The American Revolution in North Carolina

Brigadier General Donald McDonald

Donald McDonald was born in Scotland and married Kezia Robinson (or Robertson), in 1760 in Richmond County, North Carolina. Donald came to America in 1758 as lieutenant of Grenadiers in Montgomery's Regiment to help put down the rebellion in the French and Indian War.

Late in 1775, General Gage dispatched two officers to North Carolina to organize the local Highlanders into military units, Brigadier General Donald McDonald and Colonel Donald McLeod. Since the Highlanders were largely unarmed, they could not be expected to carry on a military campaign without support. It was therefore decided to march them to the mouth of the Cape Fear, where they could receive weapons and join forces with other units. Although the ministry was more interested in retaking Charleston than of beginning a campaign in North Carolina, Alexander Schaw, a friend of Governor Martin, argued persuasively that victory could be more easily achieved in North Carolina. Then, with North Carolina retaken, the Loyalist elements in the South Carolina backcountry could be supplied with arms and Charleston would fall.

In February 1776, sixteen hundred Scottish Loyalists banded together with the intent of establishing North Carolina as a British coastal base. Their commander, Brigadier General Donald McDonald, wanted to avoid engaging his poorly equipped men in battle on his march to the coast. He successfully evaded the 1,100 troops under Colonels James Moore, Richard Caswell, and Alexander Lillington until the morning of February 27 at Moores Creek Bridge.

As the Scotsmen tried to cross the bridge (purposely damaged by the Americans), they became easy targets for the patriot muskets. The first volley decimated their ranks, sending the Scots fleeing in every direction. This American victory helped prevent similar Loyalist uprisings in the future.

Unfortunately for the Highlanders, General McDonald, a conservative and capable officer, became ill and the command fell to Colonel Donald McLeod. McLeod secured the approval of the other younger officers for an attack the following morning, indicating that he would lead the assault personally. The results of his leadership were disastrous for the Highlanders. From concealed positions, the Patriots fixed their rifle and artillery fire on the bridge as the Highlanders attempted to follow their leaders across the slippery beams. After the Patriots’ first volley had swept the bridge clean, the Highlanders on the bank panicked and fled from the scene. About fifty Highlanders were killed and 880 were captured. In sharp contrast, the Patriots lost only two men. The attempt of the Highlanders to come to the aid of Governor Martin and the royal cause failed.

Defeat is always a bitter experience. The Highlanders learned this after the Battle of Culloden; they rediscovered it after the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. In North Carolina, the aftermath of battle was not so bloody as it had been in Scotland; still, it was a trying time. The Highlanders who were captured were thrown into the common jails of the colony. As a consequence of their imprisonment, the prisoners’ families were left alone and, often, unprotected. In the months after the battle, groups of Whigs raided, pillaged, and burned Tory farms, causing much needless suffering. Though most of the Loyalist soldiers were captured, a few successfully concealed themselves in the woods after the battle. Since the Whigs had captured General McDonald’s muster lists, these Loyalist soldiers could not return home. Instead, they attempted to hike overland to join British units elsewhere. Although the Committees of Safety forced some Highlanders to leave North Carolina in 1776, the Provincial Congress did not officially authorize such policies until the next year. In April, 1777, the Provincial Congress passed a law legalizing the banishment of nonjuring Loyalists and the confiscation of the property of those who refused to take an oath of fealty to the Revolutionary government. This legislation provoked a new migration.

There are no reliable estimates of the numbers of Loyalist Highlanders who left the state or of the size of the group which remained in North Carolina. We must rely upon the observations of contemporaries who witnessed the exodus. One concerned Whig declared that two-thirds of the people in Cumberland County were preparing to leave in the summer of 1777. This may have been a high estimate, but others at the same time wrote of the “great numbers” departing, and described them as people of considerable wealth. Where did the Loyalists go? A few moved south to Florida and the West Indies. Most went by ship to New York and then on to the British Isles or to Canada, where many settled in Nova Scotia.

In spite of retaliatory laws, confiscations, and pillaging, many Highlanders remained in the upper Cape Fear region, as the census returns of 1790 witness. After the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, however, Governor Martin realized it was impossible for him to exercise authority in North Carolina. His plan had failed. He abandoned his post at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. When the British forces finally did arrive—three months late—there was no chance of a successful campaign in North Carolina, so the troops of George III moved down the coast to Charleston. Later, in 1781, Lord Cornwallis did lead a British army into North Carolina. He expected the Cape Fear Highlanders to flock into his army, but they were cold to his pleas. Many of the remaining Highlanders may have been Loyalists at heart, but they were unwilling to take up arms again.

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