The Revolution Comes to Duplin-Sampson County, 1781: A Year of Hell

By Jerome Tew

I am convinced this county with several others will be overrun with the British and Tories.” Colonel James Kenan
Introduction: After the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 26, 1776, over four years passed before the Revolutionary War reached North Carolina with any degree of impact. Militia records are scarce, but more than 800 men, citizen-soldiers, from Duplin and Sampson Counties have been identified as serving either in the regular army, militia, or providing valuable material aid as a patriot soldier. By the middle of 1780, the war was headed to the Carolinas. Nearly 70 battles were fought in the Carolinas in 1780 alone, most in South Carolina and 7 in western North Carolina. The earlier Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was a major defeat for the Tories (Loyalists) and British in North Carolina, and was a major reason why our state went four years without a battle. Roughly 85 men from Duplin-Sampson Counties have been identified as being in this battle. Many of us have ancestors who served. (Sampson County was carved out of Duplin County in 1784.)

January 1781: Militia General Nathanael Greene and Lord Cornwallis mostly played a game of hide and seek in the north-central part of North Carolina. One major burden for Cornwallis was that he carried with his command a great deal of equipment that hindered his movements. By the end of January, he decided to dump his baggage train. During that month, Captain Nicholas Bourden (Bowden) and a company of Duplin Militia were called to the Uwharrie River in western Randolph County to assist General Lillington in suppressing the Tories there. While this event was taking place, Wilmington was left poorly defended. On January 28, 1781, a fleet of eighteen vessels flying the British flag dropped anchor in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. On board was a detachment of 450 Redcoats of the 82nd Regiment under the command of Major James Craig.

February 1781: In 1781 there were approximately 200 houses in Wilmington, and its population was almost 1,000. The populace, however, were civilians, unprepared to fight or defend their homes. There was no opposition as Major Craig took possession of the town. He immediately put his soldiers to work throwing up fortifications around the town. Patrols were sent out to round up all the prominent Whigs in the neighborhood. The Militia that had been left guarding the Big Bridge and Town of Wilmington were quickly defeated. (The Big Bridge, also known as Heron’s Bridge, was a part of the main road into Wilmington and it spanned the Northeast Cape Fear River. A modern bridge exists there today, just north of Castle Hayne on Hwy 117.)

In addition to fostering Tory activity through the mere presence of his troops, Craig developed a second tactic to demoralize his enemy: the capture of prominent patriots. Some of the natives tried to escape. Thomas Bloodworth, the tax collector, loaded everything pertaining to his office on board a small vessel and headed up the Cape Fear River. Craig’s soldiers, after a twenty-mile ride across the country, caught up with this boat, captured it, and then burned it. Later that month, Militia General John Ashe of New Hanover County hid out in the Burgaw Savannah swamp, but was betrayed to the enemy by one of his servants. When he attempted to escape, he was shot in the leg and captured by Major Craig’s men. v was a prominent Militia officer who was among the early leaders in the rebellion against England. After capture he was then thrown into an open-air prison located on lower Market Street known as “the Bullpen” where he remained for months.

With the British soldiers in the area to protect them, the Tories became bolder. To keep them under control, General Alexander Lillington called out the militia. He fortified a position at Heron Bridge, about ten miles up the Northeast River from Wilmington. Near the end of February, Craig made a surprise attack upon Lillington and his militia, but he could not dislodge the stubborn rebels. After two days of bombarding the American position, Craig gave up and returned to Wilmington, leaving Lillington and his men in command of Heron Bridge.

The British presence in Wilmington encouraged loyalist militia activity throughout the
lower Cape Fear region, and skirmishes between Patriots (Whigs) and Loyalists (Tories) became more frequent.

After the fall of Wilmington, Colonel Kenan and 350 members of the Duplin Militia marched down to the Big Bridge to hold Craig in check and prevent the Redcoats from crossing the river. Militiamen from Jones, New Hanover, and Onslow Counties joined him. The Militia often crossed the bridge at night for raids against the British outer post guards. After General Lillington returned and took command, Craig made an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge him. Lillington and his men held the bridge until about the first of April, when it was obvious that Lord Cornwallis and his troops would soon arrive in Wilmington to join forces with Major Craig. Having failed to dislodge Lillington, Major Craig and his British soldiers then destroyed the Bridge.

