Revolutionary War Historical Article
The American Revolution Month-by-Month February 1776
By Compatriot Andrew "Andy" Stough
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted by Permission of the Gold Country Chapter No. 7 of the CSSAR and was slightly Edited by the Sons of Liberty Chapter of the CSSAR.
February 1776 found Benedict Arnold still continuing the technicality of a siege of Quebec as he was certain that sufficient reinforcements would come to allow him to take the city. Arnold continued in command during his recovery until he fell from his horse reopening his leg wound. On April 2nd Colonel Wooster arrived to relieve Arnold while Arnold retired to Montreal. The operation expanded, with more men, more money, more supplies, more armament and ammunition but none in a coordinated manner so that the siege continued to bumble along. With the disparity between the forces, the only challenge possible was with cannon fire. When fired upon, Sir GuyCarleton immediately replied with more firepower and range than the Americans could muster, discouraging any further action of the kind. Carleton had the resources and ability to descend upon the Americans but he did nothing; allowing the stalemate to continue.
The number of men encamped increased with the only result being more responsibilities and an increase in infections of the deadly smallpox. In early May General John Thomas arrived to command the army of 2,500 men. Death and desertion ended enlistments and those who were down with smallpox left an effective strength of less than 1,000. More men were funneled into the pipeline with little improvement in the situation.
On May 2nd, word arrived that a fleet of 15 ships had entered the St Lawrence. On the 7th, their masts could be seen by the Americans. At this point Carleton with 900 men and several cannon issued from the town. The siege of Quebec was over. What was called a retreat was begun but according to more than one source it was more like a flight back toward the safety of Ticonderoga. A momentary halt was called when a rear guard was met at the Richlieu River. From that point on the retreat was over. The army became a mob attempting to reach safety, scattered, and was no longer a military unit. At this point on the 2nd of June, General Thomas, who had contracted smallpox, died (Ward; Higginbotham; Schlesinger; Alden).
A relieving force sent by Washington caught up to the retreat and began an attempt to hold at that point, reorganize and march against Trois Rivieres then on to Quebec. Unfortunately they had no idea that a very much stronger force of land troops, supported by naval vessels, was present. They fought valiantly but in the end were overwhelmed. Carleton was generous in his treatment of the defeated force allowing it to retire from the field. In truth, he is reported to have allowed them to escape, since his own provisions were low and he could not have fed both them and his own people.
Finally 8,000 survivors reached Ile aux Noir. Ward states “Two thousand suffering from smallpox were hospital cases upon arrival. Within two days a quarter of the remainder were stricken with malarial fever or dysentery.”
The sad state of affairs continued with much sacrifice, pain and continuing deaths from smallpox until those who survived ended their odyssey at Crown Point in early July, ten months after General Montgomery’s original departure. It was not the end of thoughts of invading Canada, but it was the end of any actual attempt to do so during the Revolutionary War.
Of what value was the sacrifice of so many lives in a futile attempt to take Canada? John Alden says it may very well have saved the Revolution by requiring Britain to divide its forces during the critical year of 1776. Further, it resulted in a creation of two commands, one in Canada and one in the colonies, thereby reducing the effectiveness which would have been realized by a single command in charge of the total force.
George Washington in early January received word from an intelligence source that a fleet fitting out in Boston Harbor was loading troops. Considering the reluctance of the Royal Navy to navigate the North Atlantic in winter it was assumed that the fleet was intended for a southern destination. All things considered, this might well indicate an invasion of New York City which would give Britain a stronghold on the southern terminus of the invasion route from Canada. Major General Charles Lee, an experienced former British Officer, was ordered to depart for New York City and put it in order to withstand an attack.
Lee arrived in New York on February 4th to find that British General Sir Henry Clinton had entered the harbor two hours earlier. New York was panicked, had the war come to them? The Mayor of New York immediately made contact with Clinton who assured him that he would not land a single soldier; he was there merely there to talk with Governor Tryon. Clinton sailed on February 11th, leaving New York secure and unharmed. What his plans were no one knew, but he sailed south and that could mean an attack on Philadelphia or other cities to the south.
