Highway 421.

On the map: Moores Creek National Battlefield

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