March 15, 1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse: In the heat of this battle, the Americans were getting the upper hand, so Cornwallis directed his artillery fire towards both the Patriots and his own British troops. The Americans had to break contact and leave the field of battle to the Redcoats. Though Cornwallis is generally credited with having “won” the battle, the British sustained heavy losses, as over a fourth of their 2000 men were killed. It wasn’t much better for the North Carolina Militia, as over 90% of their men deserted and fled the battlefield. (The punishment for deserting was a year on the North Carolina Line in the regular army.)

Those patriots from Duplin-Sampson County identified as participating in this battle were: Jesse Roberts, Isham Sellers, Alexander Smith, William Ward, Nathan Blackburn, John Blue, John Martin, John Hall, Charles Butler, and Abraham Lane.

April 1, 1781: Lord Cornwallis left Cross Creek and moved his army down to Campbellton (Fayetteville). He and his men were well treated by the nearby Highlanders, who had earlier sworn allegiance to the king. But he got no help for his war effort from up the Cape Fear region.

April 3, 1781: Lord Cornwallis and his men arrive in Elizabethtown around noon but were not there for long.

April 5, 1781: Continuing his march towards Wilmington, Cornwallis moved his army south along the west side of the Cape Fear River. He was hoping that British ships had brought needed supplies for the war to Wilmington, but he was sorely disappointed. He sent two letters to Wilmington during his march asking in vain that Craig send supplies upstream. Cornwallis’s troops were forced to “loot indiscriminately” and smothered any enthusiasm among the local Tories who might have wished to join the army.

Cultural restraints against the killing of civilians gave way to the law of retaliation as both sides committed crimes in what became a bloody civil war. Both the Loyalists and Patriot militias were even more prone to mistreating prisoners, robbing and murdering their enemies, and burning their homes than regular soldiers would do.

April 7, 1781: Craig’s men were working on the fortifications when Cornwallis’s men marched into town. The general immediately established his headquarters in one of the finer houses in town; the church building was put to use as a hospital for the sick and wounded.

By the time that Cornwallis and his Redcoats reached Wilmington, the Militia had retreated from the Big Bridge towards Kinston. As the mandatory three-month tour of duty for most of them was over, General Lillington discharged his Militia troops, thereby preventing Cornwallis from having army to pursue.

April: 24, 1781: Lord Cornwallis and his army of 1,400 men left Wilmington headed north to Richmond. Once again the red‑coated army was on the move. Trudging along the rutted, sandy roads, they marched slowly and almost deliberately into Duplin County. The entire countryside was terrorized. Tories and other hangers‑on, who followed the British army like a flight of vultures, plundered every farm and plantation along the way. Some homes roared up in a mass of flames and smoke-blackened chimneys marked the path of the marching column. Horses and cattle were driven off, and slaves were forced to come along with the army. Many Whigs loaded their families and most valuable possessions into wagons and hastened to a safer area.

April 27, 1781: Cornwallis invaded Duplin and met no resistance, as the local militia was outnumbered and lay low to avoid a fight. He spent about three days in Duplin. On April 28, 1781, he is documented as having stopped at the plantation home of Robert Dickson. Dickson, a Major in the militia, had earlier moved his family to Virginia for safety and on returning in July, his wife, Catherine Pearsall Dickson died from exposure.

May 1781: After moving through Duplin County unmolested, Lord Cornwallis was perceived as victorious. (Part of his route included roads in what is now eastern Sampson County.) Feeling empowered, a number of Tories (Loyalists) followed Cornwallis and his men to loot and take advantage of the chaos. Soon thereafter, a secret Tory camp was established in the swamp on the western side of the Great Coharie Creek (in the vicinity of today’s Bonnetsville). Because of the new threat of a growing number of Tories, some of the same young men who had been recently discharged from the Militia were compelled to take a new oath.

