THIS DAY IN U.S. HISTORY NOVEMBER 18, 1781 – AFTER 10 MONTHS OF OCCUPATION BRITISH FORCES ABANDON WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA COLONY WITH PATRIOT CAVALRY HARD ON THEIR HEELS CHASING THEM TO THEIR SHIPS. CONTINENTAL FORCES RETURN TO THE TOWN AND BRIG. GEN. RUTHERFORD ATTEMPTS TO PREVENT GRIEVANCES BEING REPAID AGAINST LOYALISTS WHO REMAINED
This Day In U.S. History November 18, 1781 – Struggle for Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness – The American Revolution: The British evacuate Wilmington, North Carolina; Major James H. Craig, commanding between 400 and 450 British regulars, who captured the town on February 1, is forced to abandon the town in order to avoid capture by Continental forces moving to reinforce Nathanael Greene after the surrender of Yorktown. Craig takes with him any Loyalists who wish to leave the town.
When Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee arrived and informed Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s army about the surrender of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, the camp erupted into a celebration, firing their rifles into the air. Brig. Gen. Rutherford soon learned that the British were evacuating Wilmington, finally after ten months.
British Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie had sent orders to Maj. James Craig, the occupying commandant of Wilmington, to evacuate by sea back to Charlestown, where he was originally stationed.
Brig. Gen. Rutherford stopped the celebrations and ordered his men to move across the Cape Fear River and march towards the occupied town. That night, his large army camped within four miles of Wilmington. There was no resistance, since the British were preparing to leave. Within the Patriot ranks were men who still wanted revenge for the destruction of their homes, and for the murders of their friends.
After sunrise on November 18th, the British formed columns and marched down to the transport ships, leaving their horses behind. Suddenly, there was “a cloud of dust arising on the hill” and the thunder of hooves could be heard approaching the town. “It was the Whig light horse, who came thundering down the street, and at full speed.”
One of the local Loyalists stood in the road holding out his hand as if to salute the troops. One of the cavalrymen, Thomas Tyer, “left ranks, drew his hanger, rushed upon him, and with one blow by a vertical cut laid his head open, the divided parts falling on each other.” Tyer’s father had been hanged by that dead Loyalist in the road.
One column of the British had not made it to the boats when the cavalry “dashed thro this like lightning, hacking and hewing to the right and left, receiving in turn a scattering of fire from the broken column, which did but little mischief; slightly wounding two or three of the horsemen.” The departing British ships fired upon the town, but the cavalry had already ridden away.
As the troopships were just leaving the Cape Fear, Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford marched his army into the town. One of his officers was shocked at the violence being directed at the Loyalists and he placed a dragoon at the door of each of the Loyalist families. This slowed down the anger, but it did not stop it.
Brig. Gen. Rutherford’s men rounded up all the men they could and put them into a pen made of rails “near the Episcopal church, where they were exhibited to the public gaze, and received the scoffing taunts of boys.”
Rutherford had been captured at the battle of Camden (SC) in August of 1780 – over a year ago – and had spent much time as a prisoner in Florida. Now he was on hand to finally witness the last British Regular to leave North Carolina. More North Carolina Revolution