Two Fights over a Drawbridge
Tour: Cape Fear
County: New Hanover
Unfortunately there is no public access to, or closeup views of, the sites where the history on this page took place. Most of them are out-of-sight on private property.
Park in the lot for the Castle Hayne Boating Access Area instead. The best view is from a fishing dock a short distance from the lot.
A Drawbridge Confrontation
Walk to the end of the fishing pier on the left when facing the Northeast Cape Fear River, closest to the NC 133 bridge.
Look at the I-40 bridge to the right, past the defunct railroad trestle. Just beyond it, buried in the river bottom, are a trestle and timbers from Heron’s Bridge. (A wooden ferry vessel is there, too.) Try to imagine an old wooden bridge instead of the modern version you see.
In front of you once was an architectural marvel of the American colonies, a wide wooden bridge 400 feet long. Rising to about 12 feet above the water, it had a tower partway across, closer to the far bank. This could lift two sections of the deck using chains and pulleys, creating a 30-foot gap. Built in 1768, it was the first drawbridge in the Carolinas, and possibly only the second in England’s American colonies. The Duplin Road from Wilmington crossed the river via the bridge. It continued up a causeway to the north across a quarter-mile marsh, likely buried within the current I-40 causeway. Scottish visitor Janet Schaw crossed it in 1775 and said the bridge, “tho’ built of timber is truly a noble one… It opens at the middle to both sides and rises by pullies (sic), so as to suffer Ships to pass under it.”[i]
As the war shifted from South to North Carolina in early 1781, British Maj. James Craig moved a small corps up the Cape Fear River to occupy Wilmington. There Craig learned a Patriot part-time “militia” army under Brig. Gen. Alexander Lillington was camped on the hill north of Heron’s Bridge (across the river), “and that several vessels loaded with provisions and other stores had gone up the river with them.”[a] Though unclear on how many men he would face, he brought his force here to capture the boats.
Lillington placed troops on the bridge and the causeway. Somewhere in the distance to your right, probably between the modern highways, Craig halted his corps of 250 with two small cannons after dark. He planned a surprise attack for 4 a.m., on Tuesday, January 30, 1781.
He sent out men to capture any Patriot (“Whig”) sentries in the area. However, a patrol of six Whig horsemen came down the road and surprised British guards there. These “pickets” were forced to open fire.
Knowing this alerted the Patriot camp, Craig had his men move forward. A line of Patriots was at the base of the bridge. The Redcoat infantry formed a line across from them. The Patriots fired a volley. Capt. Colbrooke Nesbit was hit by two bullets, but he and another captain led the British forward, likely with bayonets. The militia broke for the rear across the bridge. In their panic, they made a critical mistake: They failed to raise the drawbridge!
From here you could have seen, or at least heard in the dark, men running across the bridge right to left shouting that the British were coming. Craig ordered his men to keep going. Imagine running the length of four football fields in the dark, after a ten-mile march with a heavy gun and knapsack, unsure of what is awaiting you on the other side.
The militia camp was on relatively level heights past the marsh on either side of the Duplin Road. Perhaps the Patriots fired their one small cannon, but quickly the camped militiamen panicked and bolted, many of them straight up the road. A running firefight continued for some distance. At least 3 Patriots were killed and 7-8 captured. The British only suffered 8 wounded, per Craig.
One source based on veteran statements reports, “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.” (If so, the cannon has never been found.)
After waiting for a counter-attack that never happened, the British crossed back to the south side to camp for the night. Craig says they seized the boats the next day. “The two largest, loaded with ammunition, were burnt,” and the rest were taken to Wilmington. The ammunition loss would haunt the Whigs for months, as you’ll see.
Most sources suggest they set the bridge afire but didn’t stick around long enough before marching back to Wilmington: It only partially burned, allowing it to become a thorn in Craig’s side the rest of the year.[b]
Craig does not have enough troops to keep the Patriots away from the bridge. At some point he places a small detachment to keep an eye on them. Indeed, Lillington eventually came back and reoccupied his camp. He started out with as many as 800, too many for Craig to assault, but for some reason Lillington never attacked the British.
