Sunday, March 3, 2024

301 Evacuation of Wilmington

Last week, General Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, marking the last major campaign of the American Revolution.  At the time, however, no one knew that this would be the final campaign. The main British army remained in New York.  Another army held Charleston, South Carolina.  British soldiers continued to hold other coastal towns.

Steps After Yorktown

The day after the surrender, George Washington sent Admiral de Grasse a message proposing that the combined forces move south to Charleston and take out the British garrison there.  Washington believed they could take Charleston in two months and that this would destroy the last hope of a British comeback.

The French admiral had already overstayed his time in North America.  It was already late October, 1781, and he had planned to return to the West Indies by this time.  That was his primary military mission.  In order to ensure there was no last ditch effort by a British fleet to retake Yorktown and rescue Cornwallis’ army, de Grasse remained off the coast of Virginia for about two weeks.  He proposed assistance by sailing Lafayette’s division down to Wilmington, North Carolina, to take out the loyalist stronghold there.  But in the end rejected doing even that.

When de Grasse told Washington that he was returning to the West Indies without engaging in any more actions in North America, Washington requested that he at least consider returning in the spring for another campaign. The admiral would not make any commitments, replaying that his poor health prevented him from making any plans for the following year.

With the departure of the French fleet in early November and the removal of the British prisoners inland, Washington’s army left Yorktown. Rochambeau’s French Army would remain in Williamsburg over the winter.  Washington deployed a few Continental regiments south to join up with Nathanael Greene in South Carolina.  The bulk of the Continental Army marched north, back to the area around New York City to continue challenging the British presence there.

On his way back, Washington, along with his wife Martha, stopped at the home of his brother-in-law to visit his stepson Jack Custis, who was recovering from camp fever that had afflicted so many on the Yorktown campaign.  Custis died while his parents were visiting.  Washington took a grieving Martha back to Mount Vernon, where they mourned the death of her only remaining child.  The rest of the Continental Army marched north without their commander.  After a week, the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia to confer with Congress.  After that, he moved to his new headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Major James Craig

As I mentioned, Washington had hoped to deploy General Lafayette to take the British outpost at Wilmington, North Carolina, with the assistance of the French fleet.

Major James Craig
The actual British presence in Wilmington consisted of a single regiment, the 82nd of foot under Major James Craig.  The commander came from a Scottish family and had been an officer since his commission as an ensign in the army in 1763 at age 15.  In 1774, Lieutenant Craig transferred to America.  A year later, he was wounded in the assault at Bunker Hill.  After his recovery, he transferred with his regiment to Quebec, taking part in the invasion of New York.  He was wounded twice during that campaign before surrendering with the rest of the army at Saratoga.  The son of a judge, Captain Craig also served as judge advocate under Burgoyne and helped negotiate the surrender terms.

His notable leadership led General Burgoyne to recommend his promotion to major and given command of the 82nd regiment.  Craig spent some time recovering from battlefield injuries. His regiment spent a couple of years in Canada, where he primarily presided over court martials. before being brought to the Carolinas following the British occupation of Charleston in 1780.

Shortly after his arrival in Charleston in January, 1781, General Cornwallis ordered Major Craig to occupy Wilmington.  The town served as a British supply base, collecting food from the surrounding region to ship to the British garrison at Charleston.

At Wilmington, Craig actively built up defenses for his regiment.  He sent patrols into the surrounding region, seizing supplies and arresting suspected patriot leaders, as well as confiscating their property.   After Cornwallis fought at Guilford Courthouse, his army took shelter at Wilmington for several weeks, before marching north to Virginia.  The British leadership saw Craig as an active and capable officer. The patriots came to despise him as a cruel and brutal opponent.

Loyalist David Fanning

Many loyalists joined Craig at Wilmington, strengthening the British position. Among these was the loyalist David Fanning. Orphaned at a young age, Fanning grew up in Virginia, before moving to western South Carolina a few years before the war began.  He enlisted in a loyalist regiment when the war began and initially served as sergeant.  He fought in several early skirmishes between loyalist and patriot militia in the state, and was captured several times.  During much of the early war years, when southern loyalists were trying to lay low, Fanning was either commanding loyalist militia in the field, or in hiding from patriot militia, or a prisoner.

