We tend to think of Independence Day, July 4, 1776, as the start of the American Revolution. But then we remember that there had been battles the year before in Massachusetts (Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill).

And some of us have learned that there was a pre-revolutionary battle in North Carolina, too! It was the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, about 18 miles west of Wilmington. It took place on Feb. 27, 1776.

It illustrates how eager some North Carolinians were to be “first in freedom” and how quickly North Carolina stepped forward to get rid of British control.

In early 1776, the majority of North Carolinians (and of the American colonists generally) hadn’t taken sides on breaking with Great Britain. However, two active groups had formed: Loyalists, who wanted to keep the protection of the Crown, and Patriots, who wanted to be rid of British control.

The battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought between Loyalists and Patriots, rather than between colonists and British redcoats. It was instigated by the colonial governor, Josiah Martin.

Highland Scots vs. Patriots

North Carolina’s Highland Scots were Loyalists. It’s not that they loved the British. Many were settlers who had left Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Culloden was a devastating loss for the Scots. It ended the Jacobite effort to put Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) on the British throne. Many who survived and settled in America had taken an oath that they would not fight the British again. (This was a time when an oath meant a lot.) In addition, they didn’t want to go through another excruciating fight with the British — they didn’t see much hope in it.

Meanwhile, the Patriot dissidents were growing. In North Carolina, some of them called themselves the Sons of Liberty, and by early 1776 the North Carolina Patriots had already held three provincial congresses. While they hadn’t yet declared independence, the latest congress had set itself up as the governing body of North Carolina. Patriots had effectively taken over the government of North Carolina. 

They were able to do that because the British governor, Josiah Martin, was off the premises. Angry at the Patriots’ formation of its own provincial congress, and fearing danger from mobs, he had fled the capital, New Bern. He soon found a spot on a British war sloop near Fort Johnson on the Cape Fear River. (He was right about the dangers: The colonists burned down Fort Johnson.)

Martin’s plan

But Martin wasn’t done with the rebels. He figured he’d bring in British soldiers from the north, and he believed that North Carolina had enough Loyalists to rally around them. The British agreed to send soldiers from New York under Lieutenant General Henry Clinton, who was to arrive by ship in Wilmington. They would meet up with the Highland Scots, who would travel from today’s Fayetteville and together they would form an army,

About 1,600 Scots did start the journey to Wilmington. But before Clinton landed with his troops, a group of Patriots had found the Scots. They intended to prevent them from reaching Wilmington

At the bridge at Moore’s Creek, the Patriots took out much of the bridge floor and covered what remained with tallow and soap to keep the Scots from crossing it. On Feb. 27, the Highlanders arrived and discovered the Patriots, but thought they were in retreat. Led by their swordsmen, they stormed the bridge.

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. Their commander, Captain Alex McLeod, died almost immediately.

The war had begun in North Carolina. And the Patriots were ahead.