Colonel James Kenan, being informed of this event, collected over a dozen men, including his brother Owen, to search for and attack the secret Tory camp. The camp was found and shots were fired. Owen Kenan was shot dead and both sides quickly retreated. The Tories lost no one, giving rise to their confidence. Soon their numbers swelled to over 100 men. In their boldness, they took control of the bridge over the Coharie on the Fayetteville Road (Hwy 24). The Tory leaders there were Captain Middleton Mobley and his brother, Biggers Mobley.

Kenan was again informed of this Loyalist buildup and raised 60 light horsemen to attack and disperse the Tories. Twice the Tories were engaged and twice they escaped into the swamp. The majority of them fled south down the Great Coharie. Near the headwaters of the Black River at a place called Portevent’s Mill, the Tories and Militia engaged once again. No troops were killed, and the Militia was able to capture supplies and horses belonging to the fleeing Tories, who eventually made their way to Wilmington where they joined British the British troops.

In late May, Cornwallis marched out of North Carolina on the road to Petersburg in Virginia. He had spent over three months in the State and had accomplished little. In late January he had entered North Carolina with a veteran army; he now was leaving its borders with but a shadow of his once fine fighting machine. He had fought one major battle, for which he had made a hollow claim of victory. At both the Cowpens and Guilford Court House he had lost some of the best soldiers under his command

June 1781: Major Craig issued a proclamation to the counties in the region that all their young men were to arm themselves and declare for the king by the first of August. If they failed to do so, they would be declared an enemy of the king

By this time, it was getting harder to find Militia recruits. 70 recruits were summoned from Duplin but only 24 reported for duty. Many sided with the Tories as a way of protecting their own property. Nearly a third chose to remain neutral. As bad as things looked in Duplin County, they were much worse in both Bladen and Cumberland Counties. Out of 15 Militia companies in Bladen County, 12 chose to become Tories, siding with British Major Craig and the king.

July 1781: On July 9, Colonel James Kenan reported to the governor that he had no powder or lead, “not one round,” he said.

On July 24, Militia General Lillington complained that his men had less than three rounds each. It was also hard to get food, as people were refusing to turn over their cattle and horses to the Militia. They knew that the Tories were watching.

August 1, 1781: Most of the time, however, British Major Craig managed to keep the Whigs of eastern North Carolina off balance. He announced that he would seize and sell the property of all those who resisted British measures. Craig declared all the inhabitants of the area were to come into Wilmington and take the oath of allegiance to George III. If they refused, they would be suspected as being enemies of the King, and would be in danger of having their property confiscated and losing their lives. Few Whigs came in to take the oath. Craig marched out on an expedition to punish all those who had not complied with his requirements. Craig leaves Wilmington headed for New Bern to punish those who would not declare for the king.

August: 2, 1781: Major Craig advances into Duplin County with 250 regular British troops and 80 Tories. In the early morning hours, the Battle of Rockfish Creek Bridge (just south of Wallace, NC) took place. When it was clear that Kenan was going to make a stand, Major Craig sent British Captain Gordon with 60 light horsemen and about 100 foot soldiers, along with some Tories who knew the area, to circle around to Kenan’s rear and both groups attack Kenan at the same hour. Militia private John Knowles was struck with a sword by a mounted British soldier and his left arm and shoulder almost cut off, leaving Knowles sorely disabled. When the Militia realized that they being attacked from two directions, they fled. The engagement lasted only a short while because Kenan’s men soon exhausted their ammunition. They retreated. None of these courageous Duplin County men lost their lives, but about twenty or thirty were taken by the British cavalry who pursued them after the skirmish.

Letter from Colonel Kenan to Governor Burke: “Sir: I embodied all the Militia I could in the county to the amount of about 150 men and was reinforced by General Caswell with about 180, and (an engagement) took place at a place called Rockfish. The British this day (2 Aug 1781) came against the Militia and me, again after a few rounds [our Militia] broke and ran and it was out of my power and all my officers tried to rally them. They have all dispersed. Before the men broke we lost none, but the lighthorse pursued and I am afraid have taken 20 or 30 men. I cannot give you a full account. But the bearer Captain James James, who was in the action, can inform your excellence of any particulars. He acted with becoming Bravery during the whole action. I am now convinced this county with several others will be overrun with the British and Tories. Your Excellency with excuse as I can not give a more full account. I am sir your very Humble Servant. /S/ Jas. Kenan.”

