Part 2 of 2
August 1, 1781: British Major James 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.
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 to rally them. They have all dispersed. Before the men broke we lost none, but the light horse 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. On August 28, 1781, Colonel Thomas of the Bladen Militia and 60 men crossed the Cape Fear River during the night, attacking the Tory headquarters in Elizabethtown just before dawn. Tory Colonel John Slingsby and Tory Captain David Godwin were killed. 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, were captured and sent to a Wilmington prison. Burke was later moved to Charleston SC 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.
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 September 10, 1781, it was know 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; 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.