Though there is nothing to see there, you can read the rest of this on what probably is the original approach road to the bridge, in the vicinity of some of these events. (Otherwise just keep reading!) To do so, go back to your vehicle, and from the access area:
- Turn left onto Orange Street.
- Drive 0.3 miles to Linville Drive, and turn left.
- Drive another 0.3 miles to the end, and turn left onto Old Blossom Ferry Road.
- Drive to the dirt turnaround area at the end where private property starts.
Blossom’s Ferry eventually replaced the bridge, so you are probably on the original approach road to the bridge from Wilmington, very near where the bridge started (just on the other side of modern I-40).
By early March, Lillington had only around half as many troops on the far side of the bridge, which must have been partially passable by then. A few sources say that as part of Craig’s ongoing effort to suppress Patriot activity, he decided to attack again on Friday, March 9. Accounts from the day are confusing and contradict each other, so it is unclear where exactly the following occurred.
Most of Lillington’s force was in the old camp. He learned of Craig’s approach, and sent a detachment downriver (west, past the access area) to another crossing that would take them behind Craig’s camp near the bridge. Another force was sent over the bridge to attack from the front.
Somewhere between here (if you made the drive) and the river was a house. A small group of Patriot cavalry were either supposed to be on the road guarding it or looking for the British. Instead they were goofing off inside. A unit of British soldiers was sent forward to scout, and it surprised and captured some of those men. Another was bayonetted, and one drowned while trying to escape. From the prisoners, Craig learned of the impending ambush. He withdrew his force to a hill. (If you’re on Blossom Ferry Road, this must have been the relative high ground of the neighborhood you drove through.)
The Patriot cannons opened fire at 4 p.m., which signaled the attack. However, Lillington reported later, his officers did not create good formations, and the British were able to drive off both units with the help of their two cannons. The British pursued Whigs in both directions as best they could, given the swamps and growing darkness.
Lillington decided the danger was great enough to order a retreat, having already lost 20 killed and 11 captured, with an unknown number wounded. Craig’s troops foraged the area for food for two to four days, and then returned to Wilmington. None of them had been killed, though two were wounded and one captured.
Lillington was frustrated at the lost opportunity to destroy Craig’s force. The cavalry officer who didn’t follow orders was court-martialed and removed.
Cornwallis Requires Boats
You’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t burn your bridges.” The British illustrate why soon after. The main British army in the South, under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis, recovered in Wilmington after the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15. When ready to leave for Virginia, Cornwallis had to order his cavalry to collect boats for the crossing here. Apparently the bridge was no longer strong and/or wide enough to support columns of troops and equipment.
The army likely marched up today’s Blossom Ferry Road on Monday, April 23. It took three days for 1,700 soldiers, cannons, supply wagons, hundreds of camp followers, and runaways from slavery to get across. In case they ran into the problem again at any of the several rivers they still faced, they put two of the boats on wagons and brought them along!
A Battle Avoided
Yet again, Lillington eventually returned to guard the crossing. Craig placed troops on this side, and began rebuilding the bridge in June. But neither confronted the other again. Perhaps Craig should have: The Patriots nearly ran out of ammunition. Lillington wrote Gov. Thomas Burke on July 24, “‘we have Not Three Rounds a man…’” Burke orders him not to resist if Craig approaches again.
Another possible confrontation was prevented months later by a dramatic arrival on Saturday, November 17. A North Carolina militia army of 1,000 or more under Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford had marched here from the Uwharrie Mountains (south of modern Asheboro) through today’s Fayetteville. Rutherford was under orders from the state government to dislodge Craig’s much smaller force, and won the Battle of Raft Swamp over Loyalists on the way.