The Militiamen here were not happy. Their food and rations were low due to difficulties with the Tories already cited. The victory at Rockfish Creek Bridge empowered the Tories even more and 300 new men from the Duplin area sided with the British. Major Craig, his men, and a number of Tories then went to the plantation home of Colonel Thomas Routledge and stayed there three days. They took cattle and destroyed all of what they could not carry off. They even took the wedding ring off the finger of Mrs. Catherine Routledge. They burned the houses of Militia Captain James Gillespie and Lieutenant Henry Houston.

Those from Duplin-Sampson identified as being in the above battle were: George Bell, James Blanton, John Holley, Captain James James, Colonel James Kenan, John Knowles, Daniel Merritt, Richard Murphy, Captain Jonathan Parker, Captain Asher Pipkin, Ivey Smith, Jacob Wells, Joseph Williams, George Willis, Captain Shadrack Stallings, Isham Sellers, and John Wright.

On the morning of August 14, 1781 Campbellton (Fayetteville) was captured by the notorious David Fanning and his Tories, or as they called themselves, the King’s Militia. There were four Tory camps in Cumberland County alone. Later, all of the North Carolina Tories were placed under the command of the murderous Fanning, who kept a detailed journal of his deeds. Fanning’s headquarters were located in Wilmington, where Major Craig later appointed him Colonel of the King’s Militia. Of the 22 Tory camps identified in Fanning’s journal in, half of the camp officers were caught and hung or otherwise killed in battle in 1781.

Major Craig, along with his British regulars and Tories, reached New Bern on August 19. In nearby Jones County, his Tories killed three men. Craig later returned to Wilmington by way of Kinston.

August 28, 1781: There was a full-scale battle at Elizabethtown where the Tory colonel, John Slingsby, had been holding a number of Whig prisoners. About 150 men from Duplin and Bladen County cautiously approached the town that night. Under cover of darkness they forded the Cape Fear River. Led by Colonel Thomas of the Bladen Militia, they launched their attack just before dawn. The sudden assault threw the Tories into a panic. Large numbers of them, rushing headlong through the dim light, fell into a deep ravine. So many either leaped or stumbled into this ditch that it has since become known as “Tories’ Hole.” The Whigs quickly collected all the arms and stores in town and retired to the other side of the river. Only one of their men had been wounded. Nineteen Tories were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Slingsby was among these, and later died of his wounds. The Tory soldiers in Bladen County were routed, with most being killed or captured.

September 1781: Many Duplin-Sampson Militia soldiers participated in numerous battles of the Revolutionary War. One such battle was the Battle of Eutaw Springs, which took place September 8, 1781 about 150 miles away in South Carolina where 40 new Militia recruits were taken into battle. In his written history of Duplin County, William Dickson had much praise for the bravery of those men who were lead by Captain Joseph T. Rhodes. All but 13 were either killed in action or wounded. Only 3 men were completely untouched by the enemy. Of the original 40 new recruits, at least 10 have been identified as coming from Duplin-Sampson County: Burwell Branch, James Carr, John Hill, Hardy Holmes, William Moore, Alexander Outlaw, Alexander Smith, Samuel Stanford, Jonathan Thomas, and Phillip Thomas.

In early September, Tory Colonel David Fanning had posted notices all throughout the area. The notices read that if men did not make ready and report to the Tory camps, then they would be captured and taken to Wilmington. Furthermore, their property would be seized and sold at public sale. The notice was very effective, as several hundred men from Duplin-Sampson and other surrounding counties reported to the Tory camps.

