The American Revolution in North Carolina

Heron's Bridge

January 30, 1781


Patriot Cdr:

Brig. Gen. John Alexander Lillington
British Cdr:

Maj. James H. Craig
Killed:

3
Killed:

0
Wounded:

Unk
Wounded:

7
Captured:

8
Captured:

0
Original County: 

New Hanover County
Present County:

New Hanover County/Pender County

aka Big Bridge.


When Patriot Col. Henry Young withdrew from the town of Wilmington on the arrival of the British army on January 28th, he rendezvoused on the next day with the various militia units that had been called out by Brigadier General John Alexander Lillington. The combined forces established a fortified position at Heron's Bridge, about ten miles north-northeast from Wilmington, all hoping to have the same success as four years earlier at Moore's Creek Bridge. Their position consisted of a bridge with a narrow causeway on one end. A deep marsh a quarter of a mile wide was located beside the hill that the militia camped on.

British Major James H. Craig learned of Col. Young's whereabouts and decided to make a surprise attack on the Patriots. He marched from Wilmington at 4 p.m. with 250 men of the 82nd Regiment, the Marines, and two 3-pounders. He left Major Daniel Manson and the Royal North Carolina Regiment to guard Wilmington.

After the sun went down, one of Major Craig's light infantrymen captured a mounted militiaman. From him, the British learned the exact location of Col. Young's camp. Major Craig moved to a position near the bridge, and then ordered his men to rest. His plan was to attack the Patriot camp around 4 a.m. the next morning, but a mounted patrol discovered his position.

The British opened fire, immediately charged the patrol, and drove them across the bridge. Col. Young's militia fled, leaving their camp and equipment to the British. Major Craig ordered Capt. Nesbit and Capt. Pitcairn to pursue the fleeing militia. During this pursuit, a running gun battle occurred, and Capt. Nesbit was shot twice in the leg. The British captured a number of weapons and canteens in the camp along with an iron 3-pounder, which they disassembled and tossed into the nearby Northeast Cape Fear River.

Major Craig waited at the bridge for a possible counter-attack, but when it was determined that the Patriots had been totally dispersed, he had his men to burn the bridge and return to Wilmington.

After returning, Major Craig then went up the Cape Fear River with one detachment of the 82nd Regiment. They sailed upriver with two gunboats and a galley under the command of Lt. Robert Winters. This group captured all the fleeing boats from Wilmington, except for two. These two were a schooner and the North Carolina State Navy brigantine Pennsylvania Farmer, loaded with arms and ammunition. The Pennsylvania Farmer and the schooner had run aground and were burned by their crews.

The next day, Major Craig marched five miles downriver burning Patriot plantations and destroying stores that may be of use by the Patriots. Major Craig was not able to carry out his orders to secure the Cape Fear due to the presence of Brigadier General John Alexander Lillington's combined militia force of roughly 500 men. However, Brigadier General Lillington's militia did not want to attack Major Craig within the town of Wilmington, so a stalemate soon ensued.


In his 1833 pension application statement, Joseph Humphrey (R5374) asserted,

"...& marched thence into New Hanover County to Rocky Point on the Cape Fear River at Big Bridge - here we lay encamped until we were joined by General Lillington; the British having made their appearance on the opposite side of the River, General Lillington ordered a company to march down the River & crossed the same whilst another division should cross the Bridge & they attacked the British in front & us the Rear - the British had two large cannon planted facing the bridge, the Lieutenant whom General Lillington ordered to advance across the bridge refused to do so, and the British sentinels having notified them of the advance of the Americans across the River, and great confusion having been produced in consequence of a want of cooperation by the other party refusing to cross the bridge, the British brought on a general engagement, and soon routed the Americans - we retired into the woods and the British made their way to Wilmington."


In 1846, Archibald MacLaine Hooper provided evidence on behalf of John Swann (R10335) and stated:

"Wilmington was a British Garrison from January 29 to November 18, 1781. During this period Major Craig the Commandant, stationed a company of about 90 man at the Big Bridge ten miles from the town. Colonel Thomas Brown who had signalized himself by surprising & carrying the British post at Elizabethtown Bladen County & who had the command at this time of about 300 militia conceived the project of surprising and capturing the British force stationed at the Big Bridge. With this view the employee Colonel Campbell, Captain Jones, & Mr. Swann to reconnoiter the position; & found that the officers & privates were off their guard i.e., the former bathing in the river at the foot of the declivity behind & North of the house; & the latter either bathing or washing clothes on the margin. Their arms were stacked in front or to the South of the house & guarded by sentinels.

"In this State of things Colonel Brown soon formed his plan. This was that his force into three divisions should advance simultaneously – The Topsail Company under Colonel Campbell, another Company on George Moore's road & a third under William Jones, on the Wilmington Road; that they should meet at the foot near the bridge & that the United forces should from thence proceed with the greatest celerity to the encampment, cut down the sentinels, seize the stacked arms & surprised & captured the whole force. Colonel Brown himself led the division on the George Moore Road same wing of success his conduct which yet in this as in every other instance alike Mark by the extremes of caution & Gary. He submitted his plan to his staff composed of Colonel Campbell, Captain Jones & Mr. Swann the latter of whom executed during the progress of this enterprise the duties of an Aid de Camp.The two former approved; the last opposed it. Mr. Swann was the youngest & in fact, only not a stripling. He was brave active & adventurous & though young had acquired experience in the modes of attack & retreat. He proposed another plan which he deemed it more feasible. It was that a selection of from 6 to 20 persons should be made from the Whig forces, who could be relied on for coolness and intrepidity & that this little band should proceed with the requisite secrecy caution & determination to the enemy's quarters, dispatch the sentinels, seize the arms & captured the soldiers will keep them at bay until the arrival of the advancing divisions should ensure success by their presence. This bold & perilous substitute for Colonel Brown's plan was rejected.