While apparently not known by the American establishment, but of interest later on, will be the sailing on February 13th, of a large fleet movement from Cork, Ireland, under Admiral Sir Peter Parker, which included numerous troop transports and supply ships. General Lord Cornwallis commanded the military. Until this armada arrived off Cape Fear on May 3rd there was no relevant action, nor was anyone in the American establishment apparently aware that the combined force even existed (Ward; Schlesinger).
The three southern colonies had a large population of Scots and Irish who were primarily loyal to the Crown. Germans who mostly lived in the back country were generally loyal to the local (Tory) government, such as it was. Altogether the three southern states were ( or were thought to be by London) nominally loyal to the King but not to his governors. London thought all that was needed to bring them out was a British leader with a contingent of regulars. With such a force and a taste of the bayonet and the rebels would not be able to run away fast enough (Ward).
That is the background to the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in North Carolina. Josiah Martin who succeeded William Tryon as governor of North Carolina was no more popular than Tryon and for his own safety had taken refuge on a British warship. From his self imposed exile he had declared any who would not pledge allegiance to the King to be a rebel. On January 10th, from the ship, he issued a call to arms to assist Sir Henry Clinton and the naval commander who were headed south from Boston and New York. On February 5th he ordered them to assemble at Brunswick across from Wilmington by February 15th. On the 18th of February the Tories, predominantly Scots, were encamped four miles below Cross Creek (Today’s Fayetteville, NC).
Colonel James Moore with the 1st North Carolina, had entrenched himself at Rockfish, seven miles below Cross Creek. On the 18th he was joined by minutemen and rangers giving him a total of 1,100 men. Additional patriot (rebel) forces on the march to join Moore were ordered to hold Moore’s Creek Bridge at any cost, while he moved to encircle the Scots and fall on their rear.
The Scots, making up the majority of the van, were experienced fighters from the wars of succession and had fought at Culloden where they were so thoroughly beaten that not to this day has there been another uprising of Scots against the English yoke. Once the deadly enemy of the English Crown these had migrated to America and were now the stoutest supporters of the King.
The deep and swift creek offered no place except Moore’s Creek Bridge to cross in force, making it, at most, a stalemate, as the two forces stood across the river and glared at each other. On February 27th, the Tories and their commander had enough delay. They would no longer avoid the patriots who appeared unwilling to fight in the Continental manner. The Scots charged toward the bridge with the battle cry of “King George and the Broadswords.” (Ward).
As they came onto what was expected to be a passable bridge they discovered that the rebels had removed the planking, leaving only the stringers. The forerunners who could not stop found themselves in the torrent as they tried to cross on the stringers which had been greased, nevertheless, the rest came on unaware of the open bridge. Many, including officers were cut down by riflemen from the trenches as well as grapeshot from artillery.
As the Tories massed in confusion behind the bridge the rebel force charged at the bridge, led by men who replaced the planking while the rest continued to pour fire into the enemy. The Tories fled, but the leaders and 850 soldiers were captured. With all of this firing, only 30 Scots were killed or wounded as opposed to the rebels who lost 2 men. Ward states that booty from the victory was the “wagon train, 1,500 rifles, 350 muskets and 150 swords.”
As battles go, this was significant because it was discovered that the rebels could and would stand and fight. More importantly, it denied General Clinton any reinforcement to add to the 900 men he had landed and forced him to leave the colony. Even more important was the change in attitude by the Tories towards the rebels, so that there was not for some time any important Tory activity within the colony.
References: Arthur Meier Schlesinger’’s “Almanac of American History”; John Alden’s “A History of the American Revolution”; Don Higginbotham’s “The War of American Independence”; Christopher Ward’s “The War of the Revolution”