Fanning then devised a plan to take his regiment of 950 Tories to Hillsborough in an attempt to capture Governor Thomas Burke, avoiding the North Carolina Militiamen under General John Butler. This he did at daylight on September 12, 1781. Governor Burke, along with 200 other men, was captured and sent to a Wilmington prison. Burke was later moved to Charleston for safekeeping. The British feared that Tory Colonel David Fanning might be captured, and their intent was to use Governor Burke for trade in the event that happened. On September 14, while making his return trip to Wilmington, Fanning got into a major firefight with Militia General Butler’s troops. Approximately 100 Tories were killed and Fanning’s left arm was shot in several places. One of the Tory leaders killed was Colonel Hector McNeil of Bladen County. Both he and his horse were shot dead.

September, 1781: The Tories were still maintaining secret camps in both the eastern and western parts of Duplin County. Once again they set up their old camp on the west side of the Great Coharie Creek near the old Fayetteville Road. By now it was known by North Carolina Militia officials that General Washington had Cornwallis in a bind at Yorktown, VA and the momentum was shifting in favor of the Patriots. It was at this time that Militia Colonel James Moore and several other officers led 80 or so Militiamen on a surprise raid on the Coharie Tory camp without loss, killing four Tories and dispersing all the others. This signaled the end of the Tory camps in Duplin-Sampson; however, some Tory thugs still roamed around Duplin through 1785.

The spirit of the Tories was now broken and many began to turn in their arms and surrender to the government. They had to either join and serve in the Militia or face a trial of treason. The Tory leader Middleton Mobley was obliged to leave Duplin-Sampson. But in 1782, he was arrested in Martin County and returned to Wilmington, where he was tried and executed. His brother, Biggers Mobley, played both sides. Biggers served in the Militia and later became a justice of Sampson County. He died in 1802 and left a will.

October 1781: While imprisoned in Major Craig’s “Bullpen” in Wilmington, Militia General John Ashe contracted smallpox. When it became obvious that he would soon die, he was released. Ashe attempted to reach his join his family, which had moved from Pender County to Hillsborough, but only made it as far north to the home of his old friend, Colonel John Sampson. On October 24, 1781, Ashe died at Sampson’s home. (He was buried at the old Sampson cemetery, located off Pineview Road in Clinton,) Probably unknown to Ashe, Lord Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown just five days earlier. After Cornwallis left in October of 1781, there were no more battles with the British to occur in either North Carolina or Virginia. However, the last battle of the war occurred over one year later at John’s Island, SC.

Great Britain did not acknowledged American independence until November 20, 1782 and Charleston SC was not evacuated by the British until December 14, 1782. The Treaty of Paris was concluded on September 3, 1783, and the last British troops left New York on November 26, 1783. The last of the Tory thugs were captured in 1785, two of them being Herman Bass and Rice Bass of Duplin-Sampson and Wayne Counties.

November 1781: News of Cornwallis’s surrender reached the lower Cape Fear, and British Major Craig evacuated Wilmington on November 14, never to return. However, Wilmington remained under the control of Colonel David Fanning and his Tories.
December 1781: Around Christmas, Governor Burke was able to escape from his capturers near Charleston and joined Militia General Nathaniel Greene’s camp in South Carolina.
January 1782: Governor Burke re-assumes his position as Governor of North Carolina. David Fanning seeks peace and a treaty but neither came. Fanning then fled to Nova Scotia where he remained until he died in 1825. Lord Cornwallis was paroled and allowed to return to England, but the 8,000 British Redcoats under his command were retained until 1783 when peace was assured.

1781 was truly a “year of hell” for the people of Duplin-Sampson County and many others in the Cape Fear region. Both Patriots and Tories suffered greatly from the terrors of a civil war that raged within the larger context of the American Revolution.
Sources: NC State Colonial Records Vol. XV & XXII; Duplin History, The North Carolina Historical Review, 1928 edition; Loyalists in North Carolina during the Revolution; North Carolina in the American Revolution by Hugh F. Rankin, 1959; Revolutionary War Records of Duplin and Sampson Counties, North Carolina by Virginia and Oscar Bizzell; Revolutionary Reminiscences from the “Cape Fear Sketches,” 2001, John A. McGeachy.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

Lord Charles Cornwallis