In 1779, he accepted a pardon from Governor Rutledge and returned home.  Less than a year later, the British captured Charleston.  Fanning once again took command of a loyalist militia and set about attacking patriot strongholds.  Following the patriot victory at King Mountain in late 1780, Fanning had to leave South Carolina.  He lived quietly in North Carolina until General Cornwallis moved into the state.  Once again, Fanning recruited loyalist militia and fought against the patriots.

When the British Army retreated to Wilmington after Guilford Courthouse, Fanning maintained an inland base at Cox Mill, near Charlotte.  Major Craig granted him a commission in July, 1781 as colonel of loyalist militia.  On that authority, Fanning collected a force of 22 loyalist companies from the surrounding region.  Rather than keep his force together, he typically rode with a few dozen men who could strike hard and move quickly.  His men attacked the homes of patriots, captured and destroyed enemy supplies and skirmished with the patriot militia.

One of his first missions after gaining his commission in July was to attack a patriot court martial that was trying several loyalists who were likely to be executed.  Fanning rescued the prisoners, and took 56 prisoners of his own, including court officials and patriot militia officers.  Over the course of the summer and early fall, he fought dozens of skirmishes with the patriot militia, as the patriots were increasingly taking control of North Carolina. 


By September, 1781, Fanning found his loyalist militia had grown to nearly 1000 men.  Despite the fact that the British army had largely abandoned North Carolina, the loyalists had faith in Fanning’s ability to fight and lead.  He was joined by several other loyalist militias, increasing his army to well over a thousand.

After conferring with Major Craig in Wilmington, Fanning took the bulk of his militia army on a new mission.  In June, the patriots had elected a new Governor of North Carolina, Thomas Burke. Governor Burke had set up in Hillsborough.  Burke was focused on establishing patriot rule in the state and wiping out loyalist militias like those under Fanning.  

Colonel Fanning set out in September to capture the new governor.  Because many of his new volunteers did not have arms, Fanning took the 600 or so who were armed and marched on Hillsborough.  After a night march, his loyalists arrived at Hillsborough early in the morning on September 12.  He divided his men into three divisions and surrounded the town.  

Fanning’s men surrounded the Governor's mansion, where the Governor and his aides were mounting an armed defense.  Fanning called for a parley and assured the governor that if he surrendered, his life and those of his aides would be spared.  The governor surrendered and was taken prisoner.  There was a small contingent of Continentals in the town who set up a defense inside a barricaded church.  These were newly enlisted Continentals without much training or experience.  They also eventually surrendered after a brief firefight.

Fanning also released thirty loyalist prisoners being held in the Hillsborough jail.  These men had been condemned to death and expected to be hanging from a gallows later that day.

By 9:00 AM, Fanning’s loyalists had secured the town, taking over 200 prisoners, including the governor, the city council as well as the Continental soldiers and militia.  In the fight to capture the town they had killed 15 and wounded another 20.  The loyalists suffered only one man wounded.

After securing the town, the loyalist militia looted some homes and got drunk on a great deal of liquor that they discovered in town.  Colonel Fanning had to restore order in his army and was able to leave town by about 2:00 PM.  Fanning feared that patriot militia in the area would engage in a counter attack.  He marched his army back toward Cox Mill, although some of the loyalist militia who were too drunk to keep up with the column as it withdrew were captured by patriot militia who pursued the column.

Lindley’s Mill

Fanning was correct that the patriots would come after him.  North Carolina Militia General John Butler got word of the loyalist attack on Hillsborough and the capture of the governor. He assembled a patriot militia that hoped to catch Fanning’s column as it withdrew and to free the governor and other top officials.

Butler was an experienced leader who had fought in several battles, including Camden and Guilford Courthouse.  He remained in North Carolina with his militia when the Continentals under Nathanael Greene moved into South Carolina.

On September 13, the day after the raid on Hillsborough, Butler’s patriot militia set up an ambush at a ford across Cane Creek, near Lindley’s Mill.  When the head of Fanning’s loyalists began to cross the ford, Butler’s patriots fired a volley into the enemy.  

Hearing the gunfire, Colonel Fanning secured his prisoners to the rear and galloped forward to take command of the fight.  As his men engaged the patriots, he sent another contingent around behind the enemy to strike them from the rear.