They were readying themselves in the old campsite when a surprise arrived down the Duplin Road. Continental cavalry had ridden from Yorktown, Va., with news that Cornwallis surrendered on October 18![c] Cheering reverberated over the area, and Rutherford ordered a celebratory volley.
The next day the militia and cavalry marched across the bridge and probably down today’s Blossom Ferry Road, in hopes of challenging Craig. (Visit Wilmington to learn what happened next.)
In case you are wondering, no, there was never a castle here! The nearby community was named for the large plantation home of Capt. Roger Haynes, built in the 1730s, which he called “Castle Haynes.” It’s unclear when the last “s” was dropped from the town name.
- De Van Massey, Gregory, ‘The British Expedition to Wilmington, North Carolina, January-November, 1781’ (East Carolina University, 1987)
- Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
- Hall, Wes, ‘An Underwater Archaeological Survey of Heron’s Colonial Bridge Crossing Site over the Northeast Cape Fear River near Castle Hayne, North Carolina’ (East Carolina University, 1992)
- Kenan, James, ‘Letter from James Kenan to Thomas Burke, Volume 15, Page 535’, Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 7/15/1781 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr15-0471> [accessed 14 October 2021]
- Lee, Henry, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Second Edition (Washington, D.C.: Peter Force, 1827), Google-Books-ID: DpwBAAAAMAAJ
- Lewis, J. D. 2012. “Heron’s Bridge.” The American Revolution in North Carolina. 2012. https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_herons_bridge.html
- “Marker: D-22.” n.d. North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Accessed January 31, 2020. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=D-22
- “Marker: D-99.” n.d. North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Accessed January 31, 2020. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=D-99.
- McEachern, Leora, and Ruth Walker. 1981. “Pensioners Remember the War.” Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Inc. Bulletin, January 1981. https://www.lcfhs.org/uploads/1/1/9/8/119823026/bulletin_jan_1981.pdf
- Schaw, Janet, and Evangeline Walker Andrews, Janet Schaw, ca. 1731-ca. 1801. Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the Years 1774 to 1776. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1921) <https://www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/schaw/schaw.html> [accessed 7 January 2021]
- Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <https://www.americanrevolution.org/calendar_south_10_ed_update_2017.pdf>
- Souther, Travis. 2019. “What Was the Exact Location of Heron’s Bridge? – Ask NHCPL.” 2019. https://asknhcpl.nhcgov.com/cfhh/faq/153486
- Tarleton, Banastre, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London : Printed for T. Cadell, 1787) <http://archive.org/details/historyofcampaig00tarl> [accessed 19 September 2020]
 Hall 1992.
 Dunkerly 2012.
 Lewis 2012.
 Dunkerly; Tarleton 1787.
 Letter from Kenan to Burke, 7/15/1781 (quoted in Beasley, R.F., ‘The Battle of Elizabethtown,’ presented at the Annual Celebration at Guilford Battle Ground, Greensboro, N.C., 1901).
[a] Craig to Cornwallis, April 12, 1780 (the day after Cornwallis arrived in Wilmington), quoted in Sherman 2007.
[b] Craig does not mention the burning in his report to Cornwallis months later (Craig to Cornwallis in Sherman). But the Cornwallis crossing time reported later in the text shows the bridge was badly damaged at some point. Also, a letter from a Patriot officer to the state governor in July mentions that the British were repairing the bridge, which may have been done in preparation for a raid north Craig made soon after (Kenan 1781).
[c] Multiple sources claim Lt. Col. “Light Horse” Henry Lee was with them. But in his memoirs (Lee 1827), Lee only says he went from Yorktown to the “High Hills of the Santee,” in the piedmont of South Carolina, sometime after the surrender. He talks about Wilmington and Craig, but gives no indication he or his troops were ever in the area, which would have been far out of his way from Yorktown. Furthermore, he does not indicate his troops went from S.C. to Yorktown with him, so it seems unlikely this force was his.
[i] Schaw & Andrews 1921.