"Upon the approval of the plan of the Commander he proceeded to execute it. The divisions led by their respective officers advance towards the fork designated. An accident frustrated their purpose before they reached the point of junction: the Company on the Wilmington Road met a British foraging parties & in opposition to the authority of their Captain, fired on it. Then ceased with a panic they fled in spite of all his efforts to dispel that terrorists. The firing was heard at the enemy's camp, the sentinels gave the alarm & the drums beat to arms. The Companies on the Topsail or Moore's road who were advancing & who were now in sight, halted. Colonel Brown whose courage & presence of mind were equal to any emergency, endeavored to recover them from the embarrassment & apprehension occasioned by the accident; & to form them into battle array. It was in vain. They continued in disorder.

"In the interim the British veterans had formed & advancing upon the Whig Companies fired. An irregular contest was kept up by the bravest of the Whigs. Colonel Brown received a severe wound in his right elbow & a slight one in his mouth. He was so disabled by the wound in his arm and in so much pain as to be compelled to leave the field which he did after offering his sword to Mr. Swann & authorizing that Gentlemen, Colonel Campbell & Captain Jones to rally those who were flying & to carry on the contest. The combat was continued for some time. The British attacked the militia in squads one squad commanded by Sergeant Campbell was aiming to cut down a militia man who was standing still, unarmed & who was evidently reduced by disease to an almost helpless condition. Mr. Swann who was mounted & rallying the Whigs about 20 paces distant, desired the Sergeant peremptorily not to injure the poor unresisting creature. The Sergeant raised his sword upon which Mr. Swann presented his gun & shot him dead upon the spot. While he was in the act of firing Mr. Swann's horse dashed off with him into the midst of the enemy. Surprised & disconcerted by the suddenness & impetuosity of the movement, no hand was raised to arrest him in his career. As soon as they recovered themselves they fired their pistols at him. Having a very fleet horse he kept about 25 yards ahead of his pursuers. As he approached the cavalry who were formed along the side of the road, they raised their swords and cut at him as he passed. Holding up his gun and fending off their strokes as he passed he heard distinctly the clicks of the sword on the barrel of his gun. He had yet to pass another line of the British forces. The infantry seeing him escape from the Cavalry unhurt, formed across the road to intercept him. As soon as he came near to them the whole line fired upon him but missed him. The firing affrighted his horse & turning him out of the road he broke into the woods. A Dragoon seeing that Mr. Swann was still unhurt & likely to escape pursued him. At some distance Mr. Swann came to a ridge or narrow pass between two bogs. Here a "horsing log" as it is called in the phraseology of the Country people, that is broke off high up the butt end resting on a stump and the other end on the branches & thus extending from one bay to another seemed to present an insurmountable obstacle to his progress. To the pursuing Dragoon his capture must have appeared to be inevitable. He did not however hesitate or pause but putting spurs to his horse leapt over the trunk of the tree & cleared himself of the branches.

"The dragoon afraid to imitate him in this feat was obliged to follow him by a circuitous route. Meantime Mr. Swann rode through the narrow pass & overtook the fugitives. The Dragoon having rode round the bay at length came up to the retreating militia howling out "Fire. You damned rebel rascals." Not one of the flying party raised a gun. Mr. Swann having discharged his as related & having no time to reload could not [indecipherable word] the insolence of the Dragoon so he rode off with impunity. Major Craig the Commandant of the Garrison offered a reward for Mr. Swann in consequence of the part he took in the attack on this post."

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Brig. Gen. John Alexander Lillington - Commanding Officer

New Hanover County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Henry Young and Lt. Col. Thomas Bloodworth, with five (5) known companies, led by:
- Capt. James Fentress
- Capt. David Jones
- Capt. John Larkins
- Capt. George McCulloch
- Capt. George Thoroughgood-Artillery (Dobbs Co.)
- One Iron 3-Pounder

Duplin County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. James Kenan, with thirteen (13) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Jacob Carnega
- Capt. William Dickson
- Capt. James Gillespie
- Capt. Francis Hill
- Capt. Hardy Holmes
- Capt. James Love
- Capt. Jonathan Parker
- Capt. Jonathan Taylor
- Capt. William Vann
- Capt. Charles Ward
- Capt. Frederick Wells
- Capt. John Whitehead
- Capt. Aaron Williams

Bladen County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Thomas Brown (wounded), with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Ellis
- Capt. Tract William Jones (New Hanover County)
- Capt. Daniel Yates

Onslow County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. George Mitchell and Lt. Col. Joseph Scott Cray, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Matthew Allbritton
- Capt. Ephraim Battle
- Capt. Kelly Jones

Brunswick County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Isaac Simmons (possibly killed here)

Total Patriot Forces - ~ 250 men

Maj. James H. Craig - Commanding Officer

82nd Regiment of Foot (The Hamilton Regiment) detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Colebrook Nesbit
- Capt. Thomas Pitcairn

Royal Regiment of Artillery - Two 3-pounders

Capt. John Barclay - Royal Marines, with unknown number of men

Total British Forces - ~250 men

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