Even after getting attacked on two sides, the patriot militia under Butler maintained their fire. Fanning was shot in the arm and had to turn over command to Colonel Archibald McDugald. The battle continued for several hours before the patriots finally withdrew.  

The battle was exceptionally bloody.  With just over 1000 men engaged, casualty rates totaled over 250.  There are no good records of the casualties, and most of these men were militia in civilian clothing, so it is not clear how many men were lost on each side.

Livingston’s Creek

Colonel McDugald continued to lead the loyalists.  The column moved more slowly since they were carrying a large number of wounded, and many of the horsemen had lost their horses in the battle and were traveling on foot.  The following morning the patriots attacked the column again, but this was a much smaller group of less than two dozen men, who were quickly dispersed.

On September 23, about ten days after the skirmish at Lindley’s Mill, a group of patriot militia struck the column again - still attempting to free Governor Burke and the other prisoners taken at Hillsborough. The loyalists fell back into defensive lines near Hammond’s Creek Bridge.  The bulk of the loyalists fought a delaying action while Colonel McDugald marched the prisoners toward Wilmington.  

As the loyalists reached Livingston’s Creek, they encountered another column of infantry marching toward them from the other direction.  It turned out that Major Craig had received word of Burke’s capture and personally marched out with a detachment of regulars to provide support.  A group of fifty patriot horsemen attacked the group, but withdrew in the face of Craig’s regulars.  The British pursued the horsemen for a few miles before running into a defensive position on the road, controlled by 200 patriots from the militia army under John Butler  Although the British were outnumbered, they charged the defenses, and forced the militia to run away.  With that, Craig was able to get his column and his prisoners back to Wilmington.

Bear Swamp

A few weeks later, Fanning’s loyalists captured a patriot named James Harding.  After being brought back to Fanning’s camp as a prisoner, Harding convinced the loyalist colonel that he was a loyalist himself and had been looking for an opportunity to escape from the patriots.

After several days in camp Harding informed Fanning of a company of militia camped nearby on Deep River.  Harding offered to meet with the militia and lead them into a loyalist ambush.  After doing so, Harding returned and rode with Fanning’s loyalists to the ambush site.  

As it turned out, Harding was still a patriot. He had informed the militia commander that he would lead the loyalists into a patriot ambush.  At the site, Harding gave a signal and dashed toward the patriots hidden in the woods.  The patriots fired a volley, killing and wounding several loyalist horsemen.  Fanning and the bulk of his column escaped.


Loyalists had hoped that Governor Burke’s capture would break the patriot spirit and inspire popular opinion to believe that the loyalists could control North Carolina.  In fact, the incident had the opposite impact as more patriot militia turned out to fight.

In addition to General John Butler, another military leader had recently returned to the state.  General Griffith Rutherford had been a militia officer in North Carolina for over twenty years and also served in the colonial legislature.  He fought the regulator movement before the war, and was an experienced Indian fighter against the Cherokee. He was a firm patriot who began war against the loyalists in the Snow Campaign of 1775.  Rutherford had led his militia in the battles taking place in South Carolina and Georgia.  In 1780, he called out his militia army to fight under Horatio Gates at Camden. 

Although many soldiers fled the field and Camden, Rutherford did not.  He fought until the enemy shot him in the leg.  Another soldier slashed his head with a saber.  Rutherford survived his wounds, but was taken prisoner.  He spent time in a Charleston prison before being moved to St. Augustine in East Florida.  

In June, 1781, Rutherford was exchanged.  The British delivered him to Philadelphia.  He returned to North Carolina to find that the loyalists had stripped everything of value from his plantation.  Shortly thereafter, he began planning a campaign to recapture Wilmington.  

Following the battle of Lindley’s Mill, Rutherford called out the militia for a campaign to recapture Wilmington.  Within two weeks, he had a militia army of 1100 men under his command.  His forces joined with the smaller militia army under General Butler, giving a combined army of about 1400 by early October.

The army overran a loyalist outpost at Rockfish Creek on October 15.  The loyalists, who numbered between 300 and 600, fell back.  They made a stand nearby on a hill that covered the road out of Raft Swamp.  The loyalists disassembled the bridge so that the enemy could not approach quickly.  

A division of patriot dragoons under the command of Major Joseph Graham rode up to the bridge.  Although the bridge was disable, they found they could easily ford the swampy land and charged the loyalist lines.  The surprised loyalists fired one volley, then broke and ran. The patriot horsemen ran them down, cutting the fleeing loyalists to pieces with sabers.  A few dozen loyalists paused for a delaying action that allowed many others to escape. The patriots killed most of these defenders before they also fled into the nearby swamp, where the patriots would not follow.  This was the last significant opposition before all the loyalists withdrew into Wilmington.

That same day, Colonel Fanning felt sufficiently recovered from his wound at Lindley’s mill to gather about 170 mounted loyalists near Brush Creek.  The patriots had been trying to hunt down Fanning, who had been in hiding since his injury.  

Fanning received word that a division of 600 militia were marching on his position.  Some of his loyalists fled, fearing they would be overrun.  Fanning formed the rest into two defensive lines and prepared to receive the enemy.  It’s not clear how many enemy engaged in this fight, but it resulted in a firefight of about an hour, during which the loyalists lost three killed and three wounded. The patriots had one killed and several wounded before pulling back.  

At that point, Fanning expected the enemy would regroup and return in greater numbers.  His men dispersed and made their way up into the Uwharrie Mountains.

The militia concentrated at Brown Marsh, about 50 miles from Wilmington, to prepare for an assault on the town.  Acting Governor Alexander Martin, who replaced Thomas Burke, addressed the army and encouraged them to expel the remaining British and loyalist forces from the state.  On October 23, Rutherford deployed the bulk of his mounted militia, about 300 men, to the southwest side of Cape Fear while the larger army of militia marched on foot to assault Wilmington from the north.

In Wilmington, Major Craig had his regiment of regulars, along with a loyalist army that was ready to fight the oncoming army.  He was confident, not only that he could defend the city, but was prepared to mount an offensive against the patriot militia if he could just get more supplies from Charleston.  Instead, word arrived from Alexander Leslie, the new British commander at Charleston that General Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown and that Craig should evacuate his army in Wilmington by ship and sail to Charleston.

Craig was not happy about the orders.  He had sufficient ships for his soldiers, but would have to leave behind a great many loyalists and civilians who would suffer the wrath of the patriots.  The final evacuation took several weeks.  Craig spiked the cannons that he could not take with him and burned tons of supplies to deny them to the enemy. On November 17, Light Horse Harry Lee arrived to inform the militia of the British surrender at Yorktown.  By this time the militia army under Rutherford was camped only four miles from Wilmington. 

As the American militia entered Wilmington on the morning of November 18, They were able to skirmish with the last company of regulars as they were boarding transport ships.  The British finally boarded the last transports, which carried them out of the city, down toward Cape Fear and the Atlantic as patriot militia advanced into the city in time to watch the ships sail away.

The evacuation of Wilmington ended the British presence in North Carolina.  

Next week, we will take a look at the continuing war in South Carolina.

- - -

Next Episode 302 Cloud's Creek Massacre 

Previous Episode 300 Surrender at Yorktown

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Further Reading


Rosenbert, Chaim M. “James Henry Craig: The Pocket Hercules” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 20, 2017:

James Craig:

James Henry Craig:

Parker, Herschel “Absolving David Fanning - From Dreck to Rumph” Journal of the American Revolution,  Nov. 24, 2015:

David Fanning:

David Fanning:

Thomas Burke:

Thomas Burke:

John Butler:

Griffith Rutherford:

Battle of Little Raft Swamp:

Engagement at Raft Swamp:

Battle of Hillsborough

Griffith Rutherford:

Battle of Lindley’s Mill:

Battle of Lindley’s Mill:

Battle of Lindley’s Mill:

Battle of Seven Creeks:

Battles of 1781:

Wilmington Campaign of 1781:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Caruthers, E. W. A Brief History of Col. David Fanning, Weldon, N.C. : Harrell's Printing House, 1888. 

Connor, R. D. W. Revolutionary leaders of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C. State College, 1916. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Fanning, David The Narrative of Colonel David Fanning, Richmond: Private Distribution, 1861. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol 3, 1781, Booklocker, 2005. 

Pancake, John S. This Destructive war: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782, Univ. of Alabama Press, 1985 (borrow on

Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Penguin Books, 2019. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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