On January 28, 1781, a British fleet occupied the town of Wilmington. Eighteen vessels anchored in the Cape Fear River. Aboard the ships were 450 Redcoats and their commander, Major James Craig.
Wilmington had almost one thousand citizens, but were all civilians and unprepared to fight such a well-equipped army. Craig’s forces took the town without any opposition and patrols were sent out to capture the prominent Whigs of the area. One group of Redcoats rode twenty miles to destroy the boat and items that belonged to the tax collector.
Cornelius Harnett (county of Harnett was named in his honor), who lived just outside Wilmington, fled as far as Anson County before becoming ill. Harnett was captured and reported that he was treated very badly by the British troops. His health steadily declined while imprisoned. He died April 28, 1781 shortly